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Sustainability: Ethical Foundations

By: Paul B. Thompson (Professor W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics, Michigan State University) © 2012 Nature Education 
Citation: Thompson, P. B. (2012) Sustainability: Ethical Foundations. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):11
Sustainability has captured the world's imagination. It may be the most important idea for environmental ethics in the 21st century.
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The idea of sustainability emerged gradually as a key concept for environmental and social planning processes over a thirty year period of time. First usage dates to the 1970s, when critics of industrial agriculture's dependency on fossil energy and aquifers began to question how long agricultural science could continue to win a Malthusian race with human population growth. In a related vein, advocates of maintaining medium-scale farms typical of years past began to argue that farming systems were critical to sustaining the viability of rural communities. Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt had demonstrated that communities surrounded by large industrial-style farms had difficulty maintaining schools, business and other aspects of infrastructure, and advocates of rural communities began to argue that maintaining small and medium-size farms was essential to sustaining rural communities, (Douglass 1984). The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program of research in 1988. The name and focus of this program has evolved in succeeding years.

Sustainability gained more widespread recognition with the publication of a report from the ad-hoc United Nations group World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987. The report entitled Our Common Future is more frequently referred to as "the Brundtland report" in honor of WCED chairperson Gro Brundtland. It was a comprehensive but very general overview of tensions between global economic development and environmental quality. Sustainable development was defined as "development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" (WCED 1987).

The Brundtland definition of sustainable development was a broad ethical principle with two key components. First, it framed the goals of development in terms of meeting people's needs. In this respect it differed from some theories or accounts of development that used less value-laden terms, especially those stressing GDP or general economic expansion. Second, the Brundtland definition makes an explicit commitment to future generations. It thus adopted one a philosophical approach in environmental ethics that has been associated with anthropocentrisim, or the view that protection of the environment should be based primarily (if not exclusively) on benefits that humans derive from utilizing natural resources.

Some environmental ethicists see problems in the Brundtland commitment to future generations. Derek Parfit introduced a number of philosophical paradoxes deriving from the way that what we do today affects both the people that are actually born in the future, as well as the formation of their preferences. Thus, commitments to future generations can be tricky to implement.

The decade after the WECD report saw numerous attempts to specify and quantify its general commitments in more precise language that could be used in planning and managerial contexts. One school of thought re-oriented longstanding indicators that had been used in international development, indicators such as life expectancy, childhood mortality, education and GDP. Economists working in this tradition argued that economic growth in the short-run would translate naturally into long-term sustainability. Their reasoning relied on several interlocking assumptions. First, the price of exhaustible natural resources (such as fossil fuel) will rise as scarcity grows. This will provoke greater conservation and a search for alternatives. Second, wealth is acquired over the short-run will give people the ability to substitute new resources (including currently unknown technological capabilities) in the future. Finally, the economic practice of discounting costs and benefits in the future tends to make impacts less and less significant for present day decision-making the further into the future they occur (Solow 1993).

In contrast, others emphasized the vulnerability of ecological processes. This view stressed the ironic finding that renewable resources (such as water, soil, forests and fisheries) may be more critical to sustainability than finite resources. Such resources could be exploited well beyond their ability to rebound or recover without provoking a significant rise in price. Then a sudden crash in the eco-systems that renew these resources would make them permanently unavailable. Recent failures of the Atlantic cod fishery exemplify this kind of concern (Ludwig 1993). Thus, new indicators relating to the resilience and current stress on ecosystems were deemed to be more relevant to sustainability than were the indicators that had traditionally been used in development economics (Ludwig et al. 1997).

By the first decade of the new millennium, interest in the highly technical debate over indicators and specification of the Brundtland approach was beginning to be supplanted by a more general interest in "the triple bottom line,"(Rogers and Ryan 2001). Here, the tension between economics and environment is replaced by a view which holds that sustainability must be acknowledged to require coordinated planning activities in three domains: economy, environment and society. Advocates of this approach often utilized three overlapping circles, sometimes labeled alliteratively as "People, Planet and Profit" to indicate the three domains of the triple bottom line. This way of thinking might be called "three circle sustainability".

Three circle sustainability.
Figure 1: Three circle sustainability.
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For-profit firms are attracted to three-circle sustainability because from their perspective the need for sustaining the economy acknowledges the legitimacy of their productive, profit seeking activities. Managers were starting to recognize opportunities for cost-savings through energy conservation and began to utilize life-cycle analysis (LCA) as a tool in product development. Such tools can show where the cost of more energy efficient technology (such as a fluorescent light bulb) will be offset by future savings. This allows companies to view environmental sustainability as at least compatible with, and sometimes complementary to, their profit seeking goals. What is more, pressure to engage in corporate social responsibility with respect to environmental impact could be coupled with efforts to accommodate demands from labor groups and from small-scale suppliers (often from developing countries) that contribute to their supply chain. Attention to such demands constitutes the "society" aspect of sustainability from the corporate perspective (Sharma and Ruud 2003).

