RIT Scholars Seek to Answer Philosophical Questions of Sustainable Development

New book presents ethical solutions to sustainability dilemma

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Evan Selinger

Over the past two decades, sustainability has become a key concept in the protection of the Earth for future generations. Experts argue, though, that diverse definitions of the term and arguments over implementation have hampered its development as a broad strategy and muddied debates surrounding issues such as climate change and resource depletion.

In an effort to better define sustainability, identify its key ethical concepts and explain how technology may advance or hinder sustainable living, a team of scholars from Rochester Institute of Technology has worked with a host of international leaders in the field to produce the book Sustainability Ethics: 5 Questions.

“Through this book we seek to improve theoretical and policy discussions surrounding the contested meanings of sustainability,” says Evan Selinger, associate professor of philosophy at RIT and co-editor of Sustainability Ethics. “We hope that it helps citizens and professionals alike better implement sustainability in society.”

The volume features a host of leading scholars in philosophy and ethics, including Braden Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University, and Bryan Norton, Distinguished Professor in Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, who provide answers to five central questions surrounding the development and use of sustainability. The questions are:

Why is “sustainability” a contested concept?

How is your preferred definition of sustainability better than alternative accounts?

What is sustainability ethics, and how does it differ from more established forms of applied ethics, such as environmental ethics and business ethics?

What unique contributions can the discipline of philosophy make toward enhancing our understanding of what sustainability is and how sustainable goals can be accomplished?

What are the most important topics of future inquiry that sustainability theorists need to investigate?

“Some experts view sustainability simply as a technical concept that can be applied to specific problems such as making a production process more energy efficient while others see it as a moral idea about how we ought to act towards the environment,” says co-editor Wade Robison, the Ezra A. Hale Professor of Applied Ethics at RIT.

“The answers in this book showcase this wide divergence but also illustrate areas of possible compromise through a better understanding of what sustainability means and thus how it can and should be used,” Robison adds.

The book is co-edited by Ryne Raffaelle, an affiliate professor at RIT and director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Center for Photovoltaics. It grew out of the Conference on Sustainability Ethics held in May 2009 at RIT and is part of Automatic Press’ 5 Questions series on key concepts in philosophy.