Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lesson Four

Lesson 4

Lesson 4

The ethical dimension of sustainability

Keith Douglass Warner OFM and 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 related goals.

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 goods.

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 society?
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 and David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2009