Civil society organizations that had been supporting social and environmental justice for the poor and for marginalized groups seized upon the "society" dimension of sustainability. They saw three circle sustainability as a way to mediate tensions between economic advancement for the poor and protection of the environment in a manner not unlike that of the Brundtland commission, itself. Their thinking emphasized the way that poverty and deprivation can force people into over exploitation of natural resources, and often linked the environmental damage from refugee populations and warfare to social injustices committed by repressive states and international corporate expansions. Thus for them, pursuit of sustainability became wholly compatible with social justice initiatives to which they had long been committed (Allen and Sachs 1993).

Three recent developments may prove to be important. The first is the identification of sustainability as a "wicked problem". The second is its identification with climate change and the emergence of sustainability science. The third is a revival of attempts to more carefully articulate the value commitments that sustainability entails.

Wicked problems are characterized by lack of clear problem definition, tension or conflict among stakeholders as to what would count as a solution, uncertainty in the science relevant to the situation and significant costs for being wrong. They can also exhibit features of irreversibility (no chance for "do-overs") and tend to span a large number of subject matter domains. The idea of wicked problems has been used in the planning literature to indicate a class of problems that defy solution using classic applied science procedures. Unlike urban sanitation projects or even the management of communicable disease, these projects can rarely be solved by developing a new technology (such as a better filtering system or a vaccine). Indeed, they cannot really be "solved" at all. Instead, planners must focus on methods for managing and monitoring them, and for including a wide variety of experts and stakeholders in the planning process, with frequent opportunities to revisit and rethink strategies (Rittel and Webber 1974). The recognition that sustainability is a wicked problem is a significant step beyond three-circle thinking, and it has been associated with a renewed call for innovation in multidisciplinary research and collaboration (Batie 2008; Norton 2005).

Organizing diverse disciplinary communities into active efforts to address climate change (as with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)) became a signature effort for "sustainability science," (Kates et al. 2001). By 2003, sustainability science became recognized as an research approach in which social and natural science methodologies would be integrated to pursue practical and policy-relevant responses to a variety of complex problems in which uncertainties are pervasive (Clark and Dickson 2003). As sustainability began to be taken more and more seriously in decision-making and scientific circles, environmental philosophers responded by re-opening dormant discussions about its meaning and relationship to values-based issues.

Bryan Norton's influential work tied sustainability to participatory environmental policy processes, as well as to the adaptive management paradigm that devolved from Aldo Leopold's work on game management. This approach stresses both the involvement of multiple stakeholder perspectives and a perpetual process of decision, monitoring, reconsideration of assumptions and adjustment. Paul B. Thompson has argued that many people conceptualize sustainability as a problem of resource sufficiency. They see sustainability as a complex accounting problem that demands quantification of the stock or flow of a given resource, and a projection of the rate at which it will be used. Others emphasize functional integrity. Here, the focus is on whether systems of governance and both social and biological reproduction are working well or, alternatively, vulnerable to internal threats. Humans are assumed to function within such systems from this perspective, and as such cannot adopt a purely managerial attitude of command and control (Thompson 2010).

References and Recommended Reading

Batie, S. Wicked Problems and Applied Economics. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 90, 1176-1191 (2008).

Bonner, J. T. Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Brown, V. A. Harris, J. A. & Russell, J. Y. Tackling Wicked Problems through the Transdisciplinary Imagination London: Earthscan, 2010.

Clark, W. C. and Dickson, N. M. 'Sustainability science: The emerging research program. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, 8059-61 (2003).

Douglass, G. Agricultural Sustainability in a Changing World Order Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984.

Kates, R. W., et al. Sustainability Science. Science 292, 641-42 (2001).

Ludwig, D. Environmental sustainability: magic, science, and religion in natural resource management' Ecological Applications 3, 555-58 (1993).

Ludwig, D., Walker, B. & Holling. C. S. Sustainability, stability, and resilience. Conservation Ecology [online] 1, 7 (1997).

Norton, B. G. Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Rittel, H. & Webber, M. M. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4 155-69 (1974).

Rogers, M. & Ryan, R. The Triple Bottom Line for Sustainable Community Development. Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability 6, 279-89 (2001).

Sharma, S. & Ruud, A. On the path to sustainability: integrating social dimensions into the research and practice of environmental management', Business Strategy and the Environment 12, 205-14 (2003).

Solow, R. M. Sustainability: An Economist's Perspective. In Economics of the Environment: Selected Readings R. Dorfman and N. Dorfman eds. (New York: Norton 1993) 179-87.

Thompson, P. B. The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky 2010.


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