Sustainability is considered to be quite a complex topic. People with many different backgrounds and viewpoints must collaborate in order to come up with solutions to grand challenges plaguing the world today. Using ethics to help solve sustainability problems is one way to ensure that all of these voices are heard, including ones that may be more difficult to take into account, such as those of plants, animals, and future generations. Ethics can be applied within the three pillars of sustainability – social, environmental, and economic – and used to make sure that no view is overlooked. When it comes to directly relating ethics to sustainability challenges, a rational mindset and the use of systems thinking are useful strategies to ensure that the collaborative effort will take everyone’s needs into account. Although there are some difficulties that come with applying ethics to sustainability problems, the final solution will be more relevant and cognizant of the needs of multiple parties instead of based solely on one group’s needs and opinions.

In this chapter, we will first look at what defines ethics and how it plays a role in sustainability. To further define what an ethics within sustainability looks like, the importance of sustainability ethics is discussed as well as how it is applied to the three pillars of sustainability. The chapter then concludes with how ethics is overlooked, how it can be applied in a sustainable decision- making process, as well as the challenges that are sometimes faced when using ethics.

What is Ethics?

Ethics can be most simply described as an individual’s morals and their sense of right and wrong. It provides a lens for society to base their moral compass off of and shape their decision-making process. In sustainability, a common topic is how connected the world is and how actions in one place can impact communities across the globe. With a goal of sustainability being to provide for current and future societies while preserving the environment that we depend on, taking an ethical approach benefits all stakeholders. In the past, ethics haven’t always been considered when making sustainable development. This is typically seen in cases of budget issues and instances where certain groups aren’t represented. As sustainability has gained a more ethical approach, many philosophers have considered the value of offering all beings some level of moral consideration, whether they are living or nonliving organisms. With the rapid growth of development in the modern world, it is crucial to pause and think of all stakeholders at risk when making a decision.

Definition of Ethics in Sustainability

Ethics in sustainability is a crucial piece of sustainable development. A goal of ethical sustainability is to think of how humans ought to live while also considering their connections with other humans, the natural world, and future generations. Without these considerations, certain groups may feel marginalized or that they are not being treated fairly. Although a large part of ethics centers around the treatment of people, it is also important to discuss the considerations towards nature. The idea of providing a better future for the generations to come revolves around conserving the natural areas that we have today and protecting areas for the future. This relates to the welfare of non-human nature which includes many factors that make life possible. These factors range from clean water and air to biodiversity and species health, which, if not considered during sustainable development, could yield serious negative impacts. In order to make changes that benefit all parties involved, it is sometimes necessary to choose the route that is less desirable or more difficult. Although it may take more time or funding to make improvements that align with ethical practices, in the long run, the impact will be more positive and will do more for the greater good.

The Importance of Ethics in Sustainability

Ethics is important to consider when solving grand challenges in sustainability because it takes the needs and rights of a variety of groups into account. It also recognizes the significance of current as well as future human needs. Having access to a wealth of natural resources, as well as ensuring general well-being for all, is a moral right not only for present-day human populations, but also for future generations. When decision-makers use ethical approaches to solve sustainability problems, they consider how their actions can have effects on the environment, economy, and humankind in general – now and in the future. This aspect of time is important to keep in mind because the decisions made today, whether helpful or detrimental, can have significant impacts on the lives of those living in the future. Applying principles of ethics to sustainability challenges also promotes a holistic worldview that takes many different values into account.

Ethics in sustainability aims to restructure how most humans consider nature, even though it can be difficult to change preconceived notions and deeply-rooted mindsets. Currently, some view nature as separate from human life, existing solely for human benefits. However, humans need to understand how the environment is deeply connected to their lives and that animals, plants, minerals, and other parts of nature should not only be used to benefit humans. This is where major questions come into play, ones that ethicists and scientists are still trying to answer. These broad questions include:

  • Are issues such as biodiversity and habitat loss problematic if they do not have any effects on humans?
  • Should moral rights be extended to nature?
  • Do humans have an obligation to protect future generations?
  • Does ecosystem health determine what human needs should be? Or, should the amount of resources that humans need determine what a healthy ecosystem should look like?

