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A Personal Decision—A Global Impact

Every day new evidence reveals the deterioration of renewable resources, the destruction of habitat, and the impact of industrial production on society. In response, engineers, policy makers, environmentalists, and innovators across the world are attempting to develop better ways of using resources and meeting the needs of the Earth's population without negatively impacting the planet for future generations.

However, for these goals to become a reality and less of an ideology, people, businesses, and governments will be required to make sacrifices for the benefit of future generations and communities. How can sustainability be truly implemented if the actual benefits are years away and do not directly affect today's decision makers? This dilemma is one of the central questions of sustainability ethics.

Faculty members at RIT are developing answers to this question by organizing an international conference and by developing new educational methods in sustainability ethics that will help guide students' problem solving and decision making skills and imbue our next generation of engineers, scientists, and policy makers with a better understanding of the philosophical underpinnings present in the sustainability debate.

Uncovering the Issue

Last spring, RIT hosted a conference on sustainability ethics that brought together five internationally recognized experts to examine the role ethics plays in sustainability. Co-directed by Dr. Ryne Raffaelle, affiliate professor at RIT and director of the National Center for Photovoltaics, Dr. Wade Robison, Ezra A. Hale Professor in Applied Ethics, and Dr. Evan Selinger, associate professor of philosophy, the conference posed five fundamental questions central to the sustainability dilemma.

First, 'Why is sustainability a contested concept?' "Sustainability is about opposites; it is about tensions. And therein lies part of the contest," says Dr. William Shutkin, director of sustainable development and chair of sustainable development at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

For example, earlier this year, Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, well known for one of the world's first models that predicted much of what is happening with the climate, protested against mountaintop coal mining in West Virginia. His recent modeling efforts, along with other scientists' observations, conclude global warming is far greater than he suspected. Hansen believes that unless immediate action is taken, including the shutdown of all the world's coal plants within the next two decades, the planet will experience a devastating climate change. "This is a classic example of the challenges society is facing that hinder the ability to address these critical issues," says Robison. "Most people who agree with the data that supports Hansen's observations disagree with his approach to the solution. There are obvious economic and social implications for Hansen's view of simply shutting down the coal mines. The data shows coal mining is not sustainable; the question is what to do about it."

"It is not just about possible alternatives considered in the abstract, but the considerations of real, local interests," explains Selinger. "The local community asks, 'Why should we have to give up our livelihood to solve this global problem when other people aren't required to make equivalent sacrifices?' People are forced to confront the question of whether their primary obligations are to their families, their local neighbors, or to the global community."

The second question of the conference examined different viewpoints, and asked, 'Why is their definition of sustainability better than alternative accounts?'

When it comes to sustainability, different stakeholders bound the problem in different ways and define it differently. Take, for example, the Precautionary Principle, which states that where there is risk of serious harm, lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason to not take preventive measures. However, what counts as harm, what counts as risk, and how to calculate these risks are all subjective concepts that hamper efforts to address the problem.

Industrialists may see the Precautionary Principle as overly conservative, causing a reduction in economic development that countries need to remain viable and sustainable. However, environmentalists often call for additional precautions to prevent unintended environmental consequences even if it hampers the standard of living for individual communities in the short-run. Policy makers are then required to sift through these differing viewpoints to best meet the needs of their constituencies, needs that may often be different from the needs of communities in other regions or countries. So, a mayor in a coal mining community in West Virginia may push to prevent restrictions on coal to protect the sustainability of his community even if the long-term impact of this decision may actually hurt his constituents.

Sustainability—An Ethical Decision

Sustainability has become part of the mainstream media jargon, with slogans like "Go Green" and "Think Globally, Act Locally." But, behind these buzzwords, people are being asked to take responsibility and make decisions that allow them to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It becomes an ethical dilemma—should people make sacrifices today for the benefit of future generations?

