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Imagining Sustainability: A Q&A with Maria Antonaccio

Making Finitude Visible: The Ethics of Sustainability

March 31, 2017 • By Maria Antonaccio Making Finitude Visible: The Ethics of Sustainability

A landmark federal lawsuit seeking to establish “a legal right to a stable climate and a healthy atmosphere for all present and future generations” is making its way through the courts. Twenty-one youth, aged 9 to 20 and from all over the United States, are suing President Obama, various federal agencies, and the fossil fuel industry over their failure to avert climate change. Filed in September 2015 by the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, the complaint asserts that, “through the government’s affirmative actions in causing climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” 

On November 10, 2016, the plaintiffs scored a major victory when U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken of the federal court in Eugene, Oregon completely rejected all arguments raised by the federal government and fossil fuel industry to dismiss the suit, allowing the case to proceed.

Whatever the lawsuit’s chances of succeeding in the coming months, the case highlights an indisputable fact: failure to address climate change today will affect young people and future generations, who will inherit a world very different from that of their parents and grandparents. Hence ethicists and legal analysts are asking: What do we owe these young plaintiffs and the generations not yet born?

Questions about the nature and extent of our responsibility for future generations are longstanding in ethics. The issue arises frequently in the context of bioethics, e.g., in connection with whether we have the right to determine the genetic makeup of future humans through germline editing techniques such as CRISPR. In the context of climate change, questions about responsibility for future generations are often framed in terms of intergenerational equity, i.e., the idea that we have an obligation (as one writer put it) “not to engage in activities that will trigger dangerous climate change and thereby impose harms on people in the near and distant future.”

In my research for The Enhancing Life Project on climate change and the cultural meanings of sustainability, I take a somewhat different approach to the question of our duty to future generations by shifting the framework in which this question is understood. My research interprets the rapid spread of sustainability discourse in recent decades not only as a practical response to social and environmental problems like climate change, but also as a cultural phenomenon with moral-existential significance. Among the most salient anxieties underlying sustainability discourse, I contend, is the worry about whether the biophysical conditions of life can be maintained into the indefinite future given the scope and intensity of humanity’s impact on the planet. This anxiety about finitude is the affective background from which the question of our obligation to future generation arises. 

Although a concern for future generations has always been present in sustainability thinking (a classic definition of sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”), sustainability discourse highlights the ethical significance of temporality in a way that is both wider and deeper than a concern for future generations alone. Wider, because in a time of mass extinctions, worry about sustainability extends not only to the future of humanity but also the future of nonhuman species and the biosphere as a whole. And deeper, because the very concept of sustainability is temporally loaded: the root meaning of the term implies persistence through time. As Kent E. Portney notes, “Sustainability contains an explicit time dimension regardless of which definition or specific concept [of sustainability] is being invoked.” Similarly, the economists Robert Constanza and Bernard C. Patten have argued that “Sustainability, at its base, always concerns temporality, and in particular, longevity.”

Given the rapid pace of global climate change and the intractable moral, political, and social challenges that accompany it, it is probably no accident that a concept signifying duration, persistence, or longevity has achieved such widespread cultural currency as a marker of both hope and fear. Sustainability inscribes into everyday language a heightened awareness of the mortality of biological life and the viability of the future in a time of planetary endangerment. As such, it makes the idea of finitude visible and brings it to the forefront of human consciousness.  

As an example of this heightened sense of finitude, consider the fact that what were once considered crises of the distant future (such as climate change) have become present dangers. People now “live with an awareness that certain limits in the exploitation of nature have already been exceeded, that past warnings were not heeded, and that slowly evolving risk scenarios surround them on a daily basis.” From this perspective, one of the most distressing aspects of global climate change is not that it may happen but that it has already happened and that it may be too late to completely reverse it. 

By making finitude visible, sustainability discourse confronts human beings with the unprecedented scope and impact of our own agency, and reminds us of the fragility of the systems in which life is embedded. An ethic of sustainability signals a commitment to secure the conditions of life for both the present and the future, while also recognizing that those conditions are fragile and that the attempt may fall short or even fail. Arguments on behalf of future generations--such as the inspiring climate lawsuit brought by the twenty-one young plaintiffs--are one expression of that commitment. Sustainability at its root asks us to think not only about the future and the rights and duties that pertain to it, but about temporality itself and the fragility of finite life. As such, it belongs in the domain of humanistic reflection, even as it remains the purview of the natural and social sciences as well.