Sustainability ethics and sustainability research


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There are also institutional enabling factors that can facilitate or block what people can do. A desire to change from a private car to public transport is frustrated if no public transport is available. More sustainable options may simply not exist, or be too expensive for those most in need of them. Communities, businesses and governments must also play their role in facilitating a transition to more sustainable living by providing the necessary infrastructure, products and services.

There is always the challenge of deciding on the appropriate content for values-based education. What moral standards and ethical principles should be included? Most cultures and communities already have some fundamental concepts such as the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They simply need to be placed in the context of more sustainable lifestyles.

Others may be more specifically relevant, such as moderation. From the point of view of systems science Dahl ; Capra and Luisi , we can identify those values that facilitate human relationships and make higher levels of social cohesion and integration possible. Trust and trustworthiness, for example, are essential to everything from governance to business relationships. Just as an individual is a complex system that is growing, building capacities, changing, maturing and acquiring wisdom throughout life, so do all social constructions have their own dynamics as complex and evolving entities, which can achieve higher levels of integration and effectiveness, and demonstrate emergent properties.

Computer programmers, faced with a challenge beyond what a human mind can accomplish, can give instructions to many computers in a neural network and let them evolve and select an optimal solution. In the same way, individual people or human institutions, given a set of ethical principles to put into operation, can evolve solutions relevant to their own capacities, environment and situation, that are coherent in their diversity because they are all expressions of commonly-held values. Systems science also shows how efficiency comes from nested systems at multiple scales of integration, just as cells form tissues, organs and functional systems in the body.

Sustainability values need to be built into all the different components of society, each in their appropriate way for their specific functions. Ultimately, everything should revolve around a common purpose, which can be considered both individually and collectively. For an individual human being, most would consider that human purpose should extend beyond the immediate satisfaction of basic material needs.

People are capable of high social, cultural, scientific, artistic and spiritual accomplishments, so individual human purpose might best be defined as enabling each individual to fulfil his or her highest potential in all the domains of human consciousness. Unfortunately much current economic and psychological theory only depicts human beings as slaves to self-interest. Yet, it is these, and related qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production" BIC Human life inevitably involves a tension between the ego and self-interest that are an essential part of building self-identity in childhood, and the altruism and spirit of service that can be the dominant characteristics of a mature adult.

Much of education and most cultures and spiritual traditions have emphasized the need to struggle against the former and to cultivate the latter. Pragmatically, most of the problems with our social and political systems today result from people failing to make that transition, and remaining driven by a desire for power and self-gratification.

Societies will be much more sustainable if we can design educational processes that assist and accompany young people in this process of maturation. Values-based education can contribute to this. It is important to acknowledge that religions have been a principal source of ethical guidance in the past, and can be important partners in educating the public for sustainability today.

There is a coherence between the values derived from a systems approach and many of those emphasized in various religious traditions that can be a powerful support to the education of believers within those traditions to adopt more sustainable behaviour. The highest collective human purpose would be that everyone can contribute within their capacity to an ever-advancing civilization.

However this needs to look far beyond the narrow view of progress as growth in GDP that has driven present unsustainability Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi We need to redefine prosperity in much more than material terms BIC to include the many other dimensions of human development and well-being Dahl a. A sustainable civilization will probably be much more selective in the forms that material development takes in order to remain within planetary boundaries, while emphasizing growth in social capital, science, culture, beauty and spirituality which do not face the same limits Capra and Luisi There are many occupations that can be oriented to support the transition to sustainability, and a proper education should give each person the scientific, practical and ethical knowledge and skills to contribute some service to society while earning their living.

A systems approach to the redesign of economic activities and social functions should be able to identify many new possibilities for employment in activities that meet human needs while respecting environmental limits, in order to replace those sectors of the economy whose activities threaten our future. There are also critical social skills derived from an ethical perspective.

Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility: Driving Business Value

Much recent research is demonstrating the validity and pertinence of values for sustainability from a systems perspective. Karlberg has explored how a world order characterized by competition, violence, conflict and insecurity can give way to one founded on unity in diversity. A number of lines of research are showing that cooperation rather than competition is the best foundation for social and economic progress i. Nowak and Highfield Beinhocker , summarizing a long tradition in ecological economics, has reconsidered economics from a systems perspective and defined a whole set of norms for individuals, collective behaviour and innovation in enterprises, accompanied by ethical principles for long-term sustainability.

Since no human being is sustainable as an individual we are not going to live forever , social sustainability also requires the transmission of knowledge, culture and values from generation to generation, which is the essential purpose of education. With the emergence of modern information technologies, the youth of today are better informed and more effectively networked than any previous generation. If we can instil in them a culture of learning and the ethical principles necessary for sustainability, the youth can become the principal agents of change, and can transform society in a generation.

It is not possible in a short review to cover all the materials that could support ethical instruction and values-based education.

