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Earth Day: Living Well Now and in the Future

Most people acknowledge the profound importance of sustainability, but few can define it. We are ethically bound to live sustainably for the sake of future generations, but what does that mean? InLiving Well Now and in the Future, Randall Curren, a philosopher, and Ellen Metzger, a scientist, define sustainabiilty and why it matters. In the following passage, they propose that sustainability can be understood as the art of living well together without diminishing opportunity to live well in the future.

At its core, the language of sustainability is a way of referring to the longterm dependence of human and nonhuman well-being on the natural world in the face of evidence that human activities are damaging the capacity and diminishing the accumulated beneficial products of the natural systems on which we and other species fundamentally rely. What unsustainability implies is that humanity is collectively living in such a way as to diminish opportunities to live well in the future, and the preservation of opportunities to live well presents itself as the overarching normative focus of concern for sustainability. Expressed in these terms, the opportunities for members of nonhuman species to live well matter, just as the opportunities of human beings matter, and many ethicists and moral theorists argue that the quality of life of sentient nonhumans is morally significant. We find these arguments compelling, but we will confine our attention to human well-being in this book. Understanding the nature and ethics of preserving opportunities for human beings to live well is challenging enough for one book.

Clarifying the nature and value of sustainability is our goal, a goal predicated on the conviction that conceptual and moral clarity about sustainability is fundamental to sound decision-making in pursuit of sustainability. We will define a vocabulary of sustainability and identify the relationships between some different forms of sustainability that people have reason to care about. As noted in the introduction, our formulations of terms and definitions will be somewhat reconstructive. Our goal is not to report how sustainability terms actually are used; rather, it is to provide a set of terms that is reasonably precise and analytically clarifying, especially with respect to the normative aspects of sustainability. We locate the importance of sustainability in the preservation of opportunities to live well and convey the urgency of addressing it through a survey of the problems of sustainability that are undermining opportunities to live well in the future.

The language of sustainability has largely displaced the language of environmental conservation, without committing itself to some defining aspects of the logic of conservation. Environmental conservation has signified a responsible and efficient use of natural resources for human benefit, subject to public regulatory oversight and guided by a scientific understanding of resource development and environmental protection. It has long been contrasted with environmental preservation, or the designation of wilderness areas, habitats, or species to be protected from human exploitation. Sustainability is concerned with human well-being much as conservation is, but the conceptualization of sustainability has recognized that the dependence of human well-being on the natural environment is richer and more complex than dependence on “natural resources.”

Further, the pursuit of sustainability has not been limited to conservation strategies. Natural processes of climate and flood regulation are not “resources” that can be removed from nature and put to some use, for instance, but human well-being depends on them. We now know that these processes are being disrupted by human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels, so a more encompassing concept than that of natural resources is needed. We also know that the impact of human activities is global in reach, cumulative in effect, and remarkably persistent. The impact of our present activities on global climate and ocean chemistry will persist on the order of ten thousand years, and the persistence of impact on biodiversity will be a couple of orders of magnitude beyond that. Thinking about sustainability has thus developed in connection with new ways of conceptualizing human dependence on nature. The concepts of natural capital and an ecological footprint are widely used to catalog the forms of such dependence and express the extent of overreliance in terms that are easily understood. The value of ecological footprint analysis (EFA) as a basis for policy is hotly debated, but EFA estimations of human burdens on natural systems are ubiquitous and a useful point of departure. 

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Is a daily commute from home to work and back a unit of consumption? Let’s suppose it is. The footprint intensity of a daily commute is largely a function of the footprint intensity of energy and structural aspects of urban settings and their transportation systems. What is the distance from affordable and desirable housing to workplaces? How extensive is public transportation, and is it used by enough passengers to yield a substantially lower footprint per commute than that entailed by use of personal vehicles? To what extent is walking or bicycling feasible? Are there sidewalks for pedestrians? Safe bicycle lanes? Options for combining bicycle and tram? Can shops be reached on foot, or are they concentrated on the suburban fringe? Many choices regarding urban design and thereby sustainability are no less public choices than the imposition of a carbon tax would be. Therefore, although it is useful to encourage individual lifestyle changes conducive to sustainability, it is also important to understand the role of systems, settings, and structures in shaping individual choices and to encourage cooperation in public action and public-private partnerships to make these determinants of individual choice more conducive to sustainability

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