The Ethics of Sustainability
Why Should We Care?
On an early morning run, I find myself alone in a forest of redwoods. I feel utterly insignificant as I run beneath trees that are wider than I am tall, and which have stood proudly as generations of people like me have come and gone. I am struck by the fact that these trees do not require humanity for sustenance, yet we have the power to control their destiny. Despite this capability, I cannot help but think that something about this conquerable natural world will always be greater than me. Something about these tall trees fills me with an unshakeable sense of reverence and awe that makes me want to preserve this snapshot of beauty for its own sake and for the sake of all who will follow me.
Yet it is amazing how quickly I lose that sense of reverence. Back in the car following the run, I am enclosed in a man-made box, and those majestic redwoods are nothing more than indistinguishable glimpses of red and green seen through a smudged window. Surrounded by evidence of human innovation, the fate of those trees becomes less important as they fade out of view and out of relevance.
Even in the artificial havens of comfort that humanity has constructed, we are still just as dependent on the Earth as the hunter-gatherers of ages past. The source of all our food, water, and shelter ultimately comes from natural resources. In the most basic sense, we cannot live without the planet. Recognition of that dependence is critical to understanding why it is ethically necessary to act in the interests of the Earth as the foundation of our lives and a source of greatness in and of itself.
Sustainability is a moral response to an incredible gift. We cannot give back to the Earth what it gave to us. When we burn fossil fuels, we cannot make up the millions of years of history it took to create them. When we pollute the skies and obscure the sunrise, we cannot simply wipe the atmosphere clean. Our relationship with the planet is one of lopsided exploitation, in which we take while the planet gives.
It is inherently an unfair relationship. Some may argue that this was the way it was intended to be; that the Earth exists for our subjugation. The problem is that this attitude hurts both the conquered and the conquerors. Global warming has been linked to terribly destructive storms. Pollution harms the lungs of many animals, including humans. Depletion of resources leaves subsequent generations in doubt of their future. We need a more ethical way to carry out our relationship with the Earth, for the planet's sake and for our own. Instead of greed, let us consider the possibility of approaching the Earth with an attitude of gratefulness.
All humans are given the gift of life, and the moral imperative to address this gift falls on all of us. Regardless of age, wealth, or upbringing, we all experience the raw power of the Earth's beauty. We all rely on the Earth to survive and thrive. Despite our differences, we are residents of the same planet, and that connection powerfully intertwines us all. All of our destinies are dependent on the future of the Earth.
This endows every action towards the environment with profound ethical significance. An action that affects the planet must also affect the human race in some capacity. Care for others lies at the core of sustainability. Full human flourishing is not possible in places touched by the scars of environmental injustice. Many acts dismissed as merely “unsustainable” are really unjust, such as when American trash ends up in Asian slums, or when air pollution from China affects global weather patterns. If we regard others as worthy of dignity and equals in humanity, how is this behavior acceptable? By extending the value we place on our own lives onto the human race as a whole, acting in the interest of the planet becomes a central focus rather than an afterthought.
What makes sustainability difficult is seeing that this care must extend to people we will never meet. As finite beings, our perspective is woefully short-sighted, but the truth is that the Earth's timeline is very different from our own. Consider a tree planted from seed. It may take years to reach maturity, and those who enjoy its benefits are often not the same as those who chose to plant it in the first place. There is no instant gratification, but there is long-term satisfaction, and the simple joy of giving a gift that endures beyond our immediate influence.
Even in an increasingly urban world, there are still plenty of examples of the simple goodness of nature existing due to the care of the people who came before us. Whether they purposefully chose to do good, or merely chose to avoid doing harm, our ancestors helped determine the way we experience nature today. This was not always for our benefit. As seen in rising levels of pollution, increasing global temperatures, and widespread devastation of natural species, the planet has been wronged as well. On the other hand, there are also numerous examples of natural parks preserved in their raw beauty, courageous efforts to prevent extinction, and technological innovations that have saved the planet while improving our quality of life as well. We can choose to look at this mixed legacy as an excuse to continue patterns of recklessness and greed, or we can view it as a challenge to do better and preserve the attitudes of care and gratefulness that have continued to exist in the midst of environmental injustice.
Sustainable practices are designed to help ourselves and the world while keeping the future in mind. They are a way to express our gratitude for the gift of life made possible by the environment, passed down thanks to the care and restraint of past generations. Sustainability means the granting the Earth the ability to endure, and with a sustainable mindset, we can ensure that respect for the planet and respect for humanity will continue long after we have departed.
Allie Sibole was a 2012-13 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.