Published: July 1, 2010

Ethical issues ignored in sustainability education, research

Contact(s): Tom Oswald Media Communications office: (517) 432-0920 cell: (517) 281-7129 Tom.Oswald@cabs.msu.edu, Michael Nelson Lyman Briggs College office: (517) 353-4879 mpnelson@msu.edu

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Just about everyone agrees that sustainability – cutting energy use, reducing carbon emissions and, in general, keeping the Earth green – is a good thing. But why do we think that? Do we support sustainability for the right reasons?

These are among the questions that Michigan State University’s Michael Nelson addresses in a paper published this month in the journal Bioscience titled “Sustainability: Virtuous or Vulgar?”

Specifically, Nelson and co-author John Vucetich of Michigan Technological University argue that the issue of ethics is a vital component in the teaching and research of sustainability, but one that is sorely lacking.

“This debate,” they write, “has almost entirely neglected a fundamental dimension of sustainability – the ethical dimension. Lack of attention to the ethical dimension of sustainability is stifling progress toward sustainability.”

Or, as Nelson puts it: “If we don’t know where we’re going, we won’t know when we get there.”

Nelson said that from the educational perspective, it’s important that all aspects of sustainability are covered.

“Everything we do sends messages to our students,” he said. “We see our students as people who will go out and do important things in this world. It’s important how we nurture that.”

The ultimate question, the authors say, is this: “Do we care about ecosystem health because ecosystems are intrinsically valuable, or do we care about ecosystem health because it serves human interests?”

While a question such as this is difficult to answer, Nelson said that “we are unlikely to achieve sustainability without knowing what it means.”

In their paper, Nelson and Vucetich consider the most widely appreciated definitions of sustainability, which indicate at least roughly that sustainability is “meeting human needs in a socially just manner without depriving ecosystems of their health.”

While the definition seems quite specific, it could mean anything from “exploit as much as desired without infringing on the future ability to exploit as much as desired” to “exploit as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life.”
 
“From a single definition rises two wildly disparate views of a sustainable world,” said Vucetich. “Handling these disparate views is the inescapable ethical crisis of sustainability.”

“The crisis results from not knowing what we mean by value-laden terms like ‘ecosystem health’ and ‘human needs,’” Nelson said. “In other words, is ecosystem health defined by its ability to meet human needs only, or does ecosystem health define the limits of human need?”

Nelson is an associate professor with appointments in MSU’s Lyman Briggs College and the departments of Fisheries and Wildlife and Philosophy. Vucetich is an assistant professor in MTU’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science.

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