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Ground Rules for Ethical Ecology

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A reprint from American Scientist the magazine of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society

Tackling environmental crises requires moral as well as scientific clarity

As an environmental ethicist, I routinely sit in meetings where the word “sustainability” is uttered reflexively or employed as blanket justification for almost any program. Often, people utter the word without seriously considering its complex, multilayered meaning. One influential definition of sustainability comes from a 1987 United Nations–sponsored report: “meeting human needs in a socially just manner without depriving ecosystems of their health.” But as Michigan Tech ecologist John A. Vucetich and I pointed out in a 2010 article in BioScience, you can read this definition in many different ways depending on your assumptions of what is “good” and “bad” and how you interpret “human needs” and “eco-system health.” Depending on your perspective, sustainability could mean anything from “exploit as much as desired without infringing on the future ability to exploit as much as desired” to “exploit as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life.”

Document: Nelson_2021_Ethical-Ecology_American-Scientist.pdf  PDF icon

Author(s): Michael Paul Nelson

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