By: Kourtney Tams


The idea of sustainability implies the need to preserve natural resources in order to sustain life for future generations as well as to maintain an economically productive and equitable society. This paper offers an overview of sustainability in general, as well as an in-depth analysis of the factors that make it such an important issue to discuss. Global warming is caused by an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily as a result of anthropogenic activities. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, resulting in detrimental effects that span across all three aspects of sustainability: environment, economy, and equity. When discussing sustainability, it is also important to consider resource use in terms of water and energy sources and the effect that excessive use has on the environment, specifically biodiversity. Our capitalist social structure and increasing globalization drive the cycle of production and consumption, which in turn leads to externalities such as global warming and waste. This capitalist system is built on economic growth and prosperity that thrives on inequality from the division of social classes with little regard for ecological and social costs, and creates inequalities in health, housing, transit, and income. In response to each of these factors, one must consider the various arguments surrounding sustainability ethics, as well as the moral reasoning behind such arguments in order to create a set of principles that suggest a change to a more sustainable social structure. Taking the first step toward building a sustainable society requires adopting a biocentric perspective, understanding the relationship between action and consequence, and revitalizing our social structures, so that we can minimize social inequality and environmental degradation, while still thriving economically.

I. Introduction to Sustainability

“A sustainable society lives within the carrying capacity of its natural and social system…it has a system of rules and incentives that promote replenishing and limit depletion and pollution…it builds upon the commitment of its members to conform to these rules voluntarily, and it enforces them when necessary” (Jennings). The world we are leaving behind for future generations is an unsustainable one. One in which roughly one-third of the world’s species will go extinct, where millions of people will be displaced from their homes and forced to live as environmental refugees, where conflicts will arise over the scarcity of available food and water. By continuing along our path of dependence on non-renewable energy and being trapped in the capitalist cycle of production and consumption, we risk reaching a climatic tipping point from which we may never recover.

The term “sustainability” was created in the late 1980s as a response to global warming. It is more specific than “environmentalism” because it suggests more than just protecting the environment; it implies the need to preserve resources in order to sustain life for future generations, not only of humans, but of non-human species as well. To understand the importance of the idea of sustainability, one must first understand the connection between humans and nature. It would be hard to argue that humans and the environment are not influenced by each other to some degree—changes in the environment affect the way humans live, and anthropogenic activities alter the earth’s natural systems on which we rely for survival. Yet, despite this seemingly clear connection between humans and nature, the incentive to preserve and sustain our planet’s resources is severely lacking.

Sustainability goes beyond preserving the environment’s natural resources; it is also an issue that affects the global economy and the equity of people around the world. Just as human society and the environment are interconnected, so too are these “three Es” of sustainability. Consider the issue of pollution: human activities such as driving cars and burning coal for electricity creates pollution, which then affects the environment by damaging air quality and poisoning water supplies. This then impacts the economy because it costs money to clean up the side effects of pollution. However equity must also be factored into the equation in that lower-income areas are less likely to be able to afford to combat pollution in their area, while wealthier people can afford to buy bottled water or even hire lawyers to halt pollution in their neighborhoods. It is because of this interconnection that it is crucial the environment be preserved not only for the rich, but for the health and well-being of all people.

II. Global Warming

Global warming refers to changing climate patterns, specifically increasing average global temperatures, due to unsustainable anthropogenic activities. Global warming is caused by increases in greenhouse gases—namely carbon dioxide, methane and nitrates—in the atmosphere. These gases absorb a portion of the sun’s long-wave radiation that is supposed to reradiate back into space, thus trapping heat in our atmosphere, a process referred to as the greenhouse effect. The biggest problem is not the amount of these gases in the atmosphere; it is the rate at which we are continuing to put them there. In the 1970s and 80s, “global CO2 emissions…increased at a rate of 2 percent annually.” Since 2000, the rate has increased to 3 percent. If that rate of increase continues, “global CO2 emissions will double every 25 years” (Carolan 16).
Even if we were to completely stop carbon emissions immediately, global temperatures would still rise an average of 2 degrees because the carbon in the air now will remain there for 200-500 years, a phenomenon known as carbon commitment.

