Earth’s Systems as Models of Ethical Behavior: The Basis for an Ethic of Sustainability

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Timothy M Lutz, West Chester Univ, West Chester, PA, United States
The enormous advances in scientific understanding of the earth in the last 400 years led to a remarkable flourishing of humanity, but it also resulted in the disruption of critical systems on which we depend. Around the world, soil is lost faster than it forms; groundwater is withdrawn faster than it recharges; biodiversity and biocapacity are crashing; fossil fuels are 87% of our primary energy sources despite their many problems, including steadily rising emissions of CO2. Since 1600, science has honed an ethic of objectivity that insists that facts and values – scientific work and its real world outcomes – remain separate. As a result, our economy and society applaud as loudly when our graduates land jobs that further damage earth systems as when they seek to preserve them. Geoethics aims at the idea that balancing human action with the capacity of planetary systems is the primary “good.” Without healthy systems, we cannot thrive. Period. Ethical systems developed to mediate human relations are inadequate to find this balance: they implicitly acknowledge a rationality that places the highest value on short-term growth and efficiency, not on living sustainably in the long run. The best paragon of sustainability is the co-evolution of life and other systems on our planet over 3.5 billion years.

 This presentation explores the contributions of Gregory Bateson and other scientists to understanding systems in cybernetic terms. Bateson suggested that “What we believe ourselves to be should be compatible with what we believe of the world around us.” In other words, the path to a sustainable geoethics begins by re-internalizing lessons that humans alone in the biotic community seem to have forgotten. What are the “rules” by which systems sustain themselves? What do self-sustaining systems “value?” How can we help ourselves and our students learn them? I suggest that paying attention to the process of learning itself is an effective first step, and describe the use of a learning cycle model based on system cybernetics. The model provides a structure in which we and our students can reflect on our connections with the world and the limitations on what we can learn about it. I also show how to use campus and other landscapes to clarify the gap between human ethics and a sustainable geoethics.