The ethics of sustainability are the ethics of enlightened self-interest

Towards a
 Philosophy of


The Ethics of Sustainability (as the basis of an alternative socio-economic order) are the ethics of enlightened self-interest.

The fundamental flaw in the existing socio-economic order is that it is based, not on enlightened self-interest, but largely on the primitive, short-sighted self-interests of our "more animal than human " nature.

Recalling the analogy of the Straw(s) that Broke the Camel's Back, we all - should, at least - have a fundamental and overriding interest in the survival and well-being of our children and coming generations, and thus in not breaking the camel's back. This means that we must stop plundering our planet and quickly develop an economy and lifestyles that are sustainable (for 7-9 billion people).

Why are we not doing so, but behaving as though we don't care about our children and those who come after us, when I am sure that most of us do care?

Because we are blind to, or in denial of, what we are doing. Added to which, our primitive, animal nature holds sway, not just in us as individuals, but also in the socio-economic structures that are so deeply rooted in it; and because we are addicted (quite literally) to our growth-dependent economy and the grossly materialistic lifestyles it engenders.

We have been brought up to assume that the poor are the world's biggest problem - and how convenient it is to be able to point the finger of blame at others. In fact, it is the RICH who are a far bigger problem; not simply because they (we) place a far greater per capita drain and strain on our planet's limited resources and carrying capacity than the poor, but even more importantly, because they (we) act as role models, whose non-sustainable, extravagantly materialistic lifestyles billions of others are seeking to emulate.

At the same time, we (especially the more wealthy among us) invest money, with the principle aim of making more money, in enterprises that fly in the face of sustainability - because the most money is to be made from plundering, not preserving, our planet.

If the world's role models and trendsetters are admired and glorified, as they generally are in the media, for their material "success" and wholly non-sustainable lifestyles, what hope is there of persuading others to live sustainably?

It is not money itself that is the problem (see Money, Morals & Sustainability), but the values, attitudes and aspirations (rooted in our "more animal than human " nature) which determine how we use it.

The best environmental legislation and technology in the world will not help us achieve sustainability if we continue clinging to an economy and lifestyles (in fact, our whole socio-economic order) based on values, attitudes and aspirations (also fears and greeds) rooted of our "more animal than human " nature.

We have to create a society and economy based instead on the values, attitudes and aspirations that are rooted in our more enlightened, far less materialistic, human nature. These will constitute the "Ethics of Sustainability".

A wise rabbi was once asked to sum up Jewish law (ethics) in a single sentence. His reply: "Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself". Or words to that effect. All the rest, he said, was commentary. Applied to the "ethics of sustainability ", one need only to include coming generations among the "others" to whom we should do as we would have done unto ourselves. Certainly as Europeans, we have much to be thankful to our ancestors for (for developing the science, technology and socio-political attitudes that make our lives so much better than their own), but will our descendents be able to say the same of us?

The "ethics of sustainability " are about each of us placing a fair and sustainable share of straws on the camel's back (representing Earth's finite resources and carrying capacity), determined, not just, but very largely by how we earn, spend and invest our money. The details of how best to achieve this goal will be much argued over, but it is essential that in so doing we do not lose sight of the goal itself.

In the past, revolutionaries and reformers (often inspired by their more enlightened, human nature) tried with varying degrees of failure, more than success, to change society for the better. Why so little success? Because of the massive vested interests that exist in any status quo, and because of man's more animal than human nature, not just in those resisting change, but in those advocating and implementing it as well.

However, if we are to have any hope at all of achieving sustainability before it is too late, there has to be a revolution. Reform of the existing socio-economic order would be far too slow. But the revolution I have in mind does not aim at overthrowing the existing order, but in creating an alternative (based on our more enlightened, human nature) to replace it. As this alternative grows (and keeping it clearly distinct and distinguishable is essential), people will be able to transfer more and more of their activities and dependencies from one to the other - not under coercion, but when they are ready (i.e. as they come out of denial and recognise what is at stake for their children and coming generations), and at their own pace. 

It will not be a monolithic or “mass” society, as at present, but a “participatory democracy ”, made up of many "religious societies ", with genuine rather than superficial diversity.

What do I mean by religious societies ?

The word, religion, is derived from Latin "re ligare", meaning "to tie or bind together".  What I mean is societies, groups of people (households, communities, cooperatives, companies, etc.), all bound together by the Ethics of Sustainability, but each with its own more particular moral code, culture, history, ethnic composition, etc. Everyone should be free to join (by mutually consent) the religious society of their choice, or to found a new one.

The most suitable generic name that I can think of for this alternative socio-economic order (of religious societies) is "Society of Friends of the Earth".

My own particular religious society (which only exists in my mind at the moment), since I'm its only member and jealously wish to preserve my right to determine its constitution, I appropriately, if somewhat vainly, call Roger's World.


Work in progress