Defining Sustainability


In “Sustainability: Virtuous or Vulgar?,” a paperpublished recently in the journal BioScience,Michigan Technological University wildlife ecologist John A. Vucetich and Michigan State University environmental ethicistMichael Nelson Vucetich evaluated popular conceptions of“sustainability.”  Rather than championing a particular interpretationof sustainability, they revealed the unresolved tensions inherent in the prevailing mainstream definition of sustainability, which theyformulate as “meeting human needs in a socially-just manner withoutdepriving ecosystems of their health.”

“From a single definition arise two wildly disparateviews of a sustainable world,” said Vucetich. “Handling these disparateviews is the inescapable ethical crisis of sustainability.” “The crisis results from not knowing what we mean by value-laden terms like‘ecosystem health’ and ‘human needs.’” Nelson says, “In other words, isecosystem health defined only by its ability to meet human needs, ordoes ecosystem health define the limits of human need?”

Solving the dilemma will likely come down toestablishing the motivations for supporting sustainability.  Is theconcern for nature the key motivation? Or as Vucetich puts it: “Are weconcerned for nature because nature is intrinsically valuable, or onlybecause of what nature can do for us?” Nelson adds, “These questionsare as difficult to answer as it is necessary to answer them. We areunlikely to achieve sustainability without knowing what it means.”

Vucetich and Nelson emphasize that virtually noeffort is spent trying to answer this question. For example,universities have hired dozens of academics in recent years to solvesustainability problems. None of these academics work on the ethicalcrisis of sustainability.

“The first goal ought to be a citizenry that hasenough ethical knowledge to be able to just talk about these issuesintelligently,” Vucetich says. Nelson goes on to say “This is unlikelyto happen until social leaders, including academics from all disciplines develop for themselves enough ethical knowledge to be able to teach the broader public how to approach these questions. Then, hopefully,answers will emerge.” They conclude, “If we attain sustainability, itwill not only require critical changes in technology, but also the mostprofound shift in ethical thought witnessed in the last four centuries.”



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