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Arne Naess


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Sustainability: The Integral Approach

2011-12-05 20:31:58

Arne Naess

Whatever our job we need to integrate life theory and life practice, clarify our value priorities, distinguish life quality from mere standard of life, and contribute in our own way to diminish unsustainability. In the rich countries this requires taking the ethical norm of universalizability serious: we should not live on a material level we cannot seriously wish others to reach. Ecological sustainability implies long range sustainability of the richness and diversity of life forms on Earth, not only conservation of resources for humans. The life forms have intrinsic value. Why? Don't bother giving many reasons, we must all start with something we trust, whether mathematicians or artists. Acceptable development requires ecological sustainability and economic progress in rich as well as poor countries, but not necessarily any economic growth measured by gross national product. Slow human population decrease will in the remote future serve human life--including their economy--and serve non-human life in every way.


Rich life, simple in means!

The Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, or, Diogenes in the Barrel, is well known because of his meeting with Alexander the Great. When Alexander, sitting in front of his barrel, or pitcher, asked him to express a wish, he is said simply to have answered, `Please get out of the sun!'. Alexander could have granted him more. He could have received gifts produced through great expenditures of energy and natural resources. Diogenes was active in the rich cultural life of Athens, but that did not require any such gifts. Diogenes' solution to his housing problem is a non-verbal expression of globally, regionally and locally sustainable lifestyle, and his answer is a verbal suggestion of the same. Alexander was reminded of the ecologically innocent character of vital needs, and, not to forget the proverbial wit and joyful, spontaneous character of Diogenes, he got a lesson in `rich life simple in means'. It is sad that most followers of Diogenes through the centuries misunderstood him, taking him to be a proponent of a simple, not a rich, life.

The reason I mention Diogenes of Sinope is to remind you that classical Greek philosophy as well as philosophy in the Middle and Far East combined the verbal and non-verbal. You were not a philosopher if you did not do so. Today we say about somebody that he or she is a philosopher and use it for such a combination. But the intended range of philosophies seems small. People have mostly what the professionals call `popular Stoicism' or `popular Epicureanism' in mind. The very special form of Western academic philosophy does not require a philosophers. No combination of theory and practice is called for. If it were, some of you would perhaps be called `sustainers', practising philosophy combining theory of biodiversity and sustainable development with an appropriate, or at least, intended appropriate, life style.

There is much talk about a `new' ethics of respect for life on Earth, but it cannot focus on the life style of those who emphatically agree. One strong reason for this neglect is the plain fact that the complication and structural density of modern society makes it practically impossible to combine the consistent use of simple means with full participation in social and political struggles.

Depressing? Yes, but we may allow ourselves to say that Diogenes in the Barrel went too far. An Indian practising philosopher carried the concern for citizen's self-sufficiency and equi-mindedness also too far perhaps, when he, old and satisfied with life (`enough is enough'), brought together some wood, started a fire, placed himself on top, and cremated himself (in conformity with a practice that unfortunately caused deforestation in certain localities). Yoga of some sort is part of most classical Indian philosophies. They integrated theory and practice. We may all try the same even if less spectacular.


Sustainability of richness and diversity of life on Earth

Discussing various interpretations of the term `sustainable development' we may start with the following formulation: There is sustainable development if and only if it ensures that it meets the vital needs of the present human population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own vital needs. This formulation resembles those of the World Commission for Development and Environment (WCED) in the report Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report. However, there is a major difference: the substitution of `vital needs' for just `needs'. Lists of needs made by decision makers of the rich countries include items which clearly are exorbitant and ununiversalizable. Even the desire and demand for more parking space is generally talked about in terms of satisfying a need. Those parking spaces are often placed in cities where children have had their precious playing grounds, or where people have lived for a long time but cannot afford a car, and among those who are incapable of resistance against destruction of their habitat.

There are fortunately possibilities to decrease unsustainability and ununiversalizability of the `average' life styles in economically rich countries without decrease of life quality. To exemplify such a decrease is a great aim for someone who wish to be taken seriously in the present struggles.

Needs are accepted in the rich countries which, if met universally, exclude sustainable development in every acceptable sense. The term `vital' is vague and ambiguous, but it is a good starting point for a critical approach to the term `need' in its relation to `demand' used by market theorists in the rich countries of the world.

Postulating that we, as humans, have a special ethical obligation towards other human beings, the vital needs of humanity require some kind of priority. But this does not mean that we do not have serious obligations towards non-human beings, and the classes and systems of such beings, culminating with obligations relative to the Earth as a whole. However, these can be perceived as mainly negative obligations related to the destructive consequences of our exponentially increasing interferences in the ecosystems.

