Is sustainability an ethical issue?
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Exploring the Ethical Aspects of Sustainability

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Mar. 26 2021, Published 11:03 a.m. ET

At Green Matters, sustainability is often considered paramount among the environmental concepts that we discuss. This is because eating, shopping, and living sustainably are all means to achieving a truly eco-conscious lifestyle. Thus, achieving a sustainable lifestyle ends up becoming something of a moral imperative. The philosophical challenges this presents are myriad, but does this ultimately mean that sustainability is an ethical issue or something else entirely? 

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is sustainability ethical issue
Source: Getty Images

Is sustainability an ethical issue?

If one were to look for a high-level answer to this question, the answer would, of course, be yes. Ethics and environmental sustainability often go hand in hand. Ethics concerns the guiding principles that enable our species to live a cooperative, moral existence. According to the Center for Humans and Nature, ethics is also inseparable from the ideas of justice, consequence, and proper use of authority. 

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These concepts coincide with sustainability on several levels, according to the Center for Humans and Nature. Living sustainability involves living within the physical and moral constraints of what our planet has to offer. Choosing to live sustainably means making a moral commitment to the Earth, its resources, its flora, and its fauna, while also recognizing that there are other webs of interconnectivity that exist between those aspects and ourselves. 

is sustainability ethical issue
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How are ethics and sustainability working against one another?

Sustainability and ethics are still separate concepts, mind you. Practices that might be considered sustainable might not be considered ethical, such as displacing an impoverished village in order to make room for a solar farm. Some would say that the ends justify the means in this case — that the people being displaced are, however inadvertently, helping to ensure continued access to renewable sources of energy. However, the situation presents the moral issue of displacing a impoverished community.

This example brings up some good questions regarding two important aspects of sustainability: pollution and poverty. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), when the U.S. tried to solve the environmental problems caused by toxic compounds like DDT, PCB, and smog, they did so only within the confines of their own country, heedless of the fact that the rest of the world still had to deal with those problems and more.

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Over the next few decades, eco-conscious Americans continued to eschew toxic chemicals and engaged in regular recycling. Unfortunately, this meant that other, less fortunate countries would have to take on the burden of our excess trash and recycling waste. According to Last Week Tonight, even today, we continue to become “more sustainable” while simultaneously shunting the problem off to other countries.

is sustainability ethical issue
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What does an ethical, sustainable society look like?

The questions raised by the above scenarios are not new. Achieving sustainability through an ethical lens is not as easy as it seems. A truly sustainable, ethical society would take everything into account: the environmental, the economic, and the social. A good example of this concept is the three pillars of sustainability. There is a clear balance hidden within those pillars that is both viable and attainable.

The first step is to enact worldwide policy changes that affect all people, not only those in wealthy or privileged countries. The Paris Agreement is a good way to begin because it promotes a global response to the problems faced by climate change. If we can do the same with the other problems faced by our species’ own unsustainable practices, then we might just succeed. 

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