True sustainability needs an ethical revolution

Michael P. Nelson & John A. Vucetich

31st December, 2009

Obsessed with technology, we have overlooked something critical that lurks in our institutionalised notion of sustainability

Across college campuses students are beginning to sense that something has gone seriously wrong with our preoccupation over sustainability.

Sustainability is at risk of being abducted by consumerism, the same philosophy that continues to hold us captive and inspires many of our environmental crises. From every episode of the evening news and every edition of printed journalism we learn how a few people – the heroes of sustainability – are working day and night to develop ‘sustainable’ technologies. Our job is to support their efforts, politically and economically. We are to wait patiently until their products are ready for purchase.

The first installments have been delivered: fluorescent light bulbs, genetically-modified corn, low-power flat screen TVs, and a variety of products made from recycled paper and plastic. The really important products, however, remain just out of reach. But if they keep trying, it won’t be long until we can all purchase electric cars and solar panels. With the angel of technology, and the spirit of consumerism, we will buy our way out of environmental crisis.

A few voices from the wilderness keep calling out in dissent: the salvation of sustainability also requires critical reform in social justice, politics and the economy. Social Revolution? Not even American Express would cover that. We’ll just have to wait until the social conditions are ripe for revolution, or wait for some political superhero to save us.

There is an alternative to this misguided, disempowering approach to sustainability. It involves confronting the ethical aspects of sustainability. This is something that each of us can do right now, today – nothing to purchase, and nothing to wait for.


How did it come to pass that consumerism abducted sustainability? Though one can follow threads back further, 1987 is a fine place to start. That year, the United Nations did what all good bureaucracies do: they convened a meeting to study the problem. The attendees did what all good technocrats do when trying to solve a problem: they formulated a definition. A definition that would guide us straight to the promised land of Sustainability.

Since that time many variant definitions have been developed, all built on the theme of that 1987 definition. The most robust form of that definition is: ‘Sustainability is meeting human needs in a socially-just manner without depriving ecosystems of their health’.

And to accomplish this defined goal? We’ll make windmills. When we do we’ll meet our needs, we’ll be socially-just by sending some to ‘Africa’, and being such a low-input means of producing electricity we’ll no longer deprive ecosystems of their health.

Don Quixote was a better strategist. From that rich definition, pregnant with possibility, we decided technology is the only important obstacle between us and sustainability. Obsessed with technology, we have overlooked something critical that lurks in our institutionalised notion of sustainability.

Engage the ethics

What do we mean by ‘human need’? What is a ‘healthy ecosystem’? Depending on what these terms mean, sustainability could, at one extreme, mean to ‘exploit as much as desired without infringing on future ability to exploit as much as desired’ – what might be called vulgar sustainability. It is crude, obscene, lacks moderation and taste.

On the other pole, and with a different understanding of ‘human need’ and ‘ecosystem health,’ is enlightened sustainability – to ‘exploit as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life’. This is certainly lofty, but is it necessary to go this far? Why impose this if the vulgar is perfectly adequate? The very choice between these poles and every vision that lies between is an ethical choice. The neglected obstacle blocking our path to sustainability is not technology, but ethics.


~ by Cory Morningstar on January 27, 2010.

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