Moral Deference of Sustainability

Explored in this and the following two posts, are connections between cultural morality, sustainable development, and iconoclasm.

In my worldview the term sustainable development (sustainability) has a clear definition, equivalent with that of homeostasis. There are various definitions of the latter, my meaning relates generally to biological physiology; the set of physical characteristics comprising life-functions and life-forms observable in biology.

In my personal view the issue is less clear, cloaked in irrational and unknowable metaphysics:

Sustainability is a volume of persistent flux, a disequilibrium, an entropy-reducing physical change, created by, mediated by, and sustained as interactions between complex physical objects with the capacity to individually and collectively self-organize and self-regulate.

Not fantastic, but phenomenal. Seemingly improbable but apparently common and persistent here on Earth.

The Earth may not be viewed as an independent physiology, because the Sun plays an essential role in sustaining nearly all planetary life systems; certainly the large, highly complex ones. Hypothetically, given at least the Sun and Earth, one might begin to imagine a large and complex ‘self-sustaining’ physiology.
Interpreted holistically, sustainability refers to a single untied living system. If we are to accept this premise, we must assume that the purpose of any thoughts, discussions and/or actions on the subject of sustainable development, are to sustain life, not necessarily lives, on Earth. This is an important distinction; an aspect of biological reality which we modern cosmopolitans tend to ignore, choosing instead to fool ourselves into the belief that each life (individual organism) is of paramount importance.

Both, common sense and thermodynamics show that sustaining any kind of object and/or action indefinitely, is not possible. Certainly not as part of an energetically closed system. For the purpose of the current argument the solar system might be imagined as a hypothetically ‘closed system’. There seems little room for doubt that given enough time to develop, the Sun, Earth, life, everything.., will grind down to near-equilibrium, following as closely as possible:
the path of least resistance.

It seems most reasonable to address sustainable development selfishly (anthropocentrically), and practicably (feasibly). From this it follows that we hope to sustain at least one viable culture of H. sapiens on Earth. Attempting to put a ‘use-by-date’ on H. sapiens is beyond the scope of this text. Currently, we focus upon our contemporary period, with one eye toward the past, and the other toward a reasonably visible future.1 Of course, anthropocentrically, I hope and trust that many happy days precede me, and us all! That is to say, I hold faith in the adaptability and resourcefulness of our species.

When imagining a sustainable culture of H. sapiens on Earth, I can not help but think of ‘the old ways’. Pre-industrial renaissance, or better, semi-industrial societies such as the Amish described in an earlier post of this series, titled The Worldly and The Amish; possibly parochial, though not necessarily Christian or even religious, reproductive population(s) of fit, adaptable, social, creative and analytical, generalists; survivors.

It is my opinion that we currently live in a golden age, perhaps The golden age of humankind. Life has never before been so easy and good for so many of our species, and there are many of us. Very many more of us, however, aspire to the globally endorsed and internationally accepted social and economic norms. I shall be blunt; there are too many of us. Assuming that our global population will continue to increase during the next few decades, then begin to stabilize by about 2060 with an estimated population of between 9 and 10 billion individuals, any definition or proposal of ‘sustainable development’ including the idea of sustaining current standards and aspirations is necessarily false; unattainable as long as our population number is static or positive. Actual sustainable development presupposes that either our population or our expectations, or both, decrease.

Neither pessimism nor optimism, but realism is required in order simply to see what the sustainability puzzle really is about. It seems not to be simply a set of choices we stand to make; sustainability is probably not a consumer good. Instead, the issue appears to comprise a set of physical factors, together acting to limit population growth of H. sapiens on Earth. I would not wish a life at carrying capacity upon anyone; the concept contrasts against my selfish hope and trust for a sustained good life.

Modern conceptions of sustainable development derive from a seminal text2 on the subject. This document, also known as ‘the Brundtland report’, called for: ”a common spirit of responsibility” and ”for new norms of behaviour at all levels and in the interests of all. [Changes in attitudes, in social values, and in aspirations]”.

