The Ethics of Sustainable Living
It is of notable interest that in this day and age, one need not search too far in any news source or information outlet to find stories about our environment. We live in a world where decades of pollution, over-consumption, and widespread environmental destruction has left us feeling in a state of unyielding peril. While millions at the base of the economic pyramid already suffer the very real consequences of humanity’s mark on the earth, those near the top are faced with the constant looming omen that, if we maintain our current habits, we will very well spell our own demise. It is not a new phenomenon, and yet many feel that we are only negligibly closer to reaching real solutions to what will likely prove to be our greatest threat: humanity’s continued inability to regulate its own actions for the sake of its very self-preservation.
As a society, we as Americans have certainly come a long way in terms of recognizing our own patterns of consumption and doing, as a whole, the bare minimum to remedy our carbon footprint. Today’s youth appreciate the impermanence of the world’s resources and care about a sustainable earth more than any other generations have been wont to do. “Going green” is a familiar colloquialism within the American vernacular, and the average person has a desire to do their part in making the world a greener, lusher, healthier place for current and future generations to live.
The greatest problem developed societies face is that they shall forever want to have their cake and eat it too. Of course no rational human being wants to destroy the only home they have to leave to their children; but if not destroying that home involves a drastic shift in the level of luxury to which they’ve grown accustomed, the human tendency is to rationalize one’s own destructive behavior. Essentially, the average “privileged” Westerner is willing to do anything short of cramping their own style to save the environment.
Additionally, our society struggles with a feeling of hopelessness surrounding the destruction of the atmosphere, water supplies, and natural resources. In a society that rewards greed, we are faced with countless corporations and mammoth forces exploiting the earth on such a large scale that even our most earnest, concerted efforts can feel meaningless in comparison.
But hopelessness, even if warranted, is unproductive. Rather than feel defeated by a system of consumption that lacks a long term strategy, we as creative thinkers must strive to change the paradigm in which we view our own existence on the face of the earth. We are faced with challenges of cultural relativism, short-sightedness by those at the top whose greed is blinding, and habits of consumption and resource allocation that is reaching a tipping point. What ought we do?
A good place to start may be one of the primary universalities of the human condition: our desire as creatures to care for our own young. Despite all our real or perceived differences, we are all compelled to care for our offspring. It cannot be otherwise, for a group that does not value its young would not long survive. Regardless of the culture, a great deal of thought and concern goes into raising healthy children, so as to carry on the legacy of the culture from whence they are borne. Children that are not cared for are undoubtedly the irrational exception to the rule.
Following this logic, it is not unreasonable to consider the folly of stubbornly keeping our heads in the sand while we know doing so will leave a barren and unforgiving world for future generations of our own. One can liken a desperate and outworn reliance on poisonous, non-renewable fuels to a drug addiction: it is difficult to see its destructive potential without a comparative example of an infinitely cleaner, safer, and healthier alternative that results in the same intended end. And this is precisely what we as a society must choose to cure ourselves – the skewed perception that we are somehow giving something up by turning away from fossil fuels and destructive agricultural techniques. We have been programmed to believe that we have it as best as it gets by a system that vehemently opposes change.
It is not so! We have only just begun to realize how antiquated and imperfect our consumption habits are in an age of unyielding scientific and technological discovery. We have at our fingertips the tools to make the world a truly sustainable place for mankind and the rest of the world’s inhabitants – we must simply embrace change. Our stubborn, self-willed exile from the wonders of sustainable energy solutions has gone on long enough. A shift in the collective consciousness must take place. Only then will we be able to set a true example for the rest of the world.
There is a construct in the philosophical study of ethics that encapsulates the potential solution to our greatest dilemma. Utilitarianism is a theory of ethics that suggests that the morality of any act depends on acting in a way that will result in the most “utility”, over all. It indicates that an act is right if it is in accordance with the correct moral rules. The correct set of moral rules is the set that, if always followed by everyone, would result in the greatest possible amount of happiness.
We must remain aware of what actions we take will result in the greatest possible amount of happiness. And for us to continue to exploit the earth in our same old ways will simply never result in a net surplus of happiness. This earth will repel us, it will purge us from its existence if we refuse to heed her warnings. We won’t take the earth with us; we simply will no longer exist within the earthly realm.
As alarming as it sounds to say so, my words do not represent new or novel concepts. I close with the following verse from Ecclesiastes 1,4:
Men go and come, but Earth abides.
Josef K. Zook