The Ethics of Sustainability

Date: 19 Apr 2009 | posted in: Energy, equity, From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 1 Facebooktwitterredditmail

David Morris spoke on Earth Day 2009 to the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis on ethics.  Here are his remarks.

Thank you for inviting me to share this service with you.  My charge this morning is to speak to the issue of ethics and sustainability.  Let me begin with definitions.

Ethics is a set of moral values and standards that guide our conduct.  Those moral values and standards are not the same in all societies.  Ethics grow out of a society’s context.  Our own country offers an excellent example.  Indeed, we consider our history and culture so unique that our leaders often use the term American Exceptionalism to describe our economic and social niche.  In many ways the term is accurate.  The circumstances of our birth were exceptional.

The first settlers came to a continent enormously rich in natural resources, with 16 feet of topsoil and a moderate climate.  The settlers themselves were a product of almost Darwinian selection.  They were the most entrepreneurial and hardiest of the old world population.  Even by the first years after our founding, the standard of living of the average American was higher than that in any other society.  It is no surprise that we emphasize individualism and the rights of private property more than any culture in history.  And our ethics emerges from that culture.

Sustainability could mean stagnation or stasis but most often it is used to imply balance and accepts the need for innovation and dynamism.   The word is used to discuss environmental goals, but in the last few months I have heard it used to describe the financial sector.

Indeed, the phrase “systemic risk” used to describe the events leading up to the financial collapse has often been applied to the events that may lead to environmental collapse.  Developments in our financial system have taught us that individual behavior that is not only legal and ethical but highly esteemed can lead to the collapse of societies.  Whether we are going to change the ethical framework that has guided Wall Street remains to be seen.

On Earth Day 2009 we will hear about the need to save the planet.  But of course, the planet is not in danger.  It was here for billions of years before us.  Indeed, life itself was here for tens of millions of years before the human species emerged.  And the planet will be here along fter we depart.  The planet has been far colder and far warmer that it is today.  Much of the land surface of the world was once covered in water and glaciers covered parts of Minnesota even while the human species was organizing into tribes and clans.

Thus when we talk about sustainability, we mean the sustainability of the human race, not the planet, and even more concretely, the sustainability of a civilized and prosperous humanity.

Poverty and Global Warming

On the first Earth Day in 1970 the focus was on the environmental problem of toxic materials:  DDT, PCB, urban smog.  For the next 25 years environmental issues were largely local and regional, not global.  People living in one country did not have to be unduly concerned with environment problems in another country.

America could clean up our air and our water without taking into account that much of the globe continued to breathe unhealthy air and lack potable water.  Of course, some of us did care and tried to do alleviate that situation.   We were spurred by our own sense of ethics.  But our individual moral standards clearly were not those of the society at large.

Global warming is different.   It is the first time the environmental actions of people in another part of the world can affect living conditions worldwide.

Today Americans are engaged in a great debate about whether we will take responsibility for our own collective greenhouse gas emissions.  The outcome of that debate is still uncertain, but one thing is certain.  We cannot solve the global warming problem through our actions alone.  In the next 25 years, 80 percent of all new greenhouse gas emissions will come from the two-thirds of the planet that lives south of 30 degrees N. latitude.  That is approximately the latitude of New Orleans.

In the future most greenhouse gas emissions will come from the poorest on the planet.  The poor worry about survival not sustainability.    They cut down trees not to make glossy magazine paper but for fuel to cook.  Thus for the first time in history, worldwide poverty can directly undermine the well being of richer nations. We are learning that to tackle intergenerational equity we must address intragenerational equity and international equity. Lifting the world out of poverty while at the same time doing it without raising their greenhouse gas emissions is a challenge of the first order.

On this Earth Day the vast majority of media coverage will be on individual actions– planting trees or putting solar panels on the roof.  The newsletter of one New Jersey Unitarian church offered up 10 simple steps to clean up the planet.   We know these by heart.  Recycle, convert to more efficient light bulbs, car pool, etc.  All these are worthy actions.  I fully subscribe to all of them.