As to the satisfaction of human vital needs, there is at the present a substantial number of humans living in a desperate state of poverty or oppression clearly preventing a minimum satisfaction of those needs. They live mostly in countries one may call poor, using an economic measuring rod, where the term `sustainable development' is referring basically to sustainable economic progress, not necessarily to economic growth.

The implied task is gigantic considering that soon the population in the poor countries will double while the area of cultivable land will not. Under similar difficult circumstances long ago Europeans migrated to North and South Americas introducing new vast unsustainability and a lamentable decrease of cultural diversity. What if Columbus landed 1992, not 1492..?


An ecologist's wish: may all countries be developing countries!

It marks a major victory for the global ecological movement that the WCED announces clearly that sustainable development unconditionally requires ecological sustainability. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The consequences of this admission is wide-reaching ecological sustainability requires significant economic, technological, social, political and cultural changes in most or all countries. Here I shall first dwell on a terminological consequence: The term `developed country' implies automatically `ecologically developed country'. We should now ask: "Are there any?"


If we retain the underdeveloped/developed terminology we should therefore class all ecologically unsustainable countries as underdeveloped without need to add the adverb `ecologically'. It is implied by our terminology that these countries are underdeveloped. The richest industrial country is not a developed country if it is not in a process of ecologically sustainable development.

A revised terminology has already been introduced in Norway. We ask: "When will Norway rise from being underdeveloped to a developing country?" That is, when will the rate of unsustainability (globally measured) decrease in a stable way? My guess is that by the year 2020 this may well happen. As it is now, Norway, like the US, has not turned the tide of pollution, energy consumption, and other variables which must be taken into account. There are not even plans to do so. The population would vote against them.

Those who think this view is rather pessimistic are likely to neglect the necessary wide perspective: It is the global situation that counts, and we must be aware that in the years 2000, 2010, 2020,..., with even bigger population and economic growth measured in terms of GNP in the Second and the Third World, the projected level of Norwegian pollution, growing energy consumption, etc, is intolerable. Talking about 2020, I have assumed that political ability to take ecological problems seriously is much higher than today, but not in a revolutionary way. That would require a considerable increase of active interest within the Norwegian population at large. Many more sustainers!

One may hold that it is wiser to modify the old usage. My only point in that regard is that there is ample ground, when we encounter its old use in discussions, to ask what the terms are meant to express, and then, to strongly discourage any use that might support the old belief that the rich industrial nations are developed and somehow able to show the poor countries how to develop. I am afraid this belief is still not uncommon within the power elites of the Second World and Third World.


The intrinsic value of life as a political premis for protection

In the 80s, it was out of the question for a wide group of politicians to declare that life on Earth, or life in the Universe as a whole, has any value in itself apart from the rather narrow serving of human needs. In the sense that we feel it obvious to care for children for their own sake, the richness and diversity of life is also worthy of being cared for for its own sake. Such thoughts did not get incorporated in the report Our Common Future by the WCED. By now, perhaps only one country, New Zealand, can show a public document which affirms intrinsic value. If, within a few years, such affirmation gets to be commonplace, it will not automatically make much difference in human practice, but it will add to the force of argumentation in favour of generous, wide sustainability. "You said it has intrinsic value! Why don't you act accordingly?"

The formidable capacity of our brain makes it easy for us to `see ourselves in others', not only in other humans, but in every living being. Sometimes it is even easier `to identify' with certain animals as with certain humans. Compassion, aided by the brain, is something that encompasses not only everything capable of pain. The interest, in a wide, easily understandable sense, of a tiny plant to live and blossom is obvious, and under suitable circumstances, we act to serve this interest. The definition of sustainable development cannot ignore these facts. A wide and deep perspective is obviously needed. Human capacity to think and to feel, human dignity, requires it.

Our contemplation of the development of life on Earth through countless millions of years, together with the development of the richness and diversity of life forms, almost inevitably make mature, informed humans adopt a wide perspective. In short, we demand that full ecological sustainability shall mean or include conservation of the richness and diversity of life forms. We cannot slavishly accept the narrow interpretations of the Brundtland Report, interpretations which most of the signatories, including Gro Harlem Brundtland herself, personally, I think, find too narrow.


