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Number: 67
Year: 1999
Author: Eloísa Trellez Solís and Gustavo Wilches Chaux
Title: Education for a Sustainable Future in the Americas

The Ethical Dimension of Environmental Education for Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainability implies an ethical stance with respect to life and the environment. Sustainability, in fact, represents a principle of accountability, both in terms of our own survival possibilities and those of future generations. Ethics therefore refer to individual and collective rights to life. For human beings, this right refers not simply to the possibility of a vegetative existence, but rather to a life of quality and with dignity.

The concept of a life of quality cannot be generalized in the Americas, and particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, precisely because of what we have described as “total biodiversity”. We have already referred to the need to improve indicators that allow us to measure quality of life in terms of human satisfaction, adapted to the ecological and environmental features of each culture, and not simply in econometric terms. Unfortunately, such indicators are still experimental.

Nevertheless, we know that sustainable development and a life of quality are two closely-related concepts. In the long run, no development process can be sustainable if it does not guarantee to the members of a given community equitable opportunities for a life of quality.

Questions such as those set out in Chapter II under subheading “Process Indicators and Criteria to Assess Sustainability, which determine whether a given process or policy intervention leads to sustainability or renders communities and their natural environment more vulnerable, also provide the tools needed to define a given ethical stance in the face of specific processes.

Defining an appropriate ethical position in terms of sustainability also relates to questions concerning the prevailing notion of “success” in the dominant model of development. This notion is apparently based on market rationality and science, which identifies competition, and the survival of the fittest (accompanied by the corresponding disappearance of the less fit) as the driving force behind evolution. Thus, the measurement of “success” is economic and social. According to such measures, therefore, coexistence, compassion and solidarity have little or no value.

The realm of biology itself, however, demonstrates that the real driving force of co-evolution (joint evolution of organisms and their dynamic environment) has not been annihilating competition but, rather, co-operation. Through symbiosis, in terms of sustainability, life has been able to survive on Earth for more than four million years and has successfully adapted the Earth in ways more favorable to sustaining life. Symbiosis, in turn, stems from the “organic conviction” that complete separation between organisms and their environment does not exist, but rather, that both constitute an indivisible whole. An acceptable quality of life for the whole is only possible as a result of the quality of life of its parts, in the same manner that the quality of these parts is only possible as a result of the quality of the whole.

The “design,” “testing” and “selecting” of sustainable mechanisms have occurred over the course of four million years in order to produce a natural environment adapted to prevailing planetary conditions. These, in turn, have caused substantial transformations of the Earth itself, forcing new adaptations which, again, have influenced the environment, and so forth ad infinitum. From the time human culture appeared on Earth, however, adaptation mechanisms no longer exclusively depended on biological, or even ecological processes but, also on willful and conscious decisions. From the moment we not only estranged cultural from environmental evolution but also allowed this form of evolution to begin to destroy the mechanisms that guaranteed the sustainability of the biosphere, development ceased to be sustainable.

Challenge for the Future
  • To assume the ethical challenge of putting ourselves, the tangible expression of culture, at the service of sustainability rather than in opposition to it, as we are now. To accomplish this, we must substitute cooperation for annihilating competition, cohabitation for conquest; and we must adopt a respect for life as a fundamental value.