A surface’s albedo refers to the amount of radiation it reflects. Surfaces with a high albedo reflect the most radiation, and surfaces with a low albedo reflect the least. Ice has the highest albedo of all of earth’s surfaces, while water has the lowest, and actually absorbs energy from the sun, making oceans warmer. As atmospheric temperatures continue to rise, more ice is melting, decreasing the surface area available to reflect radiation and increasing the amount of water that absorbs heat, thus increasing the amount of heat that is trapped, making the planet stuck in a detrimental cycle of warming and melting.

In addition to the warming oceans, another feedback loop involves the planet’s other important carbon sink: trees. Trees and other vegetation absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, thereby helping to offset human emissions. However, the world’s forests are being lost at an unsettling rate due to warmer temperatures for two main reasons. First, the amount of energy in the air increases with temperature. More energized air leads to more lightning strikes, causing fires that burn down trees. Second, warmer temperatures mean less freezing days in the winter which are needed to kill off pests, such as the pine bark beetle, that feed on trees and can wipe out thousands of acres of forested land. As more and more forests are lost to fires and beetles (in addition to direct deforestation by humans), the dying trees no longer sequester any CO2 from the atmosphere; they in fact release their stores of CO2, thus increasing atmospheric levels.

The effects of global warming are widespread, leaving no one unaffected. These countless harmful effects may initially impact the environment, but as previously discussed, that subsequently leads to issues with the economy and equity. Temperature increase exacerbates the rate of evaporation of surface waters, leading to droughts in areas where the water is evaporated, and flooding in areas where the excess evaporation falls as precipitation. Increased heat also increases the amount of energy in the atmosphere, increasing the intensity, duration and frequency of severe weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. These environmental effects then impact human health in the affected areas by increasing waterborne diseases, food/clean water shortages, and destruction of housing. However, people in low-income areas and the third world will be more severely impacted by these events because they lack the wealth needed to survive such conditions. The economy also takes a hit in these situations, because governments are responsible for sending aid to those affected, as well as contributing to rebuilding efforts.

The biggest threat with extreme drought is that of food shortages. Food insecurity in all parts of the globe will be inevitable if temperatures continue to rise and droughts become longer and hotter. A warmer climate will only exacerbate food shortages “through an increased risk of crop failure, new patterns of pests and diseases, lack of appropriate seeds and planting material for the changing micro and macro climates, and through the loss of livestock” (Carolan 21). Though the effects of this may not be felt immediately in the first world, those groups of people who rely on subsistence farming to feed their families will be hit the hardest, yet another example of the concern of equity in regard to global warming.

Even climate change deniers should at the very least take into account the threat on national security posed by natural disasters, food shortages and uninhabitable lands that will force millions of climate change refugees out of their homeland in search of food, water and employment. Once again, poorer countries will be the most affected, “where the adaptive capacity of people, cities, and nations to the effects of climate change is low.” Because the United States plays a significant role in the United Nations Security Council, our military would be expected to respond in a refugee crisis and/or climate change-induced conflict brought about by competition over resources (land and jobs), ethnic tension or political instability and civil strife in weak states (Carolan 25-28).

Over the years, there have been countless proposed solutions to combat global warming, yet none seem to make a significant enough impact. We have all heard the campaigns activists pitch about each of us “doing our part” to save the planet by carpooling, installing energy and water-efficient appliances in our homes, and turning off lights to save electricity. However, these behavioral changes are only slightly effective when only a small majority of people actively participate. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to cutting greenhouse gas emissions is money. The excuse by policy makers that it is cost-prohibitive to take action to combat climate change is no longer viable. According to reports from the EU and German governments, “the total cost of climate action (cost plus damages) in 2100 is roughly US$12 trillion, whereas the cost of inaction (damages alone) is approximately US$20 trillion” (Carolan 29).

