ethics and sustainability

by Milena Braticevic

One of the most important challenges of the modern time is the human ability to achieve a sustainable way of living. The population number has been exponentially increasing in the last few centuries, with records showing the number growing from 500 million people in year 1500 to 7.4 billion people in year 2016. According to Diane Ackerman (2014), “During our brief sojourn on Earth, thanks to exhilarating technologies, fossil fuel use, agriculture, and ballooning populations, the human race has become the single dominant force of change on the planet” (p. 10). This dominant position implies power, but also tremendous responsibility to ensure that the direction of change is for better and not for worse. Consideration of ethical principles is necessary in order to create a sustainable way of life for humans, as well as protect the ecosystem and the biosphere of the earth. Unfortunately, the blind pursuit of growth, consumerism, and greed in exploitation of natural resources has put into question not only the future of humans, but of all species and the ecosystem as a whole.

The pressing problem of sustainability has revealed an ethical crisis, with the real costs left unaccounted for. Flooding in Australia, Brazil, and Rwanda; wildfires in Chile; extreme weather in Europe; hurricanes in the United States and tsunamis in Asia are some of the signs of climate change threatening the entire world ecosystem (Ackerman, 1999, p. 46). Yet, the dominant Western paradigm of promoting growth and accumulating wealth still has a hold on mainstream economic policy. Understanding the power of economics in driving development and utilization of resources, and application of ethical principles to account for real costs of mass production and consumption can bring to light the ways humans can protect the ecosystem. Examination of key motivations in behavior and consideration of long-term consequences of human conduct are an important step in determining the future of the planet, and upcoming generations.

A Vision of the Future

At the turn of the 20th century, the great scientist Nikola Tesla shared his vision of the future, by stating: “Whatever our resources of primary energy may be in the future, we must, to be rational, obtain it without consumption of any material” (Tesla, 1900, p. 42). Tesla acknowledged that, although technologies that harnessed the energy of the sun, the wind, and even magnetism and gravity could be difficult to develop, it was wise to invest in such scientific investigations for their long-term benefit. According to Tesla (1900):

The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of a planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way. (p. 70).

Unfortunately, the ‘scientific man’ that Tesla referred to is not the exact picture of the modern-day economist. In their book Economics Unmasked, Phillip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef (2011) pointed out that modern economics as a science was “dedicated to increasing production without limit, and the paradigm on which it is based postulates…that ecosystems are invulnerable to damage in the hand of humankind” (p. 12). At the same time, “the neoliberal economist is not interested in the future of life on Earth, beyond the next quarterly figures” (p. 12). Smith and Max-Neef (2011) identified human greed as one of the most detrimental perils of the modern economic system, which was based on continuous striving for growth and wealth. This greedy behavior in mainstream economics has produced a world of increased global poverty, rising debt, overexploitation of people and resources, and the destruction of ecosystems and the biosphere (Smith & Max-Nef, 2011, p. 19). It has become evident that nature cannot provide the unlimited supply of raw materials needed for constant growth based on exploitative human behavior. As a result of the inability to see fault in this economic paradigm, humans have emerged as “incomplete beings, materially overdeveloped and spiritually poor” (Smith & Max-Neef, 2011, p. 19).

One needs to question the established belief that economic growth is necessary for well-being and happiness, since “after several centuries of economic growth the majority of the world’s population still has less in the way of housing, food, and infrastructure than the minimum needed to live a secure and dignified life” (Smith & Max-Neef, 2011, p. 69). Only a small minority of the population has benefited from economic growth, while the world has become increasingly unsafe and unjust for the majority of its inhabitants. Instead of working as an aspect of the natural system of matter and energy, the modern economic system “exercises a general control over the matter-energy system upon which it is superimposed” (Smith & Max-Neef, 2011, p. 74).

