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Edited by Peter Dauvergne
Chapter 36: A Sustainability Ethic
Thomas Princen1 If ethics enters an exposition on public policy, business, law or medicine, it typically comes at the end, after all the data and cases and analyses are completed. In a longstanding project, what I call “a social theory of ecological sustainability,” I elect to put ethics right up front, in part to be contrary, but in part to make explicit a defining feature of sustainability. When all is said and done, when all the science is laid out, concepts built up, and histories written, the sustainability question is about values, values embedded in worldviews and expressed through the principles and language of individual choice and collective action. And value choices are ethical choices. Another reason I open with ethics is to be as clear as possible about my own value choices as a social theorist. I take sustainability as a social goal on the order of peace, democracy, and justice. For all the uses and abuses of the term,2 for all the bending and stretching of the concept to accommodate every sundry agenda, I see sustainability as a major social imperative of our time, as a defining feature of the twenty-first century, perhaps the defining feature: if we do not get this right, all the rest – economic prosperity, freedom, human rights – are moot. I also put ethics up front because, to engage the ethical is to prompt the definitional. It is to specify the scope of the task, to clarify what is foundational, to assert that a...
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