III. Water-Energy Nexus & Biodiversity

Water is an essential life-giving resource, necessary for every aspect of human life. Of the 3 percent freshwater supply on Earth, 70 percent is utilized for agriculture, 22 percent is used by industry, and the remaining 8 percent is allocated for households and municipalities (Carolan 82). Virtual water refers to the total input of water used to “grow…or manufacture a given commodity” (Carolan 83). Take for example bottled water: in addition to the water needed to fill the bottles, water is also used in the manufacturing of the plastic bottles themselves. One liter of bottled water “can require as many as three liters of freshwater to make” (Carolan 88).

Agriculture contributes a significant portion of a country’s virtual water consumption. This is due in part to inefficient irrigation practices such as flooding and gravity irrigation, but it is also highly dependent on the type of commodity being grown (Carolan 151). Meat has a significantly higher virtual water content than that of plants because animals need to drink water, but they also feed on plants that require more water to grow. In addition to having a higher virtual water content, meat also provides less calories than plants. Beef has the highest virtual water content at 12.56 m3/kg, and provides only 161 kcal per cubic meter of water. In comparison, potatoes and other starchy roots have a virtual water content of 0.23 m3/kg while providing 3,107 kcal per cubic meter of water (Carolan 152). These statistics provide a compelling argument for switching to a plant-based diet, or cutting out meat at least one day a week in order to reduce water use and methane output from animal farming.

As global freshwater supplies continue to be depleted and conflicts arise over remaining reserves, technological solutions will not be enough to make a significant difference without first changing how we think about water. The 2002 United Nations treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, stated “the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity…and is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights” (Carolan 97). By regarding water as a universal human right, it instills a sense of responsibility in people to protect their right, by reducing pollution to water supplies, and conserving so we have enough for the future. Thinking about water as a fundamental right then spurs social, economic, and political efforts to protect this vital resource. Water governance operates at various levels of society and combines different attributes such as transparency, accountability, participation, and ethics to effectively manage water resources (Carolan 99).

Global energy production and use is primarily dependent on nonrenewable resources, specifically coal, oil, and natural gas. 85 percent of world energy usage comes from coal (25 percent), oil (37 percent), and natural gas (23 percent), while renewable energy sources only constitute about 8 percent (Carolan 171). In the United States, energy from oil is used in industry and transportation, coal is used for electricity, and natural gas is used in industry as well as electricity. These three main uses of energy—industry, transportation, and electricity—are the top sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., thus directly contributing to global warming through the burning of fossil fuels. In addition to energy use, the production of nonrenewable energy also has a significant impact climate change. It is important to consider not only the combustion stage, but also the raw-material extraction and waste-disposal stages. Looking specifically at the life-cycle analysis of coal, while combustion does release the most CO2 emissions, the mining and extraction process contributes to over 98 percent of VOC and methane emissions, while waste disposal contributes significantly to particulate air matter and total dissolved solids in water (Carolan 172).

Enacting solutions for cleaner energy production and consumption is a matter of “turning the technologically possible into the socially, economically, and politically probable” (Carolan 177). While the problem cannot be solved through efficiency-increasing actions alone, such pragmatic changes could be effective if enacted on a large scale, “so long as they do not get in the way of deeper socioecological change” (Carolan 178). One such efficiency-increasing action would be shifting our sources of energy to renewables such as wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal. However, convincing producers and consumers that making the switch is worth it might require utilizing incentives such as subsidies and loans, or disincentives such as a carbon tax (Carolan 183).