Yet the definition endorsed by our institutions, the political and corporate sectors, itself stemming from the same seminal document, is: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Prosaic as this may seem, it is obvious that any serious consideration of sustainable development must define and take into account the needs of the present. I thus challenge the reader to identify their own current needs, and to compare these with their own current state of wealth. Personally, I have come to realize that the vast majority of aspects identified as necessary within the lifestyles of modern globalized culture, are unnecessary. Furthermore, I have over the past seven or so years begun to subtract superfluous aspects from my lifestyle. This gradual personal process has, and continues, to lead to what appears from the outside to be quite radical change, in both, my thoughts and actions.

Moral Deference
”[The] answers to fundamental and serious concerns are not at hand, there is no alternative but to keep on trying to find them.”
– the Brundtland report

Contemporary representative democracies are based upon the premise of deference of responsibility. By casting a vote, the voter actively defers his or her personal responsibility to govern the society of which they are a part, to a ‘political representative’. The ‘representative’ is thus assumed to act instead of, and as a proxy for, the voter. A political representative is usually a person or group, endorsed by a political platform, business, or coalition thereof, and is in the vast majority of cases disconnected from a personal understanding of the voter. This kind of deference of responsibility is accepted, more or less unquestioningly, by people comprising modern democratic society, as a normative cultural moral.

”major changes [are] needed, both in attitudes and in the way our societies are organized”.
– the Brundtland report.

Let us define moral as: ”[the] principles of right and wrong in behaviour, especially for teaching right behaviour” and ”conforming to a standard of right behaviour; sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment”.3

I have only recently realized that morality is relative to contemporary cultural conditions. Please consider the following three examples:

i) The construction of a “permanent repository” for nuclear waste at Onkalo.
Into Eternity is a documentary film which does a remarkably good job of describing the challenges intrinsic to discussions of sustainable development; we can not know what will occur in the millennia that follow us, nevertheless we are deferring the difficult end of the nuclear waste problem, by the conviction that we can construct a situation of ‘permanent safety’.
– the first tick mark on the left indicates the construction of the great pyramid of Giza (2560 BC); the second tick mark indicates 0 AD; the third tick mark indicates 2010 AD. The span between the third and fourth tick marks represents the period for which Onkalo must last, many times longer than the oldest structures built by humanity have ever existed.

ii) The translocation of Abu Simbel by UNESCO.
“[From the outset UNESCO played a role in the promotion and rescue of historic sites. Postwar reconstruction of Europe, from 1945 to 1955, initiated as the large-scale restoration of war-torn cities. Concern at the scale of war damage was such that the Hague Convention produced in 1954 a convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. A handful of years later international concern was raised by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which would flood the valley containing the Abu Simbel and other temples, significant relics of ancient Egypt. In 1959, following an appeal from Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO instigated a major conservation programme which involved intensive archaeological excavations and the removal, stone by stone, of the temples that were reconstructed on higher ground above the flood line.]“4

An archeological construction project, spanning two decades and costing a quarter of a billion dollars (accounting for inflation to present), the purpose of which is to translocate a temple by 200 meters due to the construction of a dam, does not feel like the kind of thing that would constitute a contemporary moral obligation. At this time there seem to be more pressing moral obligations, such as the ‘bailing out’ of the global banking system, and of Greece.
It is fascinating and revealing to come to terms with the ridiculousness of our institutionalized moral acts. “Five years after coalition troops invaded Iraq, the Iraq Museum is still closed, […] some 8,000 objects remain unaccounted for. Archaeological sites, including the iconic remains of Babylon and Ur, continue to be neglected or damaged. […] Much has already been written about damage to the Iraqi cultural heritage [the legacy of one the earliest civilizations on Earth] as a direct result of the Second Gulf War […]. Apart from the Iraqis themselves, […] many foreign organizations and individuals have been involved, directly or indirectly, in what has happened.”5

iii) The Apollo program.
Equally perplexing from our current cultural situation is the prospect of spending nearly 110 billion dollars (accounting for inflation to present)6 in order to send a handful of people to the moon for a walkabout.