There is much debate over the answers to these questions because there is no single correct answer to any of them. This is why ethicists are so important in helping to solve sustainability challenges. If they collaborate with scientists, then these larger questions will be considered by individuals who are knowledgeable in the field. This ensures that solutions to sustainability problems are clear and reflect moral values instead of only expressing the views of a single group.

Ethics Applied to the 3 Pillars of Sustainability

Sustainability is commonly broken up into three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. These three pillars contain subcategories that help better define whether a sustainability challenge is an environmental one, economic and so on. Ethics can be applied within all three pillars of sustainability and should be present during the collaborative decision-making processes. The need for ethics in sustainability is important to consider during these processes and when analyzing all possible stakeholders in an issue. There is a need to conserve ethical values when coming up with a solution and the input from all stakeholders considering the types of challenges or implications that may come out of a potential solution. The inclusion of ethics in sustainable decision making creates a more diverse process in that it bridges the boundaries between stakeholders who would not otherwise communicate with each other. This may require some social, political, or even cultural sacrifices, but it is ultimately beneficial in the grand scheme of things. In this section, many ideas are pulled from Kibert et. Al’s textbook, The Ethics of Sustainability.

Social ethics in sustainability focuses on the actions, attitudes, beliefs, cultural traditions, and decisions that an individual makes. Ethics within the social sector can be associated with making choices or decisions that line up with an entire group’s identity. It is important to note that social ethics is not separated from sustainability as a whole, rather it provides an ethical foundation on which a group can make sustainable decisions in a way that considers equity, fairness, justice, equality, inclusiveness, and cultural differences. Sustainable challenges that require an ethical social foundation consider the social costs, benefits, and values of a decision.

Economic ethics can be closely attributed with social ethics as many ethical economic decisions are based off the social consequences or costs associated with that economic activity or decision. Moral foundations within an economic ethic consider questions such as the efficiency, productivity, and security of a product. It correlates with social sustainability as it considers issues like whether a product has been produced in an environment that provides fair wages and fair working conditions, and if the product has favored one social class over another. It also considers the resources that are used in producing a good and how they are used, and whether that resource may have been exploited in a way that is socially unjust. The role of economic ethics in sustainability is to ensure that goods are produced in a way that can be attributed to the larger concept and goals of sustainability. An ethical economy is not dependent on growth or material consumption in an age where there are finite resources.

Environmental ethics focuses on the value of non-human nature, or the living and non-living qualities within nature. Living qualities can be seen as animals, plants, and other types of species that live in nature and non-living can consider qualities like the welfare of forests, water, and conservation of broader landscapes. Environmental ethics considers what actions are right and wrong in natural environments. Challenges that could be considered within this type of ethics are the preservation of biodiversity, clean water and air, and the value of non-human life. Environmental ethics argues whether humans have a right to the non-human nature of the earth, saying that the two should coexist.

Ethics in Sustainability vs. Environmental Ethics

Ethics in sustainability and environmental ethics are sometimes assumed to represent the same concepts because of their overlapping subject matter. Some researchers and stakeholders may believe that by addressing environmental ethics in their decision-making, they are ultimately forming solutions based on sustainability ethics. This judgment is incorrect because environmental ethics is merely one aspect of ethics in sustainability. In reality, the methods undertaken when using environmental ethics do not always take the economic and social pillars of sustainability into account, and rarely simultaneously.

Environmental ethics focuses on the relationship between human beings and nature and is a subset of ethics in sustainability. Although it can consider how human life and economic factors intersect with the environment, it mainly centers on nature and how specific aspects of it can best be protected. Some questions that are explored in environmental ethics include:

  •  Do humans have the moral right to use so much of the Earth’s natural resources for their own benefit?
  • Does nature have its own set of values aside from its effects on human health and well-being?
  • Are human beings necessarily better than plant and animal species or other aspects of nature?

One form of environmental ethics is environmental justice, which considers how environmental problems and benefits are divided among groups. It takes issues such as the placement of landfills and toxic waste sites into account, because these can negatively influence human well-being. These hazardous sites are often situated in minority communities or poverty-stricken areas. In fact, some research shows that the demographics of an area helped decision-makers choose where these toxic locations would be created. Additionally, although these hazardous waste sites may be harmful to the people living nearby, their existence may contribute to the well-being of other members of society who do not live in that community. From this, another question arises about what actions are considered fair by moral standards. Environmental justice is a subset of environmental ethics because it places the environment at the center of the debate; it considers social and economic effects stemming from environmental problems, instead of taking all three pillars into consideration equally and simultaneously.