Water and energy are undeniably connected. The process of pumping, treating, and transporting water requires electricity that comes from burning coal and natural gas, which in turn produces greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Various energy sources also require water at different phases of the production process. Nuclear power, for example, uses tanks full of water to cool down reactors, while natural gas production injects water into the ground in the process of fracking (Carolan 174). Energy is connected to water not only through dependence, but also in that the processes of nonrenewable energy production contribute significantly to the pollution of water supplies through waste and toxic by-products.

When talking about the water-energy nexus, it is also important to discuss the social issues that surround it. First, there is an overwhelming ignorance among consumers that rarely makes them think about where their energy or water comes from. Specifically, in core and semi-periphery countries, where nonrenewable energy and water are so widely available, relatively cheap, and easy, people do not think about reducing and conserving, and instead consume copious amounts simply because we assume it is the norm and we do not know any different. This also relates back to the issue of consumerism and society’s general disconnect from the products we use. Second, it becomes an issue of priorities, specifically in regards to money. While governments are spending tens of millions of dollars in renewable energy research and development, it is a relatively minor investment when compared to other expenditures, such as the $33 billion spent on cosmetics annually or the $2,000 billion spent to fight foreign wars (Carolan 183). Consumers are equally as guilty of misguided priorities, as most are not willing to pay the higher initial costs of making efficiency improvements in their homes that will pay for themselves in the long run, but would rather continue to pay rising energy costs.

Due to the adverse environmental impacts and contribution to global warming, the water-energy nexus also directly affects biodiversity. As energy production continues emitting greenhouse gases that exacerbate global warming, the atmosphere will no longer be suitable for many species that cannot adapt to such drastic changes. Adverse effects of global warming, such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, drought and flood, and increased disease can all affect biodiversity by destroying habitats and wiping out species. Other anthropogenic threats to biodiversity that stem from the water-energy nexus include pollution, agriculture, and urbanization (Carolan 64).

Paradoxically, while biodiversity provides ecosystem services that aid in food production, modern agriculture techniques in turn lead to a loss of biodiversity. Industrial agriculture is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity as it alters the landscape, stresses natural resources, and contributes to species loss. As land is cleared for cropland and animal feed lots, habitats are destroyed and wildlife displaced, which can lead to species loss. As previously discussed, industrial agriculture is water and energy intensive, particularly for growing meat, and thus contributes to global warming through the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy to pump water for irrigation of crops and maintaining livestock. Honeybees are responsible for the pollination of 90 percent of commercial crops that are insect-pollinated. However, pesticides sprayed on crops are wiping out honeybee populations, contributing to species loss and negatively impacting the biodiversity of a region, as well as threatening food supplies (Carolan 68).

IV. Capitalism, Consumerism, & Waste

The system of capitalism begins with large corporations owning a majority of the world’s money in the form of stock and credit. These corporations then buy raw materials from periphery countries, labor from semi-periphery countries and facilities (factories) in order to make a certain good or service, that they then sell to consumers for profit, part of which is returned to the beginning to continue driving the cycle, the rest of which is kept by the corporation to pay the million-dollar salaries of their CEOs. None of the profit is given to the countries in which the products are actually made, thus keeping the poor countries poor and making rich countries richer.

This toxic cycle of global capitalism is what drives production and consumption in our societies, which in turn contribute to global warming. Consumerism relies on a system of production in which “stuff” is made, and preys on the fact that people will buy “stuff” simply because it exists and because it is cheap enough. In order to make products cheap, corporations lower labor costs in the manufacturing process and are able to produce more. Corporations also play into the fact that humans are social beings and are willing to pay excessive amount of money for a “luxury” good, such as a fancy, new Mercedes as opposed to a used Toyota, simply because of the status and lifestyle the product symbolizes. The problem with consumerism lies in the question: what becomes of all the goods people buy when they break or go out of style? Answer: they become part of the waste system.

