Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems



At this point, you might be wondering why a college course with the word 'sustainability' in the title would wait until the third week of class to begin defining sustainability as a concept, and why we are doing so in a module on ethics. The biggest reason is that sustainability is an incredibly complex concept in today's globalized society. The first two modules are aimed to introduce you to some of this complexity and to introduce you to some important concepts and tools to help you think critically and geographically about sustainability.

We introduce the concept of sustainability in this module on ethics because, as you have hopefully gathered, sustainability issues are inherently ethical issues. This is not to say that 'sustainable uses' of the environment are morally good and all others are bad. Consider a hydroelectric project. Its implementation would decrease the carbon footprint of electricity generation in that region (positive), but it would also have a profound impact on the environment, not to mention the people displaced by the new reservoir (negative). Sustainability policy and decision making have a profound impact on people's lives, as well as on the lives of non-humans and ecosystems. These are ethical issues. And the debates that we humans have about sustainability are shaped by our ethical perspectives.

Ethical Viewpoints on Sustainability

There are many, many definitions of sustainability. The most prominent is from the Brundtland Commission Report Our Common Future. The Brundtland Commission was organized by the United Nations in 1983, and published their report in 1987:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Pretty vague, right? Yet this remains the most commonly used definition of sustainability. One of the problems with this definition is that it leaves significant room for ethical interpretations. Whose needs must be met now and in the future? Should sustainability be pursued by any means (i.e. consequentialism)? Below you will read several pieces written by current philosophers on the ethical dimensions of sustainability. Keep in mind the ethics concepts that you have just learned as you read.

Reading Assignment: "The Ethical Dimension of Sustainability"

Read "The Ethical Dimension of Sustainability," by Keith Warner Douglas and David DeCosse. As you read, consider what ethical perspective the authors take in their arguments.

What do you think of their "three E's" of sustainability? Do they address all three in this article?

Warner and DeCosse do an excellent job of communicating the human dimensions of sustainability, particularly our ethical obligation to future generations. Their argument is also strikingly anthropocentric. You might have noticed that non-human nature is considered only as a resource for human use. The authors may not consider non-human nature to only have instrumental value, but that is the implication in this short article. Are there other ways to the think about sustainability that avoid the anthropocentric position?

Reading Assignment: "The Ethics of Sustainability: Why Should we Care?"

Read "The Ethics of Sustainability: Why Should we Care?" by Allie Sibole.

Does Sibole take an ethical viewpoint that clearly falls within the categories that we have discussed? Why or why not?

Sibole is an eloquent writer, and she paints a compelling picture of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the rest of nature. Sibole argues for care and moral considerations of nature based on reciprocity. The Earth cares for us and we must also care for it, not just because it is in our best interests, but because it is morally right. This argument has a strong ecocentric justice current. She also calls for a displacement of ethical focus from the individual to the global community. Does this include non-humans as well? How would this collectivist ethic work for sustainability decision-making?

Reading Assignment: "Should we care about how nature is thought of in other cultures?"

Read "Should we care about how nature is thought of in other cultures?" by Bret W. Davis from the Everyday Ethics blog at the Rock Ethics Institute here at Penn State.

Davis makes plain why it is so important to understand cultural differences and ethical perspectives when considering sustainability issues. Studying the intersections of these cultural and ethical differences across space, time, and scale is a central part of a geographic approach to human-environment relations. Davis is very optimistic about the benefit of exploring difference, and its ability to break down barriers to conflict and improve sustainability for the future. But he does not address how such decisions should be made. In the next section, we consider democracy as an ethical approach to decision-making.