Friday, 24 September, 2021


Sustainability Reconsidered: A Philosophical Pursuit

Dr Kanan Purkayastha

Sustainability Reconsidered: A Philosophical Pursuit
Dr Kanan Purkayastha

In the report 'Our Common Future', also known as Brundtland report published in 1987, sustainable development is defined as the ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. It contains two key concepts: the concept of 'needs', in particular, the essential needs of the world's poor; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs. However, there are some philosophical dimensions of this concept that has been unpacked in this essay.

In his book, ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’, Bjorn Lomberg mentioned a dilemma of a Green family. The story goes on to say that the Green family, in their farmhouse is doing production, but the production process is causing vibration and damage to the building. So, the Green family has options to use machinery less than its full capacity resulting in less income but less vibration damage to buildings or to use machinery with full capacity causing more damage to buildings. An environmentalist will avoid damage to the environment at all costs. So, what is the right option? An environmentalist’s position is unappealing to the Green family for some reasons: First, it is sometimes better to let the earth get more pollution in the short term. It emphasises the role of economic growth to provide the source of solution to the problem. Second, technology is seen as problematic by environmentalists, but future technology will help bring solutions.

I can think of a philosophical concept ‘the ethical egoism’ in relation to the Green family’s problem. It argues that it is right to act in our own best interest.  Philosopher Ayn Rand argued that “Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.” One of the moral arguments in favour of egoism is the ‘airline oxygen mask principle’. This means to secure your own mask first before helping others because if we do not meet our own needs, we would not be able to survive in this context and could not help others. I also like to think about the relational self. One of its leading proponents is Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who stressed that “individualism and egoism must be strictly distinguished”. Nishida Kitaro argues that the greatest human beings display the greatest individuality and that “A society that ignores that individual is anything but a healthy one”. So, the Green family can act for their own interest but that requires them not to be selfish because we do not best care for ourselves by thinking only of ourselves.

On the other hand, we can think about the needs of others if we get some pleasure from it. Philosopher Hume puts it “Every act of virtue or friendship was attended with a secret pleasure.” Hume argued that “I feel pleasure in doing good to my friend because I love him, but do not love him for the sake of that pleasure.” It is only because we care about more than ourselves that it pleases us to care for others.

However, we should remind ourselves what Pope Francis said. In his book, ‘Let us dream: the path to a better future’ Pope Francis maintains that “We are earthly beings, who belong to mother earth, and we cannot simply live at her expense; our relationship with her is reciprocal.” Such reciprocity we can re-examine in the pandemic and economic crisis. It offers a chance to examine our lifestyles, change destructive habits and find more sustainable ways to produce, trade, and transport goods. We can start implementing ecological norms at all levels of society such as moving to renewable energy, respecting biodiversity and guaranteeing access to clean water. Pope Francis reiterates that we must commit to meets the sustainable development goals (SDG) by 2030 and practice “integral ecology, allowing the principle of ecological regeneration to shape the decisions we take at every level”.

Francis opined that “The goods and resources of the earth are meant for all. Fresh air, clean water and a balanced diet are vital for the health and well-being of our peoples. Let us put the regeneration of the earth and universal access to its goods at the heart of our post-Covid-19 future.”

So, we can reconsider sustainability in terms of environmental virtue ethics. One philosophical position in this context is ‘consequentialism’ and the contrasting position is deontology. Both consequentialists and deontologists are primarily concerned over the evaluation of actions and kinds of actions. Consequentialists hold the idea that if an action has good consequences, it is deemed to be morally right and if the consequences are bad then it is deemed to be wrong. Deontologists, in contrast, maintain that the moral worth of some actions does not depend entirely on their consequences, but on other considerations, such as whether the agent acted for the sake of duty.

The goal for sustainable development is not to come up with a mix that will be the favourite of everyone in the world but to make our own the best it can be. This idea is not a global supermarket of ideas. So, picking and mixing will not work. Also, we should not pluck fruit off the plant which needs to grow more.  Bruce Janz said, “Concepts can travel, but not intact.” This may be the case for sustainability. In different contexts, it can emerge as different meanings.

If we rethink the Brundtland formulation of sustainable development, the development in the world’s richer countries is not sustainable. Many would argue that richer nations are also morally obliged to provide aid to and compensate those nations whose citizens are suffering the worst effects of climate change. So, it is time to reconsider sustainability. We need to understand what happened in our environment in the past. Cicero wrote, “To remain ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a child.” Our policymakers need to take account of how the global system-level dynamics work. Both consequentialist and deontologist positions are pertinent in reconsidering sustainability.


The writer is a UK based academic, chartered scientist and environmentalist, columnist and author. He is an elected member of the Oxford Philosophical Society