Before considering waste in general, one must first address the idea that waste is a social construct. In nature, nothing is waste; anything that cannot be used by one organism can always be used by another. The term “waste” is entirely of human design and refers to what humans have no use for. However, what a person in a first-world country deems as waste may be perfectly usable to someone in a third-world country. This idea is clearly illustrated in the issue of food waste. Between 30 and 40 percent of the entire world’s food from developed and developing countries ends up as waste. The social issue lies in “where in the food system those losses take place.” In developed countries, most food waste occurs in retail, food service and in homes, whereas in developing countries, most food is wasted due to inadequate storage facilities to keep food fresh (Carolan 42).

Waste is connected to climate change in numerous ways. First, all of our waste is embodied energy, referring to the “sum total of the energy utilized throughout an entire product life cycle,” meaning it took energy to manufacture the product, transport it, sell it, and dispose of it, releasing greenhouse gases along the way. The process of disposing of waste in a landfill also contributes to global warming in that the anaerobic decomposition (fermentation) of organic materials releases significant quantities of methane, making landfills the “third-largest human source of methane emissions in the United States” (Carolan 42-44). However, trying to reduce landfill waste by recycling might not be any better. Though it uses significantly less energy to produce new products from recycled products rather than raw materials, it isn’t necessarily as cost-effective to go through the process of recycling products than it would be to simply landfill them. Promoting recycling in fact has negative repercussions in that it increases consumerism; “recycling helps assuage any guilt we have about our consumption habits” by making it appear as though we are counteracting our overconsumption by recycling (Carolan 49).

Perhaps the biggest issue with waste lies in the fact that people are completely disconnected from the products they use. Few people think about or understand the cradle-to-grave aspect of consumerism. One major solution to combat waste involves the concept of extended producer responsibility. This concept states that “manufacturers are held responsible for a product beyond the time of sale, thereby relieving consumers, governments, future generations, and the environment from the costs associated with landfilling and recycling hazardous materials.” Currently, most companies are responsible for their product from the time of manufacture to either the time it is sold or only though the life of its warranty. Due to this lack of responsibility and the cycle of capitalism, most companies design their products to last a short period of time, maybe a few months or just through the end of the warranty, with the hope that when the product breaks or wears out, consumers will simply throw away the old and buy new, thus increasing profits for the company and amount of waste in the landfill. Thus, the concept of EPR “extends the producer’s responsibility for a product throughout its lifecycle, from cradle to grave,” with the hope that producers will manufacture longer-lasting products and ultimately reduce landfill waste (Carolan 57). 

V. Social Structures, Resource Distribution & Equity

Globalization and new innovative technology have transformed our society’s economic system from industrial to technological. This economic shift has led to our society being currently built on a capitalist system of economic growth and prosperity that thrives on inequality from the division of social classes. These inequalities in income, housing, health, and other social resources stem from our system of economic development that continues to progress no matter the costs to the environment or people’s livelihoods until it reaches a point where it becomes uneconomic growth, and begins to cost society more than benefit it.

There is a significant division of power within the capitalist cycle; the wealthy few at the start and end of the cycle have the power to decide who gets work and therefore how to distribute the money by outsourcing factories to semi-periphery countries where there are little to no regulations regarding workers’ salaries or controlling pollution and waste. While the neoliberal position supports global capitalism by arguing that it creates jobs and income for people in semi-periphery countries that would not otherwise have that opportunity, other positions argue against sending work to other countries because the externalities produced in the process of production may be harmful to the people working in those factories (Carolan 205).

This toxic cycle of global capitalism drives and is in turn driven by rampant consumerism in our society. The question of why people consume so much stuff can be answered from a sociological perspective. The idea of conspicuous consumerism refers to consuming as a way “to display to others our social power and status.” In addition to wanting to display status to others, consumerism can also act as a means of creating a sense of personal identity and belonging to a group with a similar lifestyle (Carolan 234). This obscene consumerism is also the fault of the producers as they “[widen] their range of what they produce to fit the specialized “needs” of consumers,” as well as operating with the goal of planned obsolescence, that is, redesigning and “upgrading” products frequently in order to encourage consumers to buy the newest model, or designing products that break or wear out quickly and that cannot be repaired, forcing the consumer to replace the product often (Carolan 235).

