A New Professional Ethics for Sustainable Prosperity

Igor Heifetz ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

This essay by Melissa Lane forms part of a series within the work programme of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, investigating the philosophical understandings of sustainable prosperity.

Whose job is it to save the planet? Apart from a very few people—the director of Greenpeace International or the French minister who presided over COP 21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), say—the task is not in anyone’s job description. Even those whose jobs involve some kind of responsibility for sustainability may take their professional responsibility to be bounded by, even exhausted by, the current ambitions and commitments of their organization within the field. Yet there is no guarantee that the current configuration of norms, whether for markets, professions, or government regulation, is sufficient to achieve a truly sustainable society. On the contrary. Suppose that we understand sustainability as involving self-reinforcing norms over the long term, norms that support development and more generally social and economic activity that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (to invoke the summary definition of sustainable development from the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development led by Gro Harlem Brundtland). The externalities associated with impacts on the long-term future are difficult for economic systems to incorporate, whether market or non-market systems, and even effective governments can struggle to take them fully into account. The pressures of more immediate gains in the short-term are felt by individuals, firms, and governments alike…