On the other hand, ethics in sustainability differs from environmental ethics because it considers the complex relationships between humans, the environment, and the economy, both for current populations and future generations. It is a much broader topic than environmental ethics and represents the convergence of multiple different fields of study. It takes many viewpoints into account at the same time, and can be used to help form solutions that consider the needs of various different groups and organizations, from businesses to environmentalists to homeowners. By considering the environmental, economic, and social pillars of sustainability at the same time, sustainability ethics differs drastically from environmental ethics, which focuses mainly on the environmental pillar of sustainability and does not draw on all three pillars simultaneously.

Why Ethics is Sometimes Overlooked

Due to the long-standing criticism of the effectiveness of sustainability ethics, it is sometimes overlooked. This criticism comes from the fact that ethics is such a broad idea and can be interpreted in many ways. Although much of society has come to accept sustainability, they do so only if it aligns with their values. The largest issue with incorporating sustainable ethics into the world is finding ways to express the importance of these decisions and the value that they can have. Many of the issues that arise from these decisions are financial, due to the fact that making an ethical decision can sometimes require more expensive materials and safer practices. With ethics being a theory, it is easy for people dismiss it when trying to save money or make their lives easier. Another reason that ethics is commonly overlooked is due to the fact that there are very few university level professionals that are educated in the field. A study done in 2012 found that out of 59 sustainability positions filled by 9 universities, zero of the new employees had prior experience in sustainability ethics. Due to this lack of involvement from experienced professionals, it is difficult to advance the overall knowledge and development of ethical sustainability. In a project done by the National Science Foundation on environmental sustainability, the final 570 page report did not reference ethics in sustainability at all and only focused on the environmental aspects. This contrast of involvement is something that will hopefully change in the future as many important ethical decisions will have to be made with the progression of climate change.

Applying Ethics to Sustainability Challenges

In an ethical decision-making process, the group collaboratively considers ethical values the are attributed to all challenges of sustainability. There is normally a collective desire to sustain future generations and to consider moral values associated with that solution. When deciding on a solution to a sustainable issue, there are a few important ideas or steps that should be present throughout the entire process.

When sustainability issues arise, it is common for people to assume the consequences of that challenge. However, it is also important to approach the problem from a more open-minded perspective and consider the reasoning or causes for a sustainability challenge and potential solutions, rather than immediately suggesting how it will negatively impact the Earth. For people to understand a sustainability challenge completely, they have to look at the root of the problem. A rational mindset requires a lot of attention to detail and rules out all possibilities that could either be “good” or “bad” solutions, but usually ones that just aren’t predicted to work. While rationality may seem like an obvious practice, sometimes being logical or reasonable has some risks associated with it. In many cases, a group that is coming up with a solution simply does not have enough information available to create a sound and well-rounded decision.

A systems thinking approach to solving sustainability challenges starts with considering the structural and technological elements of a decision and the resources needed to approach that decision to understand how they work together. This way of thinking provides a strategy to analyze problems more closely. Having feedback loops establishes how different components respond, which provides an idea of where the changes need to be made within the system.

When discussing sustainability challenges, the need for collaboration increases as most sustainable issues are complex and involve multiple stakeholders. The role of collaboration in an ethical decision-making process bridges boundaries between social, economic, and environmental ethics. The involvement of all essential stakeholders, whether they are affiliated with religion, academics, politics, or any other discipline or practice, ensures that all ethical values are considered; this includes social, economic, and environmental costs of a decision for a complex sustainability challenge. Collaboration in ethics ensures that there is transparency and a common desire to create good out of a problem.

Challenges/Difficulties of Using Ethics in Sustainability

Although it is important to view sustainability challenges from an ethical perspective, it can be difficult to conceptualize exactly what needs to be considered and ensure that all groups’ points of view are accounted for. Overarching questions such as “Should moral rights be extended to nature?” and “Do humans have an obligation to protect future generations?” illustrate why these problems are so hard to solve. There is not one simple, clear answer for any of these questions, and identifying what trade-offs will have to be made when coming up with solutions is not an easy task. The question of the determinants of ecosystem health vs. human needs is just one example of a complicated sustainability issue that can be difficult to answer; does ecosystem health determine what human needs should be? Or, should the amount of resources that humans need determine what a healthy ecosystem should look like?