Capitalistic societies are motivated by an endless commitment to growth in which production begets more production, despite social and ecological costs. This concept of  “treadmill of production” depends on economic growth to solve such problems as poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, and unemployment, “though those very problems were caused, to various degrees, by growth itself.” Thus the logic behind the treadmill concept breaks down to reveal the source of inequality as “societies become increasingly vulnerable to socioeconomic disorganization as their ecological resource base is undermined” (Carolan 196).

The inherent point of the entire capitalist system is to create inequality and foster divisions of social class. Society can be separated into 5 classes, with 2 major divisions. The top class is composed of the richest 10 percent of the population that control the capitalist cycle. The next level of society is regarded as the professional class and is comprised of people with post-graduate degrees that have high income and a moderate amount of wealth. It is between the rich and professional classes that we see the first major division. Next is the middle class, which can be subdivided into white collar workers who typically have a college degree and work in comfortable office jobs, and blue collar workers who perform technical or trade jobs and physical labor. The middle class has a moderate income with a little accumulation of wealth. Next is the second major division, between middle and working/poor class. The working and poor classes typically do not have college degrees (sometimes lacking even a high school education), have a moderate to low income, and relatively no wealth. It is at this level of society that the negative effects of global capitalism can be experienced in the form of externalities.

Externalities from the cycle of capitalism include health issues, pollution, and clean-up costs and generally affect lower-income populations and those in less affluent countries where American corporations place their factories. Environmental racism occurs when these environmental threats often affect certain racial minorities, and includes discrimination in policy making, enforcement of regulations, as well as targeting minority communities for waste disposal and location of polluting industries. Environmental justice then requires fair treatment of all people, meaning “[that no population, due to policy or economic disempowerment, is forced to bear a disproportionate share of the negative human health or environmental impacts of pollution” (Carolan 236). This concept of environmental racism is particularly evident in the U.S. today in regard to Native Americans. In particular, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota is currently facing a battle with the government over the construction of a pipeline on their sacred territory that would contaminate their water supplies.

The capitalist cycle and consumerism continue to thrive due to the changing global economy. Globalization allowed for corporations in core countries to send their work overseas to semi-periphery countries, deindustrializing the economy in the core countries, shifting from factory labor to technology, finance, medicine, and media. These technological changes as well as rapid population growth led to concentration of people in various cities, known as “tech hubs,” where this technological development is the greatest. Technology also replaces human jobs, or at least requires people to learn new knowledge and skills in order to operate such machinery, thus creating more inequality between those with such skills and those without.

Social resources are the things people need to survive and thrive and that require a social and energy structure behind them in order to produce. Our current capitalist social structure causes great inequalities in regards to such social resources as housing, transit, and health. Housing inequalities arise in response to rapid population increase in big cities due to the changing economy, as there is a decrease in the availability of housing in nationwide tech hubs, and the supply that is available is too expensive to anyone other than the small percentage of people in the upper-middle to rich classes of society. Housing is considered affordable if one only spends 30 percent or less of their income on rent. Solutions to the issue of housing shortages include building more housing outside of city limits, called urban sprawl. The houses built in the suburbs created by urban sprawl could be built smaller and more densely; however, the houses built in these suburbs are still going to be expensive, which means that only wealthy people will be able to afford them, but rich people typically want bigger houses as a sign of their social status. Government intervention may also be used as a means of helping people afford housing through subsidies, creating regulations that require more affordable housing, and having cities as non-profit entities build more housing that will in turn be more affordable. However, urban sprawl also has negative environmental impacts, as metropolitan regions with higher sprawl tend to have higher emissions of nitrous oxides and VOCs, which can be damaging to the health of those who live in that area, as well as contribute to global warming which affects the health of people worldwide (Carolan 111).

