Wednesday March 23rd, 2011
In Environmental Ethics studies, scholars always talk about the importance of sustainable practices (in agriculture, energy, etc.), but what do they mean by sustainability? Christian Becker’s talk in the recent Sustainability Ethics Conference at Penn State University Park focused on the ethical and philosophical meaning of the term ‘sustainability’. Becker argues that sustainability has an inherently ethical dimension which is complex and requires a new approach to sustainability ethics that can address this complexity. The term ‘sustainability’ should be considered within the context of harmony between our contemporary fellow human beings, future generations, and nature. The term implies a certain type of continuance, orientation, and set of relations that lead us to pose the following philosophical question: What type of system do we want to maintain?
Becker introduces the term ‘sustainable person’ to describe the person who engages in practices that align with principles of sustainability ethics. The important question for the sustainable person becomes “How should I live in regard to the sustainability relations?” The sustainable person has a certain understanding of the human being as emotional, rational, creative, and communicative. (One of the audience members suggested that Becker add being permeable, embedded, and vulnerable to that list of characteristics.) In addition, the sustainable person has a relational sense of identity that acknowledges temporality and interdependence, exhibits virtues such as being respectful and caring, and has relational competencies such as attentiveness and receptiveness.
Drawing on Aristotle’s notion of a virtuous citizen, Becker argues that sustainability is not just an issue of individual morality but also an issue of appropriate development of social and global systems. Sustainability relations are mediated by meta-structures such as science, technology, economy, and social and global systems. Seeing this connection helps us to understand how current structures operate to impede the development of sustainable persons. This forces us to consider the role and responsibility of the ethical individual whose prospects for becoming a ‘sustainable person’ are limited by social and global systems?
As a result Becker emphasizes the need for sustainability research that is based on ethics and philosophy and that considers the individual not as completely independent and autonomous, but as existing within a set of sustainability relations that characterize the development of social and global systems.