Sustainability is an issue of Ethics, not Technology
With good science, common sense and a well thought-out moral/ethical base, we will be well-equipped to develop meaningful policies for sustainable development.
Sustainability is an issue of Ethics, not Technology - Abstract
The currently-dominant world view suggests that Humanity can do anything it chooses, and there are no problems that cannot be solved. A more cautious view suggests that our economy is on a collision course with the natural systems of the world. The main problem in reconciling these conflicting opinions - and achieving sustainable development - is that the real world is too complex for us to be sure about whether what we are doing will actually achieve our aims. This paper suggests that, rather than more technology, what people need is the opportunity to be involved in examining the ethics of what we are doing. With good science, common sense and a well thought-out moral/ethical base, we will be well-equipped to develop meaningful policies for sustainable development.
Sustainability is an issue of Ethics, not Technology
Our country - like most other countries in the world - is run according to a world view that implicitly assumes that there are no problems humanity cannot overcome. Parallel to this is another world view, which asserts that our own economy, and most others, is currently on a collision course with the natural systems of the world.
How do we reconcile these opposing and largely incompatible views? When faced with questions such as this, there are no ready-made answers. It is my contention that we as a society should be engaged in a learning process that will enable us to illuminate some of the values and visions of the people. That in turn would provide the base from which we could build an appropriate consensus for policy-making. Democracy now, and future generations, deserve a creative response, and an informed debate about the future. My purpose here is to argue for a morally-informed ethics as the base for that debate, not simply economics or technology.
There is, however, a problem - that of complexity. According to some authors, even if some well-known basic principles of sustainability are accepted, complexity gives rise to two problems that are often overlooked: Nature is too complex for us to know whether the principles [of sustainability] are being observed; and Society is too complex for us to know whether the principles are being implemented and results achieved..
Potentially the most useful response to these problems comes from the coevolutionary approach. In the conventional, “linear” view, knowledge gives rise to new uses of natural resources and an economic output. A coevolutionary perspective, on the other hand, stresses the interdependence of everything, and the societal processes of development.
From the linear viewpoint, norms and the environment are independent of economic development. From the coevolutionary viewpoint, values, knowledge, social organization, technologies and the natural environment influence each other, in such a way that development is coevolution of the total system. From the latter perspective, everything is symmetrically related to everything else. Nothing is exogenous. In such a situation, sustainable development is no longer a simple concept and cannot be mechanistically operationalised. Ways of thinking that enabled technology and society to make spectacular advances over the last two centuries are seen to be inadequate, when we face the challenges of the future. As one writer puts it :
The challenge of sustainable development is to derive a viable image of the future - to change the vocabulary of our political discourse, and thereby the decisions we make so that a patchwork of coevolutions of social organisation, knowledge, technology, values and equal systems is sustainable.
Unfortunately, our everyday understanding of sustainable development has yet to be matched by change in the network of laws and learned behaviours that guide us in our everyday activities. This may be because we do not yet know enough to be able to reliably “steer” society in the direction of sustainable development. Physics, ecology, biology, psychology and economics appear to be inadequate, on their own, to help us in the search for sustainability, although they can help us identify the appropriate direction, towards which we should move. (Or perhaps more realistically, they can help us identify the direction in which we should not be moving!)
The obvious response is to begin introducing policies towards a new way of doing things, in time to achieve changes before any crash occurs. But given the indeterminacy inherent in the evolution of any open system, we do not know the likely crash date, and hence do not know when we must start to take action. The Precautionary Principle would suggest that action be initiated earlier rather than later, and across a broad front.
In this context, understanding the meaning of coevolutionary sustainability can be seen as a first step towards identifying a direction for policy in social and natural evolution. It basically means that development paths that pose serious threats to continued social and ecosystem health should be avoided.
