Interesting article by the philosopher Randall Curren titled, Towards an Ethic of Sustainability (summary below). Is it possible to nurture a sustainability ethic under our current framework of governing institutions? Hmm… Judging from our longue duree of landscape changes driven by urbanization, globalization and the ‘accessibility-pickle’ we’re in (i.e. the compounding vulnerabilities of our access to food or even knowledge to ‘sustainably’ grow it ourselves, in different parts of the world), probably not. HOWEVER, and perhaps lucky for us, we do not live in a predictable, linear universe.
We live in a non-linear, dynamic one with unpredictable emerging properties that coalesce from time to time (i.e. Occupy Wallstreet or Stuart Kauffman’s example – the Swim Bladder in fish). But this doesn’t mean we can easily decouple ourselves from our history that has brought us to the present (i.e. maybe some of the Easter Islanders could see it coming?). In fact, that is precisely where I would direct our attention – to history.
We’re not the first species on the planet to finding ourselves addressing the concerns of sustainability. 251 million years ago, during a short time frame, 70% of the world terrestrial life and 96% of the ocean’s marine life went extinct. This period was known as the “Great Dying”. It is said that we humans descended from a pretty hardy, cow looking reptile that managed to make it through the volcanic soot filled skies and drastically changing climates.
A lot of species DID and DO, in fact, go extinct. The dynamics of the longue duree is where I think we should draw our attention: The chaotic and abrupt ‘shocks’ (extinction periods), as well as the complex biological diversifications that follow (We are no longer reptile cows). From an evolutionary perspective, judging from earth’s long history (based on global space and time scales) and comparing it to our present, we’re definitely not in a complex-biological-diversification period. Biological diversity is disappearing quickly, faster than it did during the period of the “Great Dying.”
So what do we do? I think the first thing we should do is acknowledge the past and present from a plethora of perspectives and interpretations. Our conditions and our communities can and do function and interact across scales – locally, regionally, globally, universally – and over time/history (think of facebook and astroids that wipe out dinosaurs). So before we jump into principles of sustainability, perhaps we should ask “How did we get here?” What were the conditions and interacting forces that brought us to this point in history where we must ask, “How do we sustain ourselves?”
Let’s be honest, people in Western countries make up 20% of the global population yet consume 80% of the world’s resources. Under whose activities and conditions did we get to the question, “How do we globally sustain ourselves?” And whose lifestyles are we concerned about sustaining?
Perhaps we should be globally asking instead, what do we really want? And, how do we get it? We may quickly realize that some people/communities are in a much better social hierarchical position (i.e. dictators) than others (peasants) to address this question. Which may lead us to questions like, why? how? and, is this fair?
Judging, again, from an evolutionary time scale – that humans have only had approx 12,000 years to truly develop the social hierarchies we currently accept and live under – I tend to believe it’s not fair. And that ALL of these principles are really just recommendations to people in positions higher up on the ladder of social hierarchy (if you’re a slave, do you have much of a choice as to whether or not you “diminish natural capital?” Sure, you could revolt based on moral principals. But you may die – or go extinct).
Without, at least, beginning to address the ‘fairness question’ or the ‘power question,’ (across scales) talk of global sustainability and/or stewardship is a pipe dream.
- The first principle of sustainability ethics is: Do not diminish natural capital.
- A second principle: Do not diminish satisfying opportunities to experience nature.
- A third principle of sustainability ethics is, thus: Seek fair terms of cooperation conducive to sustainability
- A fourth principle of sustainability ethics is: Do not obstruct transparency with regard to sustainability.
- a fifth principle:Societies and their governments should create and sustain institutions and systems that are conducive to sustainability and conducive to transparency with respect to sustainability.
- a sixth principle: Do not induce or cause anyone to be in a position of fundamental reliance on vulnerable systems or resources — systems or resources that cannot be relied on without exposure to systemic risk to their fundamental interests.