Disposable morality?
Habitus and praxis are introduced as part of a previous post in this series, titled Nous Kairos. Currently, we explore what appears to be a moral incongruence regarding sustainable development. Let us begin, however, by assuming the reverse; thus hypothesizing that the contemporary cultural moral, which is associated with sustainable development, is one of congruence between habitus and praxis.

It seems clear that our modern global culture now includes a moral obligation to strive for sustainability, and so this ethic necessarily plays a central role in our collective habitus. Examples of ‘doing the right thing’ in regard to environment, biodiversity, poverty, war, violence, governance, education, healthcare, consumption, etc… abound in our culture. The vast majority of us, modern cosmopolitans, are convinced that we do ‘Green’ by buying ‘Green’; a recent car commercial stated:
“C4 = 0g.CO2

This is a blatant lie. In fact, it is not a lie resting upon a lie?
Not only is it physically impossible for a car to equal 0g CO2 but the premise upon which this kind of marketing rests (i.e. that global climate change can be stopped or mitigated by a reduction of environmental carbon dioxide) is also a lie.7 Furthermore, peculiarly, as if with purpose, the format of the advertised equation is not correct.
Though technically incorrect, this equation should read: C4 = 0g CO2

Generally, in connection with sustainable development, we excuse ourselves from a similar moral obligation in praxis, by simple assertions of practical inconvenience (impracticality). So it may be said that, in our time, sustainable development exists virtually – ‘on paper’ and ‘in theory’ – but is a practical impossibility.

Commuters, for example, are morally obliged to think about and communicate modes of transportation other than car driving; such as walking, bicycling, motorcycling, use of public transport, velomobiling, horse riding, ox&cart, etc.., but generally feel, and are morally excused from actual realization of these alternatives due to a supposition, or imposition, of practical impossibility; even car pooling is generally assumed to be inconvenient. Proof of this is evident in rush hour car traffic congestion, if not car traffic congestion generally.

The contemporary cultural moral is one of ideas, thoughts, plans (visions) about sustainability, but is largely not one of practice. The latter is actively deferred (disposed) to an unknown future generation. Implicit but unspoken, in this moral deference is the assumption that a supposed (envisioned) sustainable cultural moral will exist at some future time, by people other than us, as a congruence between moral ideas about the kinds of action that must be executed in order for H. Sapiens to sustain a viable population on Earth, and the actual execution of those acts.

Perhaps, in order to realize sustainable development, it is necessary for people, collectively, to change the contemporary cultural moral? In order for sustainable development to become a reality, moral congruence between habitus and praxis is necessary – at least in theory. The process of attaining such a cultural moral congruence will necessarily include wide-sweeping changes in social organization and regulation, in order to better facilitate the practical possibilities of the nascent cultural moral.

Bibliography and Notes
1) Interestingly, keeping one metaphorical eye on the past and the other on a probable future, a third is necessary in order to focus on the present.

2) World Commission on Environment and Development, “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future”, (1987), Oxford University Press,


4) N. Sykes, R. Hewison, (1987), “Sustainability in the Arts and Humanities”, The heritage industry: Britain in a climate of decline, London:Methuen, via The University of Nottingham, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike UK 2.0 Licence.

5) “The 2003 invasion and aftermath”, (2008), Trustees of the British Museum,

6) “Project Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis”, (2014), NASA,

7) Global climate change appears to be a cyclical phenomenon of periodic glaciations, stretching at least several hundred thousand years into Earth’s history. So it might be safe to assume that climate change (cycles of global warming and global cooling) is sustainable. Volumes have been written on the subject of global climate change, I shall not focus upon it here, other than to mention that it is of fundamental relevance to sustainable development.


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