In many ways, the concept of sustainability is vitally important. Humanity desperately needs to change its practices if it is to sustain a climate in which it can thrive. Moreover, as it is defined by the United Nations within international law, the concept of sustainability is valuable because it helps to introduce an intergenerational focus. The concept of sustainability moves people past the myopia of the present, requiring that in meeting its needs the present generation should not comprise the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Despite its importance, however, I question whether the sustainability paradigm ultimately provides an adequate moral framework for confronting climate change. In Riders in the Storm I present three critiques of sustainability as an inadequate moral concept that is: (1) anthropocentric, (2) technophilic, and (3) morally vacuous. In this post I’d like to bring attention to the second of these points.
For a time, biologists even defined humans in terms of their engineering prowess—referring to them as Homo faber, man the maker—until Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees making rudimentary tools. For decades, literature and popular media have attempted to conceive of the bright and shiny technological utopia that awaits society in the future.
For instance, the cartoon classic The Jetsons, which first aired in the 1960s, depicts everything that mid-twentieth-century America wanted—flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks, and jet packs! Many such innovations have in fact come into existence, including moving sidewalks (e.g., in airports) and vacuuming robots (e.g., Roomba). Though flying cars and jet packs remain absent, humanity’s technophilia or love of technology seems to know no bounds. For thousands of years humans have successfully used technology to overcome physical limitations. In one of the more remarkable feats, NASA recently landed a car-size, laser-toting, plutonium-powered robot on the surface of Mars.
Perhaps, though, the future The Jetsons envisioned is as much a depiction of an environmental dystopia as a technological utopia. The cartoon depicts a world utterly devoid of nature. Indeed, human civilization does not even live on the surface of the planet anymore; homes, stores, schools, and factories sit on tall columns far above it. When venturing “outside,” each person is encased in a bubble, presumably because the atmosphere is too thin. While the creators of the show no doubt wanted to depict life in space, the possibility that humans will foul the planet so much as to make it impossible to live on its surface seems within reach.
Maybe The Jetsons should not be viewed as the model for a bright and shiny future but rather as a cautionary tale like the 2008 animated movie WALL-E, which depicts a planet so polluted by rampant consumerism that humans have had to abandon it. In that film, humans live far from Earth in a giant spaceship, where robots wait on them hand and foot. Obese people float around on hovering chairs, drinking all of their calories in liquid form and only interacting with the humans around them through screens. Though fictional, The Jetsons and WALL-E present one possible outcome of a complete and uncritical reliance on technology.
Engineers often ask “how” questions: How can we put a rover on Mars? How can we create cleaner forms of energy production and transportation? Economists then talk about achieving those aims efficiently. The “should” questions, however, often remain unasked. These are the questions that ethics must consider. It is one thing to ask, “Can we survive in a post-climate-change world?” or “Can Earth support 12 billion people?” It is quite another to ask, “Should we aspire to live in a world devoid of nature?” Neither engineering nor economics can advise humanity on what its aims should be or whether it should concern itself with achieving them efficiently. Only one’s values, one’s ethics, can answer these questions. Even if technology could create a Jetsons-like future, should it? Do humans want to live in a stainless steel world where nature is completely absent?
My the sustainability paradigm, then, is that it potentially reduces a fundamentally moral issue concerning how humanity ought to live to a technical issue in need of “management.” As the philosopher Dale Jamieson argues,
Management approaches are doomed to failure . . . [because] the questions they can answer are not the ones that are most important and profound. . . . The questions that such possibilities [such as climate change] pose are fundamental questions of morality. They concern how we ought to live, what kinds of societies we want, and how we should relate to nature and other forms of life.
Too often the sustainability paradigm encourages the reduction of morality to a social scientific analysis of economic values achievable through technological innovation. It outsources morality to economics and engineering. They argue that developing and deploying cleaner forms of technology, while certainly needed, is not enough. Humans also need to rethink who they are and how they relate to the natural world, to re-envision how they conceive of a good life well lived.
For more on this, see chapter four of Riders in the Storm.
 Jamieson, “Ethics, Public Policy, and Global Warming,” 147.
 Ibid., 146–47.