Another issue of inequality arises from that of housing: transit. Transportation is often thought of as a response to changes in organization of our societies and urbanization, however it is the opposite; urban growth and development patterns were shaped from the transportation systems already in place. In the United States, we build our transportation system based on roads and cars instead of mass transit such as rails. The car made possible certain patterns of urbanization, specifically urban sprawl and suburbs, which in today’s society are “difficult to service under alternative transportation forms” (Carolan 126). Inequality arises when considering the costs of owning and operating a car and living in the suburbs. People live in the suburbs because they cannot afford to live in a city, but living in the suburbs makes having a car somewhat of a necessity, though after considering the costs of car payments, insurance, fuel, and commute time, it essentially costs just as much, if not more, to live in the suburbs as it does to live in a city. Solutions can be found in making available more mass transit, as well as developing commuter cities with walking or trolley/rail-based transportation. Called nodes, these commuter cities have a dense central city, with smaller, independent suburbs on the outskirts, all connected by rail lines, leaving more space for natural habitat and wildlife corridors to preventing habitat fragmentation and loss of biodiversity (Carolan 127-133).

Economic growth and increasing income inequality not only degrades the quality of life for those with lower incomes, but it also introduces problems for the rich as well. Income inequality and health/social problems have an inverse relationship; as income inequality in a nation increases, so does the prevalence of health and social issues. Societies with lower inequality have fewer health problems, “treat women and children better, have a greater sense of collective responsibility, and are more willing to cooperate with international environmental agreements” (Carolan 232-233).

In order to create a more sustainable and equitable society, we need to shift our focus away from economic development and towards development of freedom and justice. Moving away from our obsession with growth at the expense of the environment as well as our livelihoods begins with redirecting taxes from labor to pollution, thus encouraging employment and “[discouraging] wasteful resource use and dependence.” Breaking out of the work-spend cycle is also crucial, as once our basic necessities are provided for, happiness can come from something other than excess wealth (Carolan 242). Without economic growth, a country’s progress can be measured by the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which acknowledges that “real prosperity can be said to have been reached only when the well-being of mankind does not come at the earth’s expense” (Carolan 244). Changes to such developmental polices could play a significant role in facilitating community empowerment, emphasizing capabilities, and promoting environmental justice.

Policies that promote fair trade systems rather than the conventional supply-chain model could also be useful in reducing inequalities as fair trade “attempts to distribute economic benefits more fairly between all stakeholders.” Fair trade practices include: setting minimum prices that are typically higher than market prices to ensure that producers are paid a living wage for their work, purchasing directly from producers to reduce “middlemen” that would reduce profits, and fostering a sense of trust, cooperation, responsibility and constraint that emerge out of a community “where [producers] seek to govern [themselves] as well as [their] sustainable use of the ecological commons” (Carolan 207-208). 

VI. Ethical Principles

There are three arguments surrounding sustainability ethics. The first argument asks the question: should we consume a lot now? This argument is based on the obligations a government has to its citizens to continue providing resources and energy. Values for this position are centered on pleasure, living a comfortable life, and security in the present moment. It weighs the possible negative consequences such as global warming and water insecurity with the positive consequences of the aforementioned values. The second argument presents the question: should we continue to consume a lot now and hope new technology will reduce emissions? Like the first argument, this position is based on continued present use, but focuses primarily on consequences, such as the amount of time and money necessary to implement cleaner technologies. The final argument is the one on which the principles of sustainability are based and asks the question: should we conserve now? This position weighs the negative consequence of sacrifice, with the positive consequences of reducing the effects of global warming and having enough energy reserves for the future. The obligations for this argument are to future generations so they can experience what we have, as well as to wildlife because of the interconnection between humans and animals in that both constitute the group of life and therefore humans have an obligation to other members of our group. Pleasure and a world of beauty are values inherent in this argument, as well as family and equality. The value of family ties into the obligation to future generations, while equality extends to other species, so long as one believes that humans and nature/animals are on the same level, and thus both have equal right to thrive.

