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This module explores the ethics of sustainability. “Sustainability” has become a buzz-word for any kind of environmentally positive activity. The word inherits its special meaning from the term “sustainable development,” introduced in Our Common Future, the 1987 UN commissioned Brundtland Report, as a way of describing the joint goals of economic development for poorer countries and environmental preservation/restoration. In the words of that report, sustainable development is development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” and is constrained by “the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.” Sustainability is frequently thought of in technical terms: how many people will the planet hold, how can we reduce our environmental impact while living decent lives. This module presents sustainability as first and foremost a moral rather than a technical challenge. It is a moral challenge for social as well as personal ethics. That is, it is a challenge for societies, institutions and governments as well as for individuals. The module provides students with a simple framework for thinking about moral issues. It also guides them in considering the unique challenges posed by collective moral problems of this kind, where the effect of individual actions seem inconsequential, while their aggregated effect is of profound moral importance. These challenges are intensified in this case, where issues of justice and moral considerability arise for our relation to future as well contemporary human generations, to citizens of other nations as well as our own, and to non-human as well as human life. They are further intensified by our current global reliance on unsustainable use of energy and resources, and on unsustainable production of waste. Finally, they are intensified by the apparent unsustainability of current forms of economic organization. The module features a variety of readings, videos, role-plays and activities designed to allow students to explore ways of meeting these challenges.

Publication Date



Sustainability; Environmental ethics

Document Type

Curricular Materials






This learning module was developed as part of a 2017-2018 NEH Human Connections grant to Rowan University faculty titled Cultivating the Environmental Humanities.

This content is copyright 2018 by the author and must be properly attributed (see Recommended Citation). Contact the author for reuse permission.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Sustainability as a Moral Problem

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