This leads to the third conference question: 'What is sustainability ethics?' For years, people have been studying business ethics and environmental ethics; sustainability ethics contains issues from both of these sub-disciplines. So, is sustainability ethics an extension of these, or something completely new?

Robison compares the idea of sustainability ethics to the evolution of privacy. Today, privacy is an important legal concept, but before 1893 the idea of privacy as a right did not exist. It took a legal case of a woman who found her photograph on a bag of flour without permission to establish the right to privacy.

"This historical story reminds us that privacy had to be invented into law; until this case no one thought about privacy in this way. Looking back you can identify all the situations and cases in which the right to privacy may have applied. And, perhaps we are seeing a similar evolution with sustainability ethics. It is not necessarily a new idea, but a realization and understanding of concepts that already exist," explains Robison.

The issues of sustainability are not just technical issues but issues of values. Sustainability is not just about making more energy-efficient things or finding ways to reuse things so they last longer—that is not the full story. Within all of these challenges is a philosophical question that may require people to make sacrifices that might not be a direct benefit to them.

Influencing Sustainability

The experts were finally asked, 'What contributions can philosophy make?' and 'What are the most important topics of future inquiry?'

"Philosophers can urge practitioners, policy makers, and citizens to avoid the pitfalls of objectivism and orthodoxy and encourage curiosity to experiment with different approaches and continuously strive to improve and refine our latest knowledge, methodologies, and technologies in light of the feedback we receive from physical and social reality," says Shutkin.

To further analyze and address these questions, faculty members at RIT's Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) are developing a series of educational and research programs designed to promote sustainability ethics as an academic discipline.

Sustainability ethics is a key component of the sustainability Ph.D. curriculum, which includes a core course on the subject, taught by Selinger. In addition, through a grant sponsored by the National Science Foundation and in partnership with the University of Arizona, Dr. Thomas Seager, associate professor at GIS, and Selinger, are working to develop an experiential-based lab to expand the sustainability ethics curriculum at RIT.

"Traditional means of teaching ethics through abstract case studies will not teach students how to handle the competing viewpoints of sustainability. Additionally, students, especially engineers, learn best in experimental and experiential environments where they are able to problem solve and see first hand what happens. This is the vision that has helped to shape the sustainability ethics curriculum at RIT," explains Seager.

"By creating a virtual environment, students can anonymously interact and experiment with different ethical strategies with the only consequence being reflected in their grade. It provides students with a safe environment to experiment in and allows students to learn faster in a more robust way," adds Seager.

RIT's sustainability ethics course work looks at classic sustainability problems and places students in the position of an environmentalist, innovator, or regulator. Students come in with their own pre-existing ideas of what is right and wrong and through the deliberative cooperative process learn about classic ethical concepts like fairness and justice. Students experience what it is like to be constrained by interests that drive those roles and what kind of deliberations arise.

"The problems are not solvable in the traditional sense—there isn't one right answer, which for engineers can be frustrating," notes Seager. With each problem there is a simple mathematical representation and some solutions will naturally be better than others, but there may be multiple workable answers.

"Students will fail, they will get frustrated, they will see the right answer but in order to achieve it they will need to convince everyone of their vision, and that is the sustainability problem," says Seager. "We know how to reduce energy use, we know how to be greener for the environment, but the challenge is turning it into a reality.

"At RIT, our goal is provide our students with the education and experiences that will allow them to become well-rounded innovators, so they are not just the best engineers, but are guided by a solid ethical basis for the betterment of their career and the world," he adds.

Broader Outreach

GIS continues to build on these efforts to bring awareness and understanding of the ethical implications of sustainability. The viewpoints of the experts shared at the sustainability conference are being compiled into a book entitled 5 Questions about Sustainability Ethics, expected to be released in the spring of 2010.

Following the development of the experience-based lab for sustainability ethics, the team will host a workshop to train other universities throughout North America on how to deliver the course.

In addition, Selinger, in collaboration with Danish philosophers and the European Union, is co-directing an international sustainability conference next year in Copenhagen.