The many usages of the term “sustainable” are actually interrelated, if seen as parts of the total system of Life. The primary question of sustainability is whether the larger system is sustainable, since sustainability of any one part is only meaningful if its relationships to other parts and to the whole are also sustainable. How, then, to develop policy that addresses the complex whole rather than just one or more of its (apparently simple) parts? To expect simple perspectives - whether from politics, science, technology, management theory or economics - to deal with policy to handle complexity is naive.
Goals and visions of the future derive from the worldviews held by people. As mentioned above, there are as a broad generalisation, two common worldviews. These are identified in more detail by Costanza  as Technological Optimism and Technological Scepticism. The first assumes that there are no problems that science and technology cannot solve. The second adopts a position of healthy scepticism (NB scepticism is not the same as pessimism!) - See below.
Technical progress can deal with any future challenge
Technical progress limited, ecological carrying capacity must be preserved
Complex, nonlinear systems with disconinuities and irreversibilities
Human in partnership with nature
Partnership with others
Market as servant of larger goals
Each of these worldview scenarios has two variants, depending upon whether or not the world actually turns out as the Optimist expected (Positive version) or not (Negative version):
I think these four versions (scenarios) of the future are useful in helping us to think clearly about the future. If a government chooses to plan on the Optimist’s basis that everything will turn out well, but things don't actually happen that way, then a Mad Max outcome will be disastrous. If, on the other hand, it takes the Sceptic’s position and then finds out things turn out better than feared, the result may be more intervention and bureaucracy than necessary, but civilized life will go on. Only one of the four scenario outcomes is a disaster - and it eventuates from overoptimism. A precautionary (sceptical) approach to planning preserves stability and is the most likely to ensure true sustainable development.
Today’s debates about globalization and genetic modification are good examples of areas where the Star Trek vision is dominant, but where the Mad Max outcome is quite believable. These alternatives encourage me towards use of the precautionary principle, where good science, common sense and a well-thought-out moral/ethical base will be more helpful for long-term policymaking than simplistic slogans.
Expert scientific knowledge will influence the process of search and selection of (for example) indicators that can appropriately reflect basic requirements of system viability. However, if the outcome is to respond to the needs of the people within the system, as well as to the encompassing ecosystem, that process should actually be shaped by the values of a much wider community than that of experts.
Choosing an indicator is a popular way of addressing the need to fix up something that is not right, by identifying a community concern and then linking to an action to correct it. Measurement of key social indicators relevant to community wellbeing provides the feedback measurement which, linked with a goal determined using social values, shows whether action is needed. Social processes may then be invoked to achieve outcomes which “close the loop” and improve quality of life. But the whole process is “driven” by the social values which, together with visions of the future, determine the nature of the goal. These values are essentially moral, and they apply whether the aims are social, ecological or economic or (preferably) all three. How they are enunciated and put into practice is the key question.
In a context such as this, indigenous peoples, especially the tangata whenua of Aotearoa, often have a much clearer understanding of relationships, reciprocities, priorities and values in complex systems than is available from the more circumscribed notions of conventional Western European, including “scientific” and “economic”, belief structures.
How could such an approach be used in practice? More to the point, how can local knowledge and accumulated wisdom of people in communities be incorporated into the expert-dominated process of determining whether a system is viable, and whether it is proceeding towards or away from its goal? Related to this is the question of how experts can be induced to let go of some of their power, while still remaining within the loop and continuing to contribute to the process as a whole.
Approaches towards answering these questions are part of the agenda of adult and community education groups everywhere. Key to the processes is the central question, of whether the primary goal of humanity is something other than the pursuit of "more", and if so, by what means. That is a question of community ethics, guided by social morality, and must not be left to the experts or power structures.
As a starting point for discussion, the following ethical statement about sustainable development has been accepted by a wide range of community groups in Aotearoa New Zealand: All people have their basic needs satisfied, so they can live in dignity, in healthy communities, while having the minimum adverse impact on natural systems, now and in the future. Using this ethic, initiatives for sustainability can be tested and consensus developed.
References and Notes
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