Handbook of Sustainable Development
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Handbook of Sustainable Development

Second Edition

Edited by Giles Atkinson, Simon Dietz, Eric Neumayer and Matthew Agarwala

This timely and important Handbook takes stock of progress made in our understanding of what sustainable development actually is and how it can be measured and achieved.
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Chapter 7: Ethics and sustainable development: the virtues of an adaptive approach to environmental choice

Bryan G. Norton and Allen Thompson


Most writing on environmental ethics concerns the dichotomy between humans and non-humans, and much of the work in the field has been motivated by the effort to escape ‘anthropocentrism’ with respect to environmental values. Resulting debates about whether to extend ‘moral considerability’ to various elements of non-human nature have been, to say the least, inconclusive and writings in this vein have had no discernible impact on the development of sustainability theory or on public policy more generally (Goodpaster, 1978). Yet now more than ever, in light of the grave threats posed to humanity and the rest of nature by climate and other radical anthropogenic environmental changes, we need an environmental philosophy that can affect policy and be useful in advancing sustainability theory. In this contribution, a new approach to re-conceptualizing our responsibilities toward nature is proposed. This approach begins with a re-examination of spatio-temporal scaling in the conceptualization of environmental problems and human responses to them, and it ends up fitting well with an alternative approach in environmental ethics that is based on virtues of character rather than non-anthropocentric values in nature. Before turning to a description of this emerging approach to management – sometimes called ‘adaptive management’ – in this introductory section we will briefly summarize the current situation in environmental ethics.

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