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Using Sustainability to Tell Stories

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on the Limitations and Benefits of the Sustainability Approach

By Dale Jamieson and Christopher Schlottmann, September 8, 2011

CREDIT: Garrett Ziegler (CC).

Establishing an ethical framework for the environment is a challenging task that must integrate diverse concerns. The general nature of many proposed sustainability ethics can make it difficult to establish specific ethical guidance. Ethical frameworks or principles that account for endangered species, inanimate nature, and individual organisms (not to mention systems, landscapes, humans, and domesticated spaces) are contested and only partially developed. There are many conceptions of sustainability and all of them have weaknesses.

Any conception of sustainability must incorporate a time horizon. For example, sustainability may require that what is sustained last forever. However, this would imply that any use of nonrenewable resources is unsustainable. But if lasting forever is not the correct benchmark for sustainability, what is? It is clear that immediately gobbling all the cupcakes in the world is not a sustainable use of cupcakes, but it is far from clear what counts as sustainably consuming cupcakes.

Any conception of sustainability must also incorporate an account of what is to be sustained. Should we sustain "natural capital" such as ecosystems (as "strong sustainability" suggests), well-being (as suggested by "weak sustainability"), or something else entirely such as resources or capabilities?

If "sustainability" were well defined, it would lose its power to enable and structure diverse conversations.

Despite these difficulties, people who have different conceptions and values can share the idea of sustainability, and that is why the concept can be useful. The language of sustainability, in part due to its breadth and indeterminacy, invites people into the discussion. If the term "sustainability" were disciplined, regimented, and transformed into a precise notion, it would lose its power to enable and structure broad, diverse conversations.

The concept of sustainability can also encourage people to think about the long-term consequences of their actions and the welfare of future generations. We experience the world holistically; we don't think of ourselves as first facing a business question, then an environmental question, and then an ethical question. Decisions often have multiple dimensions, and sustainability ethics attempts to account for how ethical choices actually appear in people's lives. A good life must integrate a variety of concerns, and not compartmentalize them.

Establishing a coherent, consistent, and practical ethic of sustainability is an ambitious endeavor, especially given the social and environmental challenges we face. For sustainability ethics to deliver on its promise of guiding real-world decision-making, it must directly tie ethical principles to their applications, and account for a diversity of values.

What the idea of sustainability offers, more than anything, is an opportunity to tell rich and compelling stories about, for example, what our university, community, or nation could be if we build a cogeneration plant, aggressively recycle, or create green jobs. The language of sustainability invites us to embellish the story, to write the next chapter, to participate practically in creating the future, and to engage in ongoing dialogue with others about how our everyday actions help to produce global realities.

Articulating these stories is not the job of philosophers, scientists, or academics alone, but requires the participation of writers, artists, and everyone who is engaged in trying to create a new world through practical action. Rather than being a final destination, sustainability marks the journey which we have just begun.


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Read More: Agriculture, Business, Communication, Conservation, Culture, Economy, Environment, Ethics, Food, Security, Sustainability, Transportation, Global

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