The Ethics of Sustainability

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

It took me a bit longer than usual to figure out how I should frame this article or if publishing an article right now would be appropriate at all. With the current events and ongoing social injustices happening all around us, I decided that I would speak out on these topics of injustice in a way that makes sense for me: as an environmentalist.

First, if you identify as an environmentalist, a question that you should ask yourself right now is:

“Am I advocating for my community and all of the people I share this planet with as much as I am advocating for the ecological environment?”

If you aren’t sure how to answer that, then it is time to dig a little deeper and find out why. But, instead of moving forward with anger and frustration that stem from a lack of understanding, seek to understand, listen to opposing views, and take the time to grow.

What Is Sustainability?

Before we get too far into things, I thought it would be most fitting to explain what sustainability really means and how we view it. When we think of environmental sustainability, we usually think immediately about the plants, air, land, water, and wild animals-- the natural, ecological aspects of our world.

I have noticed frequently throughout my life that humans like to try and distance themselves from identifying as a part of the natural world. NEWS FLASH: we are a part of the natural ecosystem.

Paired with this mentality is this effort throughout Western cultures to continually distance citizens from nature and one another, and as environmentalists, we should also be asking ourselves:

“Are we trying to save the planet for the sake of humans or for the sake of all sentient beings, plant life, and ecosystems?”

Let’s be honest... if the entire human race was wiped out, the planet would be in better shape. So, the reality of our typical view of sustainability is that we are doing it for ourselves. We are trying to maintain and save ecosystems that the human race relies upon for survival.

If that’s the case, then why don’t we take better care of each other?

We Can’t Save the Environment if We Ignore Our Communities

When you break it down, there are actually three main pillars of sustainability:

  1. Social

  2. Economic

  3. Ecological

The three of these together are what make up our human environment.

To explain this further, if we look at the “social” and “economic” aspects of sustainability, we need to consider the health, safety, and affordability of human life. If a community does not feel safe, people do not have access to a healthy lifestyle (or health care), and they do not have the financial means to be able to afford basic human needs (healthy food, clean water, education, etc.), they will be more concerned about fulfilling those needs before sustaining the ecological needs of the environment as a whole.

In short: To make room for the sustainability of the ecological environment, we need to prioritize both social and economic sustainability as well.

Awareness, Advocacy, and Action

As an environmentalist, when I think of sustainability, I see that we are fighting for the ability to sustain our human communities. So, to have a sustainable environment, we must marry the three pillars of sustainability. We are fighting for the ability to have people remain on this planet with access to resources we rely on for the longer term.

So, with that, I am going to leave you three ways you can lead a more ethically sustainable life:

Be More Aware

If I’ve learned anything from being vegan or pursuing a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, it is that awareness is everything. I mean, if you don’t know something is happening, how can you address it or even know it is an issue? This means that you may need to take some time to educate yourself, ask questions, and have uncomfortable conversations.

Reach out to others and have honest, constructive conversations. If you begin to feel defensive, take a step back and ask yourself why before aggressively responding.

Find online resources and local community workshops that allow you to connect to others and broaden your worldview. Take time to read, listen, watch, and learn.

Advocate for Others

You can search for ways to be an advocate once you begin to learn more about the environment (socially, economically, and ecologically). Most often, we see advocacy as strictly using your voice. While this is mostly true, if you don’t feel comfortable protesting, there are other ways you can advocate for change.

For instance, you can encourage others to register to vote. You can spark conversation with family and friends to discuss pressing issues. You can recommend books, podcasts, and movies to others to help them on their path to more awareness. You can write articles to share with others.

You can meditate to advocate too.

There are plenty of advocacy styles beyond protesting alone.

Take Action, Not Credit

The final part is to take action. One thing that I want to make clear is that when we do something for others, we don’t have to let the world know. Take action without feeling like you deserve credit. A relevant example of this is if you aren’t racist, that’s great, but no one should be a racist to begin with, so why does that deserve credit? Good deeds don't deserve credit because they should be human nature.

As you begin to educate yourself to become more aware, making you better able to advocate for others, you can then put yourself out there to take action. This can look as simple as donating to a campaign or cause that is doing good work.

You can set up a book club to encourage more people to become community advocates.

You can support small businesses and sustainable businesses owned by people of color.

You can intervene when you see someone being torn down (both online and in-person).

You can simply get out and vote to enact a widespread change.

Taking action can be tricky, though. Just remember, all three steps: awareness, advocacy, and action work together as one; it is a process. As you get closer to advocacy and action, things might get uncomfortable. No one is perfect, but we can all take action to become advocates for each other and the planet. After all, that is what sustainability is all about.

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