Institute of Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research

There are three toolkits:. It can be used directly by student groups. Materials are available in several languages and adapted to various faith traditions. An important dimension often overlooked in education for sustainability is direct contact with nature. Being in, understanding and appreciating nature not only provides a foundation for a scientific understanding of the natural world, its contributions and requirements, but also creates an emotional and spiritual resonance that supports a strong environmental ethic.

Many people who have chosen environmental careers or shown a strong environmental sensitivity as adults experienced nature as children, although others have been motivated as much by a strong feeling of justice and equity towards those less fortunate then themselves Howell Unfortunately, in a world that is rapidly urbanizing, an increasing proportion of children have little or no contact with nature, leaving a vacuum in their life experience that may make it more difficult for them to be motivated towards environmental protection and responsible living in harmony with nature later on.

Where the formal educational system is unable or unwilling to provide ethical instruction, families and communities may need to organize in other ways to give their children a foundation of values and social skills that will orient them towards a more sustainable and fulfilling life.

Ethical research issues across the main research topics

This could be with children's classes providing activities and instruction adapted to each age group. Perhaps the most important time for ethical empowerment is the pre-adolescent years from about 11 to 14 when children are leaving the parental fold and adopting their own values and directions in life.


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Groups of pre-adolescents can be accompanied as they read stories about the ethical challenges faced by those of their own age who have faced problem of poverty, civil war and lack of opportunities, and plan and implement their own service projects in their communities. If such young people experience the pleasure that comes from altruistic acts of service, and build confidence in their own abilities to communicate, take charge, and organize their own activities, they will be better prepared to face the challenges of life as they grow up in a positive, constructive way.

Such activities are often best accompanied by youth not much older than themselves, whom they can relate to and communicate with more freely. The local community is also an important educational setting. If children grow up in a community with strong social ties, where respect for diversity and solidarity are important values, this will also give them a good start in life. Such communities, like extended families, can compensate to some extent for failings in the immediate family. The more children grow up with models of ethical and responsible living around them, the easier it will be for them to follow the same path.

Educational systems are some of the most conservative institutions in society, and quite resistant to change. Each generation of teachers is most comfortable with the methods they have learned and practiced in the classroom. In one sense, this is a useful protection against fads and political pressures for change only for the sake of change.

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But it also means that new social needs such as adapting to a more diverse and globalized world, and learning responsible lifestyles can take a long time to introduce into the curriculum. In some countries, religion is a regular part of the curriculum, or schools are run by religious institutions, which insures some ethical instruction at least within one doctrinal framework.

In other countries, education is completely secular, and religion cannot even be mentioned in the classroom. Neither is ideal, as instruction limited to one faith tradition may exclude some important ethical principles for sustainability, and in a secular system, there may be no mention of ethics and religion at all, leaving young people ignorant of a major dimension of human experience and culture.

Many children today have parents who rejected religion in their youth and transmitted nothing to their offspring. Basic questions of life such as its meaning and purpose have never been addressed. Ignorance of religion is often accompanied by prejudice against people with a religious belief, reinforcing social fractures and violations of human rights. To prevent this, the cantonal government of Zurich has adopted weekly religious instruction for the first nine years of schooling, with a curriculum jointly developed by Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Moslems, to present the objective reality of religion as a cultural phenomenon, without sectarian bias.

Values and spirituality are important for children. Values are things that are part of a good life, that provide points of reference.

Economics, ethics and sustainability: redefining connections

Children should have examples of love, and practicing values, with the possibility to fail, stumble, and learn from it. The consumer society is a danger for children, with a globalized and commercialized world of brutal and erotic advertising, with profits for the few, and many losers. Naive inexperienced children cannot resist these pressures and suffer badly. They become passive consumers, dependent financially and with their motivation undermined.

The symposium also noted a decline in social commitment and interest in environmental issues among young people, which is of concern for motivating responsible living.

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It highlighted the need for an ethical component to education, and the damage that is done to young people when this is deficient. In the diverse world of today, where schools have students from many faith traditions and no tradition, it is important that ethics and values be presented with neutrality, sensitivity, and respect for each perspective. There should be no pressure either to accept or reject any belief, but an open process of inquiry and independent investigation of truth.


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This can help to overcome conservatism, and to open each student to the possibility of adapting his or her beliefs to the new requirements of a unified and sustainable world. Some schools have open dialogues, where students can invite representatives of different faiths and ethical perspectives to share their understanding of ethical topics. There can even be partnerships with a range of local traditions and organizations to develop curriculum materials relevant to the local social, cultural and environmental context.


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At the level of university instruction and advanced studies, the ethics of sustainability has been one of the topics most appreciated Dahl It should become a standard part of any curriculum. As the process of globalization continues, driven by new technologies, and the dangers inherent in overshooting planetary limits become increasingly apparent, two processes will be advancing simultaneously.

Those institutions, attitudes and values associated with the consumer society and national sovereignty will push society towards repeated crises and collapse. At the same time, those still embryonic institutions and innovative approaches to building unity in diversity and sustainability in a planetary human system, and the ethical principles that must underlie them, will continue to develop. This is the logical next step in the evolution of human civilization towards higher levels of complexity and systems integration.

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