The complexity of sustainability ethics in comparison to other forms, such as environmental ethics, makes applying it to grand challenges even more difficult. Whereas environmental ethics mainly refers to the relationships between humans and nature, ethics in sustainability refers to the intersection of the environment, the economy, and humans – now and in the future.

The perspectives associated with using this ethical mindset are difficult to fully comprehend because of human limitations. Conceptualizing employment opportunities, cultural traditions, and social structures from place to place is not an easy task because they vary so greatly. This is before the aspect of time is even considered. When it comes time to evaluate what future generations will need, humans today have no exact idea of what this will look like. There is no knowledge of what the morals of future generations will be, nor what their world will be like. As a result, scientists and ethicists today will have to rely on educated guesses based on past experiences and future projections to determine what basic human needs are.

Humans also have no way of communicating directly with nature and determining what the needs of animal and plant species are. Questions of morality in relation to nature are still being debated, so people have to rely on basic ethical theories and questions in order to ensure that nature is being treated fairly. In order to build a foundation for these environmental needs, humans will need to clearly define what separates them from nature and what the best strategies are to ensure that nature is being respected now and will continue to be respected in the future.

Case Study: The Sydney Harbor Tunnel

The Sydney Harbor Tunnel in Sydney, Australia was built in 1992 and gave residents an alternate route to reach the main business district of the city. Even though there was already another way of reaching the district via the Sydney Harbor Bridge, leaders argued that building the tunnel would lower the amount of traffic congestions and car accidents, as well as limit the time people spent on the roads. The current bridge is also a popular landmark in Australia, and leaders wanted to preserve its beauty and tourism value. Besides these social benefits of the tunnel project, proponents believed that it would lead to economic growth because of the reduction of overall energy use and car accidents.

When building the tunnel, the laws in the area required the project leaders to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which consists of three main points: justifying why the project should be approved, evaluating how the environment could be affected, and proposing alternative solutions. Though the EIS was completed, the creators were accused of exaggerating the overall benefits of building the tunnel and understating the actual environmental effects. They stated that there would only be minimal environmental consequences and voiced their support for the project.

Though this case does reflect economic and social ethics because building the Sydney Tunnel saves energy and time for humans, along with reducing car accidents, it also shows why it is important to consider all forms of ethics when conducting assessments such as the EIS. In this example, the leaders of the Sydney Tunnel project were able to choose whoever they wanted to carry out the EIS, meaning that they could have chosen people who they knew would support their agenda regardless of the actual effects on the environment. This reflects a greater national trend where the potential income of projects outweighs respect for the environment. In this example, the company did consider the economic and social ethics because they wanted to build a new tunnel that would save energy and time and reduce car accidents, improving human welfare overall and contributing to economic growth. Though they did conduct an EIS, committees found that they did not accurately convey the effects on the marine ecosystem there and weigh the overall air quality as a result of increased pollution. If someone who was not involved in the project had created an objective EIS, this could have ensured that all aspects of ethics were taken into consideration fairly so that potential consequences, whether environmental, economic, or social, could be recognized and possibly mitigated. The Sydney Harbor Tunnel controversy is an example of what happens when only two of the three pillars of sustainability are considered in decision- making and how collaboration can better reflect the needs of many different groups.



Chapter Summary

The idea of ethics within sustainability is one that is vastly understudied. As sustainability continues to be an emerging discipline, it is only natural that subdisciplines follow after. One may argue that sustainability in itself is an ethical discipline, but that can often be refuted with the fact that not all ethical values are considered when coming up with solutions to grand challenges like climate change, world hunger, unequal access to education, and much, much more. Using ethics in sustainability means that humans need to find an objective way to agree on what basic human needs are and whether these will be met for future generations while taking into account moral values across all subsets. This task is not simple by any means, but is instrumental for protecting the lives of current populations as well as the future well-being of other populations and the Earth as a whole.


Comprehension Questions

  1. What is the difference between environmental ethics and ethics in sustainability?
  2. Why can it be so difficult to use ethics when solving sustainability challenges?
  3. What is the role of social ethics within sustainability?
  4. Why is it important to apply a rational mindset to solving sustainability challenges?
  5. What is a goal of ethics in sustainability?
  6. What are some reasons that ethics is overlooked?


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