Does Morality Matter in Saving the Planet?

Image credit: After Gutenberg

When I posted a video of a mainstream farmer trying to green his operations, commenter Adam suggested that he was just doing it for economic reasons. That's an observation that gets bandied about a lot here at TreeHugger—that this company, or that individual, is not really interested in true sustainability. They are just in it for themselves.

I guess the big question is this—does it matter?Undoubtedly there are huge moral implications to how we treat this planet and its inhabitants. Choosing to protect the natural world, and to create conditions where human, animal and plant life can thrive is—I believe—one of the highest ethical callings there is.

Having said that, if we environmentalists do our job right we will start to see people changing their ways—not because they have had a sudden moral epiphany—but because there is simply a better way of doing things. Why waste money on unnecessary energy use? Why spend hours of our day stuck in traffic? Why not enjoy walkable, quiet, pollution free neighborhoods? There is plenty to like about sustainability, even if you don't give a hoot about the biosphere.

Framing the debate in terms of eco-villains is certainly problematic. As soon as we paint any one entity or individual as being inherently bad, we give up the opportunity for dialogue. Rejecting people's efforts towards a, dare I say it, "more sustainable" way of doing things, just because we don't like their motives smacks a little too closely of the pious eco-nag or green religious zealot.

Nevertheless, we can't abandon the moral aspect of the debate either. From biomass power plants causing deforestation to the risks of geoengineering, there are very few aspects of green technologies that are without their own moral conundrums. It is this distinction that cuts to the heart of the issue—we shouldn't judge an individual's actions by their motivations, but we should judge the likely outcome by our own collective (and/or individual) moral compass.

That means that if a business chooses to cut carbon emissions and embrace efficiency because the CEO is a greedy monster, so be it. The CEO's motivations do not automatically delegitimize his or her actions. But if, in the course of pursuing those goals, that same company undermines the natural resources we all depend on, or engages in questionable social practices, then we need to start asking questions and demanding answers.

Yes morality matters in saving the planet. But let's not let it get in the way of protecting the earth.

More on Sustainability in Ethics, Strategy and Practice
Sustainability is Not Black or White - "More Sustainable" is Possible
The Unintended Consequences of Zero Waste - When Waste Becomes a Resource
Who Are the Real Eco-villains?
Is Industrial Monoculture the Real Path to Sustainable Farming
To Win, The Green Movement Needs to Understand Leverage, Not Just Footprints
Environmentalists Need Strategy: Saul Alinsky and the Green Movement
Individual Virtue vs. Collective Success: Why Environmentalists Must Take Political Action

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Tags: Activism | Corporate Responsibility | Economics