Monday, April 19, 2010

Underlying Ethics that Motivate Environmental Sustainability

I'm always interested in how to convince people that we need to move to an environmentally sustainable way of life. Currently, the main arguments I hear is about how it is a moral imperitive, and that we need to preserve the earth for future generations. This vision for the world usually includes reaching economic equality for everyone and living healthily. However, I think there are some more fundamental ethics that can lead to the conclusion that we need to live within the ecological limits of the earth.

I have been trying to think about what kind of ethical values I have that made it easy for me to buy into environmentalism. The thing is that I did not need to see much data to be convinced that our way of life is unsustainable in the long term, and that we should do something about it.

For one, I value efficiency of resource use. I was brought up not to waste things so at this point seeing things be wasted like food causes a negative emotional response. This ethic is in opposition with the idea that once you have bought something, it doesn't matter what you do with it. If you can afford it, why not? You have paid your hard earned dollars for it.

The second thing is that I feel all processes should be cyclical. I remember reading about diapers when I was little and realizing that they don't decompose so they'll just sit around in landfills forever. These open loop processes bother me because I always think about what will happen eventually. I feel in my gut that everything should be at a steady state, and there should always be a balance. I'm not really sure why.

I'm still trying to think of a better explanation, but at any rate I think this ethic comes out of Chinese cultural traditions, which has been influenced by Daoism and Buddhism. Daoism is embodied by the yin-yang symbol, which says that nothing is pure and everything is made of a balance of two opposing forces. Buddhist philosophy talks about the Middle Way, and how everything should be done to moderation. It now makes sense to me that Buddhism was founded by a prince, who felt unsatisfied with a life of indulgence and opulence. Now my understanding of Buddhism is that it is about managing your mental state to feel positive and satisfied regardless of the level of your material wealth.

There are probably other ethics that are fundamental to the environmental case.


Kathryn said...

Thanks for the great post - both personal and informative.

You are doing some pretty cool stuff... keep up the good work. : D

Lynn said...

it makes sense to me too, if we have a finite amount of oil and keep chugging away at it, one day we're not going to have anymore. we obviously need a backup plan. this is just one aspect of it, but anyone considering this very basic fact should support renewable energy. other aspects of sustainability and environmentalism should follow suit. For me, personally, it was the idea of sustainable economics that really threw me into environmentalism as a full on believer. I don't think most people will be convinced the way I was, as most people are more interested in emotional tearjerking stories than logic and facts. I do feel it was sound logical arguments that convinced me, rather than a story about global warming. I didn't get 100% of the facts and didn't scrutinize sources that much, but the logic of it flowed with me.