Building an ecological civilization will be accompanied by a basic change in our consciousness, common sense, and behavior. Ecological values will supplant industrial values. Sustainability will emerge as a core motive, practical means, and end. Economic growth that means ecological improvement, not ecological destruction, can replace the uncritical industrial evermore as motive and guide. The spirit of a new Golden Rule: nurture the earth, and the earth will nurture us, valuing the biosphere, will inform the ecological common sense of the 21st century.

Toward an ecological ethics

Ecological ethics and morals will shape our sense of the good, of what is possible and desirable. These ethics can enliven the dreams of our children. They will shape our imaginations and creative use of our human energy, our entrepreneurship, our literature, and our songs, poetry and philosophy. Ecological ethics will inform our conceptions of who we are and what we want and can become. They should emerge as the basis for our new common sense and a guide to behavior and cultural credos. Ecological values will become part of democratic conversation and debate as we undertake practical measures in response to necessity. We do not have to transform ourselves before we begin to transform the world. The flowering of a diverse ecological ethics will be inseparable from our journey from industrialism to ecological civilization.

Sustainability concerns the consequences of economic growth. As ethic, it is inextricably tied to the practical and to the circumstances of our lives, both material and philosophical. Sustainability will indeed mean major changes in unsustainable business as usual. Change is inevitable. What’s at stake is the nature of these changes. That’s a policy question, a matter, above all, of what we must do in response to industrial reality.

Sustainability and ecological ethics do not mean an end to markets, or democracy, or freedom. That’s fortunate. Sustainability’s practical definition means making economic growth mean ecological improvement. What is crucial, is to get the prices right and make the market send signals for sustainability.

Sustainable development has been broadly defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainability’s precise meanings still await clearer definition though social practice.

Sustainability has both a practical effect and a moral valence. Ethics and morality are not merely the froth upon the ocean of sustainability. They represent a co-evolving part of the democratic conversation about what will be an ongoing process of change in all aspects of our lives and livelihoods as we transform an industrial civilization to an ecological one.

Ecological values cannot be imposed upon the industrial crowd. We will not wake up one morning and all realize precisely what we must do. Ecological values cannot be legislated or decreed. And a universal and eternally valid ecological value system will not magically be discovered. As Patrick Curry indicates in Ecological Ethics (2006), it is the very unbounded limitlessness of such a conceit that reflects an industrial as opposed to an ecological social order and value system.

Our task is not to banish the seven deadly sins. We cannot eliminate gluttony, avarice, and greed. We cannot predicate the building of an ecological civilization upon perfect behavior and unbounded selflessness. Our challenge is not to ban shopping and consumerism. What matters is what we buy and what we consume. The grand movement toward a sustainable civilization will not be crippled if you yearn to purchase the most prestigious and feature laden software. What counts are ecological consequences and ecological justice.

Nevertheless, if we continue to consume and pollute at a rate that would require five planet earths to sustain, we will find ourselves collectively plunged into a dire and intractable poverty. Business as usual threatens collapse and involuntary stringencies and limits upon our lives and freedom far beyond any effects of new price signals from the adoption of sustainable market rules. which make polluting products more expensive. Getting the prices right is far less daunting a task than a project to ban gluttony and human excess.

Ecological ethics emerge

The good news is that the growth and development of ecological values will accompany our pursuit of the ecological imperative in response to industrial excess. We are in the midst of the emergence of ecological conduct and sustainability transforming an industrial market place and global system. The consequences and costs of industrial activity are manifest and can no longer be ignored. It is precisely the policies we adopt, for example, ecological market rules and eco-taxes that makes decreasing pollution lead to increasing profits, which are the concomitants for the rise of ecological values.

Ecological ethics will evolve and express, as all ethical systems do, a particular set and setting. Aristotle discussed the good life and the choices to be made by elites while lecturing from Nicomachean Ethics to an audience of young Athenian men of inherited wealth and property. Our ecological ethics, in contrast, are addressed to the billions of the industrial world in a transition to a sustainable ecological democracy. Ecological ethics are important in helping clarify and facilitate the constructive choices to be made by an ecological democracy. Central is the pursuit of actions, lifeways, programs and policies that manifest sustainability and transform economic growth into a force that results in ecological improvement, not ecological destruction. Slavish attempts at ethical and ideological perfection, whether green, red, black, or red white and blue will become a fetish and fetter upon an ecological turn.

There are many ways to reach sustainable ends. Not poisoning the lake with a chemical may be the result of the reformist adoption of the precautionary principle that demands thorough testing of toxicity before use, encouraged by ecological taxes; or, alternatively, it may be a consequence of the development of an industrial ecological process that results in zero discharges; or the abandonment of toxic technology and embrace of sustainable natural filtration methods motivated by our belief in supporting the integrity of ecosystems in accord with the land ethic; or valuing the health of the mussels, algae, and microorganisms and their community more than human benefits and profits from our toxic process similarly backstopped by ecological taxation that shapes markets.

