Ethics and sustainability

Posted on October 5, 2014


A student asks a great question:

Why does the Polytechnic focus on a sustainable viewpoint in everything it does, rather than an ethical one? We spend a few weeks discussing ethics in Software Engineering, but acting ethically and in the interests of society is a cultural shift, not academic knowledge. Surely sustainable practices would flow from ethical decision making?


If 30 of us graduate with an ethical viewpoint, and then make a good decision once a month, that’s 3,600 ethical decisions made a year. Better than 3,600 decisions of whether or not printing out a photo of their kid to stick on the wall because it uses paper & power.

First up, it is awesome that you are discussing this, more than anything else the precursors to being a both ethical and a sustainable practitioner are that you care and that you are open to critical thought.  I have had many interesting discussions with leading thinkers about the relationship between ethics and sustainability.  You can sensibly take either side of a debate about which is the super-set of the other – to the extent that the argument is somewhat moot – they are clearly intertwined concepts.  My favourite definition of sustainability is “ethics expanded in time and space”.  I’m working on a book that explores this concept, but in brief, sustainability adds dimensions to ethical thinking.  These dimensions help provide scaffolding for applying that ethical thought but also pose some challenging extra questions (see also this discussion on the implications of adding the temporal element “inter-generational equity“).

So what is sustainability beyond ethics? Sigrid Stagl’s work is an education piece that contains the best descriptions of the sustainability problem I know of (see my recommended reading list):

We have to learn to live in a complex world of interdependent systems with high uncertainties and multiple interests in society. The main challenges for sustainability science arise from the systems’ characteristics (complex and evolving), indeterminancy of outcomes (comprising risk, uncertainly, ambiguity and ignorance, Stirling and Mayer 2004) and the democratic resolution of the problem of unsustainability needs to account for multiple legitimate perspectives.

And my later expansion on these ideas:

As a society we have to learn to live in a complex world of interdependent systems with high uncertainties and multiple legitimate interests.  These complex and evolving systems require a new way of thinking about risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance (Stagl 2007).  These systems require that we can think simultaneously of drivers and impacts of our actions across scales and barriers of space, time, culture, species and disciplinary boundaries.   It means that we need to switch from a focus on outcomes to one of process.

You’ll see that this does not mention photocopying or recycling.  These actions – like changing to long-life light bulbs –  are necessary but are insufficient to deliver the system changes Stagl describes. Nor is it just about “the environment” – the systems in question are as much social as they are biophysical.

Also, we need to remember that “do no harm” is only half of ethics.  While it is a useful starting point, and can be expanded to questions such as whether everybody could live as I do?, it leads little past a compliance mindset (see Willard’s five stages).  The other half is “do good”.  It is worth noting that the modern version of the medical Hippocratic Oath doesn’t start with “first do no harm” but rather with the more affirming and action focused pledge to “the service of humanity”.

Computing can be considered a leverage discipline. Our service – our potential to do good –  is vastly greater than our negative impact.  In other words and with popular sustainability words, our handprint is massively greater than our footprint.  Don’t get me wrong, our footprint is seriously huge, if we just consider climate change (and we shouldn’t as sustainability is very much wider than that, but energy and carbon are useful proxies), ICT contributes about 2% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.  This is about the same as the aviation industry. This is huge and we need to do everything we can to reduce this burden on the planet.  But our potential handprint is bigger, much bigger.  Smarter2020 estimates “ICT-enabled solutions offer the potential to reduce GHG emissions by 16.5%”.  Skip Laitner estimates that our society runs on about 14% energy efficiency “we are wasting most of what we produce” .  While not the only solution –  we need to consume less too – a big chunk of the gain Laitner describes can only come from ICT enabled systems improvements, perhaps as much as 30-40%.

ICT is not just about efficiency gains though, and the problem is not just about carbon or energy.  How can ICT help biodiversity loss? massive global inequities? or even local problems such as why the logs are transported on the road instead of the adjacent train track?  Ethics and sustainability are rarely as simple as choosing between an obvious good and an obvious bad.   The world is beset with wicked problems, but as Andy Read describes, “the wickedness of problems is no excuse for standing by”.  Rather than your hypothetical “one good decision per month”, we need to be thinking about every decision, every action contributing to a system operating under ethical principles.  Sustainability provides a framework for expanding ethical reasoning to a complex world.

We are continuing to work to understand the relationship between ethics and sustainability in teaching (see “An ethical basis for sustainability in the worldviews of first year students“).  Can we get away with only teaching one or the other?  In short, no. Measured ethical sophistication had a significant relationship with a sustainable worldview, but this only explained 20% of variation in that worldview.

This suggests that although teaching ethics should help develop a more pro-ecological worldview, it is not sufficient.  While the two are related, sustainability is not simply ethics rebranded.


Hence, although they are related – and perhaps usefully so for developing teaching engagement strategies – ethical sophistication, an ecological worldview and the practice of being a sustainable practitioner each need to be the focus of deliberate acts of teaching”.

I have talked with a lot of leading thinkers in this space.  These conversations are archived at Many of these conversations involve the relationships between computing and sustainability, or design and sustainability.  Donald Norman has some useful thoughts about empathy as the principle underpinning design here.

Other readings:

Thanks for the prompt @VinLew