Sustainable development

Let us look closely at the term `sustainable development' as it occurs on p.8 in the publication Our Common Future. It says that: "Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable - to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Plausibly, but narrowly interpreted, what must be considered sustainable is compatible with maximal destruction of life conditions on Earth, a maximum of extinction of life forms and habitats of life forms, a maximum of gross human interference with landscapes and ecosystems - as long as these maxima are believed nevertheless to permit to permit satisfaction of human needs, as these are conceived at any definite time. And conceived by whom?

It is clear that many decision makers by `reforestation' do not imply to get back real forests. The artificial tree plantations with fast growing trees do not support the biodiversity of a forest. The number of species in them may be one fourth, or less, of that of the decimated forest. If the goal is to distinguish the forest itself from the animal and plant life in it, the ignorance of ecosystem thinking is clear, and the way is open for a maximal destruction that only too late will be seen to be incompatible with the satisfaction of vital needs of additional billions of people born in the years to come.

In the present conflicts, the usual narrow interpretations of `sustainable development' is convenient for planners of gigantic destructive policies, because it is difficult to convince people that future generations will lack the ability to take care of themselves whatever we find it suitable to do. People read about technological inventions, even revolutions, which are said to push the limit of responsible growth indefinitely. They do not read about the lack of economic and political will to make global use of the inventions made the last 30 years.

Rejecting the narrow concepts of ecological sustainability, which at least one plausible interpretation of the Brundtland Report admits, the way is open for acceptance of wider interpretations. Preferable are such that are not completely implausible interpretations of the document. They should be in harmony with what at least some of the 22 people underwriting the document have had in mind. The criterion I am going to make use of in what follows do not explicitly refer to humans, but it is implied that human cultures are life forms:


There is ecological sustainability if and only if the richness and diversity of life forms is sustained.

Richness' does not only refer to abundance of specimens of species but to their wide distribution, provided that wide distribution is realized today, or was recently realized, and that it is practicable to restore the former situation.

The criterion is applicable to the Earth as a whole, to regions, nations, and societies, but only to some extent to localities. It is of little use to talk about ecological unsustainability in small areas or localities of monoculture due to city developments. More cities are ecologically needed to contain the growing populations. A region may be called sustainable even if there are plenty of such localities. Otherwise, sustainability would not be reached in the next century. On the other hand, there is not global sustainability if some (large) regions are not. (One may of course give the criterion more precise meanings, but I am not trying to do so here).

The term `development', however ambiguous, must be used because of its importance in policy documents, but I would like to present a terminology proposal:


A development is globally sustainable if and only if there is a long term trend that assures, or that may justifiably be considered to assure, global ecological sustainability, and also assures long range elimination of abject poverty.

The special obligations we have as humans for our own species require us in the long run to assure a population size that is necessary to provide conditions for reaching the ultimate goals of humanity and to satisfy vital needs. Beyond that, our obligations to life in general and the Earth as a whole acquire priority.


Sustainability in the Third World

If some of the Third World countries reach ecological sustainability in the next century which one will be the first? Costa Rica? The educational level is high, standard of living is increasing, the government is interested, and a significant number of `parataxomomists' (raised in the country) and others help mapping out the fauna and flora which contributes to an increasing respect and joy of life. Furthermore, much is done to develop sustainable uses of tropical biodiversity, thus integrating concern for ecological sustainability in the society. The cooperation of researchers and local people is flourishing. The ecologist Daniel H. Janzen is the best known researcher working along `social ecological' lines and collecting millions of dollars in aid for projects in Costa Rica. These activities decrease the ecological unsustainability in certain ways, but large scale deforestations still go on. Some researchers guess that only about 10% of the habitats will be saved from complete human domination including extensive regions of monocultures and asphalt. It is therefore a wide open question when sustainability will be reached, if at all.

One may wish that all other tropical countries developed in the auspicious way of Costa Rica. The corresponding amount of money that would have to be collected in the rich countries would not be in the range of millions, but billions. Benevolent bureaucracies would have to be available as well as an army of ecologists, with assistants, working closely together with the local populations. Their insight is indispensible.


Existential consequences for human behaviour

The great Danish philosopher, Sřren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism as a philosophical movement, insisted that humans are always in `deep water'. Their decisions must be made on the basis of a total integrated view. This implies, in principle, to go back to ultimate premises and to a conception of the main goal of human life, whether pleasure, happiness or achievement of some sort. It implies also that if you consider a certain question to be of immediate relevance for actions in your life, your community of life on Earth, you must have an answer, whether expressed through deliberate words or through deeds. And we should remember that even if we do not answer deliberately, our actions express answers. In life one cannot say `leave me out!'. Ignorance and incompetence furnish explanations, but not excuse - not automatically. The question is relevant: are we informed to an extent that should be expected of us?