There are many paths to the practice of sustainability and an ecological democracy. Each begins from where we are. It is this welter of change, of discussion, experiment, success and failure, invention and discovery that reflects the work of an ecological democracy.

Sustainability can be the expression of a Kantian categorical imperative treating both other people and the ecosystems, of which we are part, as an end and not a means. It can be the expression of a Benthamite utilitarianism that finds the greatest good and the minimization of pain encompassing not just all people but the entire ecosphere. It can be the expression of an Aristotelian virtue that expresses the practice of a stewardship and personal excellence encompassing not just our behavior and conduct as it affects people, but as it impacts all aspects of the world around us.

Sustainability can be the application of John Rawls’ original position and difference principle to include the maintenance of the health of the ecosphere and the fair distribution of a social minimum. It can be the expansion of the duties of John Nozick’s minimal state to include protecting the environment and the adoption of sustainable market rules.

There are many roads and many doors leading toward an ecological civilization. How less likely would our prospects for success be if there were but one. The present is hardly clear, the future an even greater mystery. We do not even have a common definition of sustainability, let alone a clear program of how to get there. Humility and creative action is in order, not arrogant pronouncements. There are an enormous range of possible opportunities for constructive change. Any particular venue can not be anointed in advance as the best of choices with a realistic understanding of the probability of success.

What’s of central concern is not the debates of philosophers, priests, and pundits over the virtues and validity of competing ecological value systems, whether deep or shallow, spiritual or materialist, radical or reformist, ecocentric or anthropocentric. What we do, not why we do it, is what matters most.

To embrace the supremacy of the single abstracted why over what is to accept the primacy of a world of ideas over actions and incline us to dwell in the cave of an ecological Platonism perfecting our ideological purity. Ideas, sustainability, for example, are certainly important for an ecological turn. But a blinkered idealism can incline us to refuse to recognize the co-evolution of why we do things and what we actually do.

There is, indeed, nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. But that idea has a living context that gives it efficacy. We need take seriously our history, our ideas, our epoch and the great historical forces in response driving an ecological turn — a countervailing and healing response to industrial excess and an increase in social complexity in reaction to seemingly unsolvable problems of industrial reality.

Ecological ethics are not alien to our nature. Altruism, cooperation, and considering actions in terms of their effect on several generations, instead of immediate gratification and short-term profit, are underlying and likely evolutionarily selected characteristics of humanity as social animal — an idea advanced by Darwin in The Descent of Man and supported by a wide range of social theorists, from a Kropotkin in his Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, to a Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Thus, our task is not, for instance, for all of us to adopt a Buddhist economics based on harmlessness toward all living beings as the sine qua non of ecological change. Rather, it is in the expression of ecological conduct in response to necessity that will provide the basis for the elaboration, development and co-evolution of an ecological ethics and morality, and their internalization as good conduct and common sense to replace self-destructive industrial pillage supported by unambiguous market signals.

Nature must be nurtured and repaired, not conquered and exploited. The awareness of the consequences of our actions and mitigating behavior will gradually replace the reflexive satisfaction of our consumptive lusts without regard to ecological consequences. The co-evolution of ecological values will accompany the development of the elements of an ecological economics and social structure. In a world, for example, where market prices reflect long term true costs, and where all have existential security through a negative income tax (NIT) or basic income grant (BIG), the exploration and elaboration of ecological values is consonant with our social structure. We need, in the words of Ken Jones, to “get out of our own light and respond positively and openly to what the situation requires of us”.

We will still face the same moral choices. But they will be made in the context of social structures that provide a real opportunity for the rise of ecological social relations and sustainability. We will be rewarded not “with pie in the sky when we die” as incentive for good conduct (and acquiescence with the unbearable), but will find rewards in a better life in vibrant communities in the here and now.


World Commission on Environment and Development, (1987). Our Common Future, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford University Press.
Patrick Curry, (2006). Ecological Ethics. London: Polity.
Charles Darwin (1871) 2004. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: Penguin Books.
Peter Kropotkin (1902). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
Robert Nozick, (1974). Anarchy, State and Utopia. N.Y.: Basic Books.
Roy Morrison, (2007). Markets Democracy & Survival. Warner, NH: Writers Publishing Cooperative.
Ken Jones, ‘Getting Out of Our Own Light’ in Allan Hunt Binder, ed., 1990. Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology. Berkley, CA: Parallax Press. p. 190.
For further discussion of the ideology of industrialism see ‘Industrialism and Myth and Machine’ in Morrison, (1990). Ecological Democracy. Boston: South End Press. pp. 25-43.