The set of values, obligations, and consequences that constitute the moral reasoning in the third argument lead to the formation of a set of principles that suggest a change to a more sustainable social structure. The first principle states: “Do not diminish natural capital.” Capital involves anything that is an investment in the future; therefore natural capital includes biological and ecosystem services such as clean water, purification of air, and food production. The second principle instructs: “Do not diminish satisfying opportunities to experience nature.” This principle is based on the idea that “opportunities to experience the natural world are important to human well-being,” and is thus rooted in the value of a world of beauty, as well as an obligation to future generations to allow them to experience at least what we had. Based on a “requirement of basic moral respect,” the third principle states: “Seek fair terms of cooperation conducive to sustainability.” The obligation in this principle is between one human being and another; recognizing each other as equals leads to “negotiation…of cooperation in living in a manner that is collectively sustainable.” The final principle states: “Societies and their governments should create and sustain institutions and systems that are conducive to sustainability and…transparency with respect to sustainability.” This principle suggests an obligation of governments to their citizens by way of promoting the truth about matters important to the public interest and by taking responsibility for providing sustainable programs. This principle is also rooted in the instrumental values of honesty and responsibility (Curren). 


By continuing down our unsustainable path, we are sending a message to future generations that we do not care about their future, their well-being. We are telling them that we do not care if they die from heat stress, or starve from food shortages, or are killed in a war over scarce resources. We are telling our planet that we are not the least bit grateful for everything it has provided us so that we could live and thrive. We are saying that our short-term gain is more valuable than our long-term sustainability. It is in this issue that sustainability essentially becomes a question of ethics and morality. “Human-centered ethics is the default position of our politics today,” resulting in our apathetic attitude about global warming and our disinterest in sustainability (Jennings). Sustainability requires that society understand the connection between our actions (water and energy consumption and capitalist structures) and the consequences of those actions (global warming and loss of biodiversity). Recognizing this cause-effect relationship allows us to alter our values and obligations to favor a more sustainable social structure.

Taking the first step toward building a sustainable society requires adopting a biocentric perspective: recognizing that nature is as alive as humans are, and that earth’s systems are in place to support us, therefore we must not overexploit them. This biocentric perspective necessary for sustainability “holds that value in the world does not reside within human beings alone,” rather that value resides in the biotic context of which individuals and societies are merely a small part (Jennings). Before any of the proposed solutions to environmental issues can have any real effect, there must be a major attitude shift in the global society away from selfishness and toward promoting the interests of the greater good, not only of mankind, but of all life on our planet. Understanding the connection between our actions and the impact they have on the environment, and accepting that humankind is a part of nature, rather than viewing ourselves as separate from it, or more specifically, above it, is critical for sustaining life on our planet.


Carolan, Michael. Society and the Environment: Pragmatic Solutions to Ecological Issues. Westview Press, 2013. Print.

Curren, Randall. “Toward and Ethic of Sustainability.” NPR, Nov. 1, 2011. Web.

Jennings, Bruce. “Ethical Aspects of Sustainability.” Minding Nature Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, Apr. 2010. Web.


Kourtney Tams is a junior, first-year transfer student at St. Edward’s University. As an Environmental Science and Policy major, she has a deep appreciation for sustainability and environmental ethics. After spending several years working in wildlife rehabilitation, she has a passion for wildlife conservation and hopes to pursue this further by working at rehabilitation centers around the world to also incorporate her love of travel. After studying abroad to Costa Rica with EcoLead, Kourtney will be spending her summer in Seattle, interning with Project Feed 1010 to research and develop sustainable urban agriculture systems. Outside of academics, Kourtney enjoys practicing yoga, hiking, cooking, reading and photography.

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