Crudely expressed: If it is an important decision either to turn right or to turn left, to do neither also has important consequences. One answer may be `I am too tired to reflect, I'll go left!' This and similar kinds of decisions must of course be tolerated. The main thing is the awareness with equanimity, that a choice is made anyhow.

The practising philosopher is one that feels obligated to answer, but who does not thereby pretend that it is worth while for others to listen. Perhaps all our answers are more or less imperfect.

Those who are seriously engaged somehow to contribute to decrease unsustainability locally, regionally or globally, may do it by a combination of a specialized sort of job, like researchers, or as a generalist way of contribution, showing as much as explaining their choices in life. They are then to be classed as practising philosophers whatever their degree of ignorance of academic philosophy. Sometimes this ignorance may be a plus.

In our very special kind of culture in the Western rich countries, verbal articulations in the form of reasons are highly appreciated. Somebody may ask: "What is your reason for your value priority of A over B? You may have a reason R1, but then you are asked: "What is your reason for accepting R1 as adequate?" Suppose you answer with an R2 or you admit that you do not pretend to have a sort of reason R2 such that if it were untenable you would give up the priority of A over B. That is, you stop the chain R1, R2,...Rn, already after the first number of the series. Mostly such a behaviour is wise, because it is likely that you sooner or later give misleading reasons, reasons which do not really fit your ultimate or complex motivation.

One of the many great achievements of Aristotle was a clear denial that you could prove everything you assert. You cannot even give reasons for everything you assert. You stop somewhere, normally outside science, and doing this, you may, if appropriate, quote Aristotle: Say that belief in the possibility of providing reasons for everything shows lack of education, and that you like to be considered educated. Some insights and intuitions you trust, but admit fallibility.

Most ardent supporters of a wide form of sustainability accept as evident many pronouncements that others find non-evident. They ask for reasons, for premises from which the pronouncements can be derived logically, scientifically or by other forms of generally accepted reasoning. "Which are your reasons", they ask, and the answers, R1-formulations, seem mostly unconvincing, for instance, begging the question. If R2-formulations are offered, they may sometimes be unconvincing even for the formulator.

The important point here is the trivial one that it cannot possibly be asked of you never to stop. My advice is to stop where you announce something you personally find intuitively obviously true or correct, or which you cannot imagine to give up except for reasons you never have heard of and cannot see convincing. This is not dogmatism. You are not worse off than mathematicians and logicians who again and again use the basic rules of inference which they try not to prove or validate scientifically.

All this would be useless to say if we do not constantly see people who unreasonably feel quilty when they do not give reasons, or even scientists who hide and never announce their basic norms or evaluations because these lack "scientific" reasons. A great cultural loss.

Humans are never wholly `functionaries' / behaving wholly as functionaries -they are always, as specimens of adult, sane homo sapiens, responsible as persons. Also the timid expressions "as I see it...", "in my personal opinion..." are misplaced if such ultimate views are at stake. You should not try to step outside yourself, try to be a mere witness to your own intuitions. But what about conflicting intuitions - are they not sometimes a cause of violence and war? Yes, but also sometimes cause of peace, progress and nonviolence of the most superb kind.



Full global and regional biodiversity is necessary to reach full ecological sustainability. Full ecological sustainability is necessary to realize sustainable development. Biodiversity is required to satisfy the vital needs of humanity. This is now generally acknowledged. That the biodiversity of this planet should be protected also for its own sake was first internationally recognized through The United Nations World Charter for Nature. The initiative to this charter was taken by a group of poor Nations, and the General Assembly adopted it in 1982 by a vote of 111 to 1, USA casting the sole dissenting vote.

It serves the cause of biodiversity to maintain that it has a value in itself apart from narrowly conceived usefulness. But it also helps when people who maintain this testify to its profound implications through their life style.

High level humanitarian norm justify ecologically negative policies. They are usually short range and could largely be avoided through cooperation of rich and poor nations on a greater scale than ever before.

Because of its touchy nature, I wish to end with a remark on the size of the human population as seen in a cultural philosophical perspective: A future long range, slow decrease of the human population would to some extent increase the chances of full biodiversity, sustainable development, deep cultural diversity, and the prospect of satisfying vital needs and reaching cultural and philosophical goals.


Arne NAESS, Professor,
Council for Environmental Studies, University of Oslo, Norway