A Short Course in Environmental Ethics
The Ethical Dimension of Sustainability
By Keith Douglass Warner OFM, with David DeCosse
Sustainability ethics have grown out of environmental ethics.
The World Commission on Economic Development brought the idea
of sustainability to the global stage in 1987. The United Nations
sponsored this study of the relationship between economic development
and the environment, published as "Our Common Future,"
also known as "The Brundtland Report." Prior to this,
the United Nations had struggled to find a way to address global
environmental problems. The industrialized countries had proposed
international treaties and action, but the developing nations
had prioritized the need for economic development, with little
interest in environmental regulation. The commission provided
the conceptual framework for coordinated action, proposing that
all nations have a stake in fostering economic development,
but of a new kind: sustainable. It proposed sustainability as
an integral framework, in which economic development, social
equity, and environmental protection are seen as inseparably
The Brundtland Commission advanced public understanding of
the link between economic growth of the poorer nations and global
environmental protection. The commission argued that poorer
countries must have the opportunity to develop economically
- if they are denied this opportunity it will be much harder
to convince all countries to support practices that can be sustained
over time - but richer countries must foster policies to favor
environmental conservation with economic development. "Our
Common Future" laid the foundation for the "Earth
Summit" at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, which marked
the real beginning of international environmental protection
initiatives and proposed a sustainable development agenda.
Then Brundtland Report provided a deceptively simple definition
of sustainability: "meeting the needs of the present generation
without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
their needs." The official U.N. definition of sustainability
has 3 dimensions, or 3 pillars, also known as the "Three
Es" of sustainability. These are environmental protection,
economic development, and social equity (figure 1).
Sustainability has now become a concern of virtually every sector
of human society. It enjoys more popular support than environmental
resource conservation because it focuses on human needs, but
also because it provides a positive vision for the future of
the human family. From a motivational perspective, few people
are inspired by the notion of "being less bad" in
their environmental impact. In contrast, sustainability provides
a framework and markers for making positive change.
The justice dimension of sustainability
The social equity pillar has the clearest ethical component,
that of socio-economic fairness or social justice. The lifestyles
of the richest and poorest members of the human family pose
the greatest threat to the integrity of our Earth's life support
systems, but for different reasons. The wealthiest consume vastly
more than their fair share of resources, more than the planet
can provide for everyone. The poorest 1/3rd of human society,
those living on less than $2 per day, have no alternative but
to use resources in a short-sighted way, for example, cutting
down trees for firewood before they are able to grow to their
full height. The wealthiest countries have the capacity to make
choices for a more sustainable lifestyle, while the poorest
members of the human family generally do not. Thus, sustainability
is built upon the practice of solidarity with the poor; fostering
economic development for them will enhance sustainability. The
social equity dimension suggests that sustainable development
is an inherent moral good, but its consequences are likely to
be ethically positive as well.
The sustainability framework extends ethical concern to future
generations. Human society now consumes natural resources faster
than they can be replenished, and this is compromising the ability
of future generations to meet their needs. Current and future
generations are inheriting a world that is biologically impoverished,
has fewer resources, and suffers from more pollution than ever
before. Sustainability challenges present day humans to consider
the well-being of future generations, to view their needs as
worthy of our moral concern. Modern humans are not accustomed
to considering future generations, but the power of our markets
and technologies threaten their quality of life. We can express
a moral concern for the future by restraining our consumption
of non-renewable resources today. Note that some resources,
such as minerals, are essentially finite. Other resources, such
as wind and plants, because they draw their energy from the
sun, can be managed so as to provide a continuous source of
It is important to recognize that sustainability, much like
"efficiency," does not have an intrinsic meaning.
In a simplistic sense, sustainability merely means the capacity
to keep doing something. For example, some economic institutions
use the term to communicate their ability to sustain their business
activities, but this reflects their self-interest. Some governments
use the term only in regard to national economic growth. This
is why the social equity dimension of sustainability is so critical.
Some use the term "environmental sustainability,"
but this makes no sense without its two companion pillars. An
ethical approach to sustainability suggests that society has
an obligation to restrain wasteful uses of resources among the
affluent, but it also has a special obligation to foster economic
development for the poorest of the poor, all while maintaining
environmental resource protection. When referring to sustainable
development, one needs to define what is to be sustained, for
whom, and for how long. Sustainability is not an absolute condition,
but always partial. Sustainability, like justice, occurs along
a continuum, and making progress along this is necessarily incremental.
Restraint is its price.
1. What could you contribute to the transition to a more sustainable
2. What kind of ethical arguments could best persuade various
sectors of society to assume an obligation for the well-being
of future generations?
3. Many people only perceive two of the pillars of sustainability:
environmental protection and economic development. Why do you
think it is more difficult for people to recognize the role
of justice / social equity?
For more reading:
Edwards, A., 2005. The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of
a Paradigm Shift. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia.
Speth, J.G., 2004. Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis
of the Global Environment. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Uhl, C., 2004. Developing Ecological Consciousness. Rowman &
Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.
Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education,
Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University
David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
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