According to the Nobel-Prize winning natural scientist Frederick Soddy, an error in reasoning occurs when wealth is understood based on monetary principles alone (Smith & Max-Neef, 2011). Soddy spoke of wealth as “humanly useful forms of matter and energy. Wealth is both a physical dimension, matter-energy subject to the laws of inanimate mechanism, and a teleological definition of usefulness, subject to the purposes imposed by mind and will” (Smith & Max-Neef, 2011, p. 75-76). While economists perceive gains and losses in terms of profit and debt, an inquiry into the real cost of production shows that:

The real cost can be only given in matter-energy units… the cost of (1) extraction [of raw materials], purification and removal from the biosphere of polluting products…, and (2) the energy used in construction and later decommissioning of the plant that converts the energy carrier into useful energy, plus operating costs (expressed in energy units). The energy value of the carrier is the total useful energy delivered minus the sum of these costs. (Amith & Max-Neef, 2011, p. 77-78)

Although the modern economic paradigm does not account for full costs of production, in the real world of matter and energy these costs keep accumulating and are being paid through the suffering of the ecosystem and the biosphere. The question therefore is – why are the real long-term costs of economic growth and profit-driven production not being recognized by organizations, governments, and individuals? To answer these questions, one needs to explore the principles of human motivation, have an understanding of consequences, and develop a willingness to take responsibility for actions.

Principles of Ethics

The key principles of ethics are based on a set of rules that follow natural order, with the aim of creating and maintaining well-being for oneself and for others. According to the Dalai Lama (1999), an “ethical act is one which does not harm others’ experience and expectation of happiness” (Dalai Lama, 1999, p. 49). The Golden Rule, which instructs to love one’s neighbor as oneself, implies a shared interest in another’s happiness and well-being, and that an individual is better off by honoring others and the environment. In his book Ethics for the New Millennium, the Dalai Lama (1999) explored the nature of happiness and found that it was rooted in inner peace, which came from understanding the Golden Rule, developing a deep concern for others, and working towards a common goal of a better life. According to the Dalai Lama, “…there is no hope of attaining lasting happiness if we lack inner peace” (p. 57), since the pleasures of the external world are too transient. While no external factor can create inner peace, one’s attitude and disposition towards the outside world are the key factors in attaining it. Usually, the problem lays in individuals wanting things that they have no real need for, and lacking discernment to understand consequences of actions. If an individual’s motivation goes beyond self-interest, and towards concern for others, then not only is everyone better off, but life becomes more meaningful. The question therefore is - what is required to develop deep concern for others? The Dalai Lama (1999) explained that, “In order to overcome our tendency to ignore others’ needs and rights, we must continually remind ourselves of what is obvious: that basically we are all the same” (p. 164). This requires deep compassion and an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things in nature. But before becoming aware of others’ needs and rights, one first needs to understand one's own needs.

Human Needs & Economic Development

In his publication Human Scale Development, Manfred Max-Neef (1991) distinguished between human needs and wants. According to Max-Neef (1991), while human needs were few, finite, and classifiable, human wants were infinite and insatiable. Max-Neef (1991) further explained that human needs were interdependent, and that there was no hierarchy of needs, unlike Maslow’s psychological approach. According to Max-Neef (1991), fundamental human needs included subsistence (health, food, work, social setting), protection (care, autonomy, social security), affection (respect, humour, generosity, love and intimacy), understanding (critical capacity, intuition, curiosity), participation (receptiveness, responsibility, association), leisure (spontaneity, relaxation, fun), creation (imagination, design, building), identity (sense of belonging, values, knowing oneself), and freedom (open-mindedness, equal rights, choice). Since human needs were interrelated, satisfying certain needs required also not inhibiting others. Synergic satisfiers served to enhance needs across the spectrum, ensuring that no harm was done in the process. This view of essential human needs being integrated and dependent on one another creates a more complex understanding of human nature, and life itself. There is no longer a pre-defined set of attributes that an individual must possess before achieving happiness; instead, it is dependent on how one engages with the world, and the totality of actions, relationships, possessions, and ways of being.

The complex matrix of human needs requires a similarly integrated approach to scientific inquiry, with the goal of creating a sustainable development model that better reflects reality. The multi-dimensional nature of reality was explored by physicist David Bohm, who postulated that the structure of reality is “enfolded within and therefore available to human experience” (Nichol, 2003, p. 5). In other words, wholeness is the key attribute of the living world in which humans are “active participants, not simply detached observers” (Nichol, 2003, p. 5). Bohm believed that when an individual identified with an ideology that separated him or her from others, then the creative potential – the mind – turned against its creator. For Bohm, this was an important drawback in the mechanistic and fragmented approach of scientific inquiry. He claimed that “mind and matter cannot be understood as two” (Nichol, 2003, p. 6). Since there was no boundary between science and experience, being immersed in experience meant being closer to true knowledge. Full immersion in the experience of modern economic production, fraught by depletion of resources, inequality, and harmful effects on the biosphere, would result in a visceral understanding of the harm being done to natural life. This kind of understanding is required to standing up for values that support life, instead of destroying it.

