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Sustainability: will we recognize it when we see it?


July 12, 2010
By Dave Harrison

July 12, 2010 – Most people today
embrace sustainability as
a good thing, and it may be the greatest technological challenge our
society
has ever faced. But, in a
paper just published in the journal BioScience,
Michigan Technological University wildlife ecologist John A. Vucetich
and
Michigan State University environmental ethicist Michael Nelson say that
the
technological challenge of sustainability pales in comparison to the
ethical
crisis it presents to society.

July 12, 2010 – Most people today embrace sustainability as
a good thing, and it may be the greatest technological challenge our
society
has ever faced. But, in a paper just published in the journal
BioScience,
Michigan Technological University wildlife ecologist John A. Vucetich
and
Michigan State University environmental ethicist Michael Nelson say that
the
technological challenge of sustainability pales in comparison to the
ethical
crisis it presents to society.

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In a paper titled “Sustainability: Virtuous or Vulgar?,”
Vucetich and Nelson examine the most widely-accepted definitions of
sustainability, which indicate at least roughly that sustainability is: meeting
human needs in a socially-just manner without depriving ecosystems of their
health. While the definition sounds quite specific, it could mean anything from
“exploit as much as desired without infringing on the future ability to exploit
as much as desired” to “exploit as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful
life,” the scientist and ethicist say.

“From a single definition arise two wildly disparate views
of a sustainable world,” says Vucetich, who teaches in Michigan Tech’s School
of Forest Resources and Environmental Science and leads a long-running study of
the wolves and moose of Isle Royale National Park. “Handling these disparate
views 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, is ecosystem health defined only by its ability to meet human
needs, or does ecosystem health define the limits of human need?”

Solving the dilemma boils down to knowing the extent to
which sustainability is motivated by concern for nature. Or as Vucetich puts
it: “Are we concerned for nature because nature is intrinsically valuable, or
only because of what nature can do for us?”

Nelson adds that, “these questions are as difficult to answer as
it is necessary to answer them. We are unlikely to achieve sustainability
without knowing what it means.”

More disturbingly, Vucetich and Nelson point out that almost
no effort is spent trying to answer this question. For example, universities have
hired dozens of academics in recent years to solve sustainability problems.
None of these academics work on the ethical crisis of sustainability. Likewise,
the National Science Foundation’s interdisciplinary funding program for
sustainability research makes no reference to ethics, and the word “ethic”
appears in only one of the titles, abstracts or keywords of the 119 projects
funded so far.

Vucetich and Nelson do not advance a particular
interpretation of sustainability. Rather they show us why it is so important
that all segments of society–academics and the general public, the public and
private sectors–confront the inescapable dilemma that sustainability
represents.

“The first goal ought to be a citizenry that has enough
ethical knowledge to be able to just talk about these issues intelligently,”
Vucetich says. Nelson goes on to say “This is unlikely to 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 that, “if we attain sustainability, it will not
only require critical changes in technology, but also the most profound shift
in ethical thought witnessed in the last four centuries."


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