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Ventura County Perspective

Future Shaped by Current Habits

Morally and ethically, we need to understand and respect the limits of the Earth's resources and its capacity to absorb pollutants.

March 04, 2001|RON BOTTORFF | Ron Bottorff lives in Newbury Park. His e-mail address is

What is the greatest moral or ethical challenge faced by humanity as we enter the 21st century?

Is it promoting democracy and human rights in totalitarian countries? Avoiding a reemergence of a nuclear arms race? Narrowing the great and steadily growing gulf between the world's rich and poor?

Each of these is an exceptionally pressing issue. I believe the way to address them all is to work to achieve a sustainable society.

Sustainability, in the words of ethicist James Nash, means "living within the bounds of the regenerative, assimilative and carrying capacities of the planet indefinitely, as an expression of a covenant of solidarity with future generations."

That means understanding and respecting the limits of the Earth's resources and its capacity to absorb pollutants in recognition of our accountability for the effects of our decisions on the well-being of future generations.

Today, I would like to focus on the way choices all of us make every day relate to the moral dimensions of sustainability.

Scientists of many persuasions have come to view with increasing alarm the impacts of population growth and resource consumption on the future ecological health of the Earth. If current trends continue, a serious slide in ecological health seems unavoidable and would foreclose any hope of a continued human existence with a reasonable quality of life.

Such an outcome surely would break the covenant with future generations mentioned by Nash. I can't think of a greater moral or ethical transgression.

It seems appropriate to ask: What are we, the richest society in the world, doing about the trends leading to an ecological decline?

The answer, from my reading of recent history, is: not very much.

Yes, we have made some progress in cleaning up our air and our water, and in protecting certain endangered species and preserving ancient forests. Some corporations have begun efforts to "go green"; we have improved energy efficiency a bit, and recycling is off to a good start. But, by and large, most of us seem to be almost totally centered on achieving more economic growth.

We just elected a president who set a record in raising money from corporations and who, based on his published statements, has little understanding of, or interest in, "the regenerative, assimilative and carrying capacities of the planet." It is noteworthy that these issues got virtually no discussion in the recent presidential campaign.

If the achievement of sustainability is a significant moral issue, then consumerism must also be viewed as a moral / ethical issue. Consumerism rose to the fore because, as we became capable of producing more and more, it became necessary to sell more and more. Thus another huge industry, advertising, came to be needed and is now mostly focused on persuading everyone who has money to keep buying more and more and more--not necessities, but luxuries.

The consumerist ethic seems to have captured the hearts of young people now entering college. A recent Times story reported a survey in which 73% of college freshmen said their chief goal in life is to make large sums of money. I find this quite sad and believe that it indicates a great failure on the part of our society in transmitting values to our children.

The whole problem of consumerism really boils down to a set of values, values now heavily entrenched in our economic system. Changing this set of values will be very difficult.


Neva Goodwin, co-director of the Global Development and Environmental Institute at Tufts University, argues persuasively that we are so far from making a change away from consumerism that we can only imagine pieces of such a change. In her book "Consumption, Population and Sustainability: Perspectives From Science and Religion" (Island Press, 2000), she writes that all we can hope to achieve in the near future is to begin a "transition to a transition." I think she has a very strong point.

However, if the answer is a transition to sustainability, then it is up to us to begin that transition.

What overall ethic should we adopt in our quest for global sustainability?

The answer depends, of course, on our most deeply held beliefs and values. Jeremy Bentham's "the greatest good for the greatest number" has been touted by some as the most acceptable overall ethical principle. But this dictum contains one too many "greatests."

We could accommodate a greater number of people by lowering per capita product, or provide a greater per capita product by lowering the number of people. It would seem that we have no choice but to change one of the "greatests" to "sufficient."

Unless one takes the view that it is ethical to use resources for luxuries in the present, thereby depriving future generations of a decent existence, we must opt for sufficient per capita product for the greatest number over time. Only if we eventually manage to achieve this can we claim to have kept "the covenant of solidarity with future generations."

Most people, myself included, do not want to hear that their behavior is compromising the future of humanity, and it is not my intention to convey a message of despair. The despairing position is that we are prisoners of economic growth and cannot change. Humanity does, however, have choices, and we can still opt for a just and sustainable future.

The real message is that we Americans, among the most affluent of all peoples in history, must change our ways--and time is of the essence. A return to pre-industrial conditions is, of course, neither possible nor desirable. What is needed is to begin "the transition to a transition."

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