In his book Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher (1973) pointed out that enterprises were primarily focused on products; “private enterprise is not concerned with what it produces but only what it gains from production… Whatever produces profits [will be produced], and whatever reduces them or makes a loss [will be avoided]” (p. 272). Schumacher (1973) noted that the world was experiencing “institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility [in the marketplace] (p. 272)”. In other words, in the modern marketplace, production for the sake of profit, and consumption for personal, short-term benefit was justified. This lack of responsibility in production and consumption reflects the notion that satisfying immediate, often personal, needs comes before understanding the true cost of behavior. For change to take place in design and manufacturing towards more sustainable and useful methods, companies would need to shift their focus from profits to conscious production and the creation of long-term benefits by their output. At the same time, consumers would need to show concern for the future by practicing conscious consumption, and demanding sustainable and ethical practices from producers.

In order to examine the ethical implications of the lack of responsibility in the marketplace, reviewing the teachings of Christian theologians about possessions, needs, and well-being is helpful. In her book The Way of Perfection, Teresa of Avila (1946) pointed out that material possessions could exceed personal needs and therefore burden the mind. She believed that unnecessary possessions created worries, and a state of spiritual affliction that was more difficult than the state of lacking. She stated: “It is when I possess least that I have the fewest worries, and the Lord knows that, as far as I can tell, I am more afflicted when there is excess of anything than when there is lack of it” (p. 40). She also warned against the inclination to want things that are not needed, and the human tendency to form a habit of such behavior:

Those who worry too much about the alms they will be given will find sooner or later this bad habit will lead them to go and ask for something which they don’t need, and perhaps from someone who needs it more than they do. (p. 40)

In the handling of natural resources, in a few short decades, humans have taken from future generations the raw materials that have been accumulating under the earth’s surface for thousands of years. At the same time, modern-day consumers lack discernment regarding real needs and wants, leading to the consumption of goods that are manufactured in third world countries in unsafe working conditions, and at below minimum wage. In effect, consumers are both asking for what they do not need, and taking from others who may not have enough to survive, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Taking Responsibility for Sustainable Development

The benefits of taking responsibility for actions can be difficult to comprehend if the effects of those actions are not immediately obvious. The Dalai Lama (1999) stated the following about consequences:

It is the very lack of concern for consequences that underlies extreme actions… In the field of economic activity, the pursuit of profit without consideration of potentially negative consequences can undoubtedly give rise to feelings of great joy when success comes. But in the end there is suffering: the environment is polluted, our unscrupulous methods drive others out of business, the bombs we manufacture cause death and injury” (p. 60).

Weighing different factors and the possible consequences requires discernment and the ability to refrain from harmful actions for the long-term benefit of all involved. It requires a “combination of empathy and reason” (Dalai Lama, 1999, p. 74), and the capacity to liberate oneself from self-centered thought and action. The Dalai Lama identified the “lack of inner restraint” as the source of all unethical conduct (p. 81).

The importance of cultivation of inner restraint and discernment with regards to sustainability cannot be over-emphasized. But what is required in order to practice this kind of restraint and work towards a sustainable solution? According to the physicist David Bohm (2003), for an individual to see the long-term consequences of action, he or she needed to be able to see experience as an integrated totality – the inner world had to be perceived as inseparable from the outer world (p. 209). For this to happen, one had to “perceive his or her own motivations, along with the falsity of all motivation” (p. 209). Having a motivation means that an individual is interested mainly in a certain result, and not the truth. With certain motivations, one can justify pursuit of profit for short-term gains without consideration of the consequences and real costs for the long-term. Unfortunately, even scientific inquiry is not free from such motivations. If science is primarily concerned with accumulation of verifiable knowledge, this can lead to a set of doctrines that are, due to their fragmented nature, removed from the totality of truth. Then industries can continue to operate according to established practices, while technological advances follow a patterned set of explorations based on existing scientific paradigms. If, however, the world of matter and energy is experienced as a continuous process of becoming, then no absolutes stand in the way of true development. According to Bohm (2003), a new development paradigm would be possible if one followed natural laws and developed scientific inquiry unrestricted by false doctrines. Bohm stated that “There seems to be no limit to the possibility of the human mind for developing new structures … [in which] the older items of knowledge all fall into their proper places, naturally related, while many new and unsuspected relationships suddenly come into view” (Bohm, 2003, p. 75).

