True sustainability needs an ethical revolution

Blue sky with clouds
Obsessed with technology, we have overlooked something critical that lurks in our institutionalised notion of sustainability

Across college campuses students are beginning to sense that something has gone seriously wrong with our preoccupation over sustainability.

Sustainability is at risk of being abducted by consumerism, the same philosophy that continues to hold us captive and inspires many of our environmental crises. From every episode of the evening news and every edition of printed journalism we learn how a few people - the heroes of sustainability - are working day and night to develop 'sustainable' technologies. Our job is to support their efforts, politically and economically. We are to wait patiently until their products are ready for purchase.

The first installments have been delivered: fluorescent light bulbs, genetically-modified corn, low-power flat screen TVs, and a variety of products made from recycled paper and plastic. The really important products, however, remain just out of reach. But if they keep trying, it won’t be long until we can all purchase electric cars and solar panels. With the angel of technology, and the spirit of consumerism, we will buy our way out of environmental crisis.

A few voices from the wilderness keep calling out in dissent: the salvation of sustainability also requires critical reform in social justice, politics and the economy. Social Revolution? Not even American Express would cover that. We’ll just have to wait until the social conditions are ripe for revolution, or wait for some political superhero to save us.

There is an alternative to this misguided, disempowering approach to sustainability. It involves confronting the ethical aspects of sustainability. This is something that each of us can do right now, today - nothing to purchase, and nothing to wait for.


How did it come to pass that consumerism abducted sustainability? Though one can follow threads back further, 1987 is a fine place to start. That year, the United Nations did what all good bureaucracies do: they convened a meeting to study the problem. The attendees did what all good technocrats do when trying to solve a problem: they formulated a definition. A definition that would guide us straight to the promised land of Sustainability.

Since that time many variant definitions have been developed, all built on the theme of that 1987 definition. The most robust form of that definition is: 'Sustainability is meeting human needs in a socially-just manner without depriving ecosystems of their health'.

And to accomplish this defined goal? We’ll make windmills. When we do we’ll meet our needs, we’ll be socially-just by sending some to 'Africa', and being such a low-input means of producing electricity we’ll no longer deprive ecosystems of their health.

Don Quixote was a better strategist. From that rich definition, pregnant with possibility, we decided technology is the only important obstacle between us and sustainability. Obsessed with technology, we have overlooked something critical that lurks in our institutionalised notion of sustainability.

Engage the ethics

What do we mean by 'human need'? What is a 'healthy ecosystem'? Depending on what these terms mean, sustainability could, at one extreme, mean to 'exploit as much as desired without infringing on future ability to exploit as much as desired' - what might be called vulgar sustainability. It is crude, obscene, lacks moderation and taste.

On the other pole, and with a different understanding of ‘human need’ and ‘ecosystem health,’ is enlightened sustainability - to 'exploit as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life'. This is certainly lofty, but is it necessary to go this far? Why impose this if the vulgar is perfectly adequate? The very choice between these poles and every vision that lies between is an ethical choice. The neglected obstacle blocking our path to sustainability is not technology, but ethics.

We need a new vision of sustainability, a vision that focuses on understanding how sustainability is a kind of relationship, a relationship between society and the environment. All human relationships, good and bad alike, involve attitude and action. The essence of sustainability is to both develop a mature ethical attitude toward nature and a mature physical relationship with nature, which involves exploiting nature in an appropriate manner.

Technology increases our ability to exploit the environment and the efficiency of exploitation. But it does not determine how we ought to exercise that ability and efficiency. In the 1970s, technology and economic incentives led to more efficient home heating and insulation in America. What did we do with that ability? Use less energy? No. We built bigger houses, because we could heat bigger houses more affordably.


Society is a ship whose engine is technology and rudder is ethics; history bears plenty of witness to the wrecks caused by technologies that developed ahead of ethics. There is no reason to think sustainability is any different. Technology is important, but not as important as understanding how sustainability is first and foremost a relationship: a relationship with the environment; a relationship where ethics (or a lack of attention to ethics) is the predominant influence on how we exploit nature.

Our students are beginning to understand their uneasiness with sustainability. If we attain sustainability, it will require not only critical changes in technology, but also the most profound shift in ethical thought witnessed in the last four centuries.  While we devote tremendous resources to develop ‘sustainable’ technologies, ethics remains almost entirely neglected. 

Without purchasing a thing, we are empowered to free sustainability from the spell of consumerism.  We ourselves have sole responsibility for making sustainability virtuous.

We don’t have to wait for institutional changes or technological developments to engage in really sustainability discourse. We can engage those around us in ethical conversations; conversations with people who agree with us, and with people who disagree; conversations in churches, workplaces, pubs, and diners.  Here are examples of some of the difficult and unsettled questions of sustainability we ought to spend more time with:
  1. Is sustainability just for our human benefit, or does nature count as well? Do we care about ecosystems and species only because they serve human interests, or do they deserve care just because they are valuable on their own terms, like other humans?
  2. Is it misguided to ask: How much land should be preserved, and how much used for our own purpose? Should we instead ask, how do we have a healthy relationship with every piece of land and every body of water?
  3. How do we tell our needs apart from our desires? Does every family need a TV or car? Do we need to eat meat, and exotic foods imported from all over the world?
  4. What does a socially-just world look like? Should we begin living more like those in developing countries, or should they begin living more like us?  Why don’t we choose to live a more equitable life? Does socially-just sustainability involve more globalization, or less? Should we spend more money on organic fair trade coffee, or should we drink less coffee?
  5. Is choosing to reproduce more than once inconsistent with caring for the environment and future generations? Is refraining from reproduction especially virtuous? Does achieving sustainability require satisfying human urges to raise children by first emptying orphanages?
  6. What is a meaningful life? If we know that passing time surrounded by healthy people and environments is the route to a meaningful life, then why do we keep buying so much stuff?

Nelson ( is an Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics at Michigan State University and co-author of American Indian Environmental Ethics: An Ojibwa Case Study, and co-editor of The Great New Wilderness Debate and The Wilderness Debate Rages On.

Vucetich ( is an Assistant Professor of Animal Ecology at Michigan Technological University and co-leads research on the wolves and moose of Isle Royale (, a remote wilderness island in Lake Superior, North America. Nelson and Vucetich co-founded and co-direct The Conservation Ethics Group (, an environmental ethics consultancy group. Order of authorship for this essay was determined by a coin toss.

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