Unfortunately, the world seems to be entrenched in old doctrines of production and wealth creation, even though there are many indications that a new approach is required for sustainability. In their book The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance, William McDonough and Michael Braungart acknowledged that “everyone – consumers, manufacturers, government leaders are interested in a cleaner and healthier world” (Braungart & McDonough, 2013, p. 5). The authors, an architect and a chemist, described a new approach to industrial design, with sustainability as the key factor of success. They invited readers to: “Imagine systems without limitation and without being trapped in old design paradigms, as if the object or system had not been made before. In this way, human beings can conceive of something more beautiful, more fruitful” (p. 58). Aspiring to create a new design paradigm based on common values, the authors asked the following question: “How can one design or manufacture in a way that loves all of the children, of all species, for all time?” (p. 9). Principles guiding this design paradigm included insisting on humanity and nature to coexist in a supportive and healthy way, recognizing interdependence in nature, accepting responsibility for the consequences of design decisions, creating safe objects of long-term value, and relying on natural energy flows (p. 10). This new approach to design not only addressed the question of sustainability, but went beyond it to design “not just for health but for abundance, proliferation, and delight” (p. 11). When manufacturing a garment under the upcycle paradigm, for example, a designer would create the product so that it could return safely to the biosphere without contamination. The garments could become soil or a technical object could be recycled back into useful objects of the same high-quality material (p. 53). Similarly, businesses could be designed in a way to not only provide safe working environments, but also create better health for the employees, the organization, and the community, thereby becoming “health-producing workplaces” (p. 36). Beyond the idea of zero-waste, the new design paradigm can serve to create abundance. The concept of upcycling implies that resources can be used in such a way to maximize their benefit over the long-term. This would require manufacturing that did not mix materials that could not be recycled together, and a “richly informed engagement with the biosphere and technosphere within continuous use periods over time” (p. 42).

Taking responsibility for sustainable development is the key step in establishing new production and consumption paradigms based on ethical principles. As Naomi Klein (2014) stated in her account of climate change in her book This Changes Everything, changing the paradigm requires one to be “unafraid of the language of morality – to give the pragmatic, cost-benefit arguments a break and speak of right and wrong, of love and indignation” (p. 462).


Faced with the depletion of natural resources, economic inequality, and climate change, humanity is challenged to create more sustainable ways of living and working. The modern economic paradigm of constant growth, mass production, and unnecessary consumption has resulted in a reduced standard of living for most people, while destroying the environment and leaving a tremendous cost of biosphere degradation to future generations. An examination of personal motivations and ethical choices is necessary in order to change the paradigm to a more sustainable, long-term view that will benefit generations to come. McDonough and Braungart (2013) claimed that “Left to its own devices, life always upcycles… it is valuable at every step. The insect is not lowly compared to the human. It’s just all part of the web of life” (p. 46). It may be this very lesson in humility that is the key to changing human disposition from that of greed to abundance for all.


Ackerman, D. (2014). The human age: The world shaped by us. Toronto, CA:

HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Braungart, M., McDonough, W. (2013). The upcycle: Beyond sustainability –

designing for abundance. New York, NY: Melcher Media.

Dalai Lama (1999). Ethics for the new millennium. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything. Toronto, CA: Penguin Random House.

Max-Neef, M. (1991). Human scale development, conception, application and further reflections. Lexington, KY: Apex Press.

Nichol. L. (2003). The essential David Bohm. New York, NY: Routledge.

Schumacher, E.F. (1973). Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered.

London, UK: Blond & Briggs Ltd.

Smith, P. B., Max-Neef, M. (2011). Economics unmasked: From power and greed to

compassion and the common good. Cambridge, UK: Green Books.

St. Teresa of Avila. (2012). The way of perfection. New York, NY: Dover


Tesla, N. (1900). The problem of increasing human energy. New York, NY: Cosimo