But individual actions will not get us where we need to go. We need collective action.  Collectively, we need to establish new rules, rules that grow out of the new ethics of sustainability.  We need statutes, codes, standards and incentives that will guide entrepreneurial energy and investment capital and scientific genius toward building sustainable and equitable economic systems.

We make the rules and the rules make us.  That is why a decade ago my organization established the New Rules Project.(To find out more go to

Let me offer you two concrete rules to illuminate how we can integrate the value of equity into our strategies for sustainability.

Cap and Dividend

One is called cap and dividend.   Almost everyone agrees that to reduce carbon emissions we need first to establish a cap on emissions and then ratchet that cap down. The cap will give a value to carbon emissions, and reductions, which in turn will generate price signals that can make low carbon strategies more economical.

Today politicians of all stripes who support the concept of greenhouse gas reduction embrace a concept called cap and trade.  That is a strategy in which nations establish a carbon cap and companies and individuals can purchase carbon permits from the government or buy them on a global carbon trading exchange.  Such a trading exchange currently exists to serve those seeking carbon offsets, that is, reductions in carbon emissions that can offset emissions generated by the individual or company.  This is how a rock concert or a symposium or the Democratic Convention can declare themselves carbon neutral events.  They purchased carbon credits.

Much has been written about the problems involved in buying carbon offsets.  How do we know greenhouse gases were actually reduced as a result of our purchases?  But there is a more fundamental problem with cap and trade. Cap and trade presumes the creation of a global trading system with a carbon-based currency.  Inevitably traders will begin to hedge their investments and soon will begin to bundle various kinds of carbon reduction investments and securitize the result.

Sound familiar?  It should.  The same people who gave us the current financial crisis are designing the architecture for a new global trading system based on a new form of currency.  I would hope our policymakers learn from recent history and abandon this strategy.

Cap and dividend takes another approach.  It sets a cap, which in turns establishes a value for carbon.  Then governments auction off the carbon permits to producers of fossil fuels and other major generators of greenhouse gas emissions.  These then pass on the cost increase down the supply chain in the form of price increases.  The innovation of cap and dividend is that it returns the money generated by the auction in equal per capita amounts to everyone. If trading occurs, it will be marginal to the system’s design

Why do we return the money equally per person?  Because the biosphere is a commons.(For those wanting to learn more about a commons and why the concept must become central to policymaking, visit    Who owns the sky?  We all do, equally.  And therefore if we are transforming the sky into an economic asset and charging a sky-dumping fee, we should all share equally in the income stream.

Cap and dividend yields two very important benefits.

One is that it is progressive.  It redistributes income.  It not only holds the poor harmless but benefits them.  We know that the poor spend more on energy as a percentage of their incomes than do wealthier households but they use far less in absolute amounts, both directly and indirectly.  Thus they will pay in less in higher prices than they will get back in dividends.

And when and if we go global with a cap and dividend strategy there will be a vast transfer of wealth from richer to poor countries.

The second benefit from cap and dividend is that it can generate desperately need popular support for greenhouse gas reduction. The goal of a carbon cap is to raise the price of carbon to generate price signals for producers.  It is impossible to think that Americans will support this kind of price increase without a cap and dividend program.  The dividend part of the program makes the vast majority of Americans immune to carbon increases. For when the price goes up the dividend goes up as well.  And when new technologies come in and the dividend goes down, so will our expenditures as we shift to new technologies.

A cap and dividend policy can be adopted not only by the national government but by state governments as well.  Currently about 20 states, including Minnesota, are designing their own climate change programs.

Carbon Neutral Buildings

My second new rule can be adopted by local governments.  This is a policy requiring that buildings be carbon neutral and if a building generates greenhouse gas emissions these need to be offset by a reduction in emissions elsewhere in the local area.

Why target buildings?

Because almost 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are from buildings and more than 75 percent of new energy is used for buildings.

And buildings are under local authority.  There is no national building code.  States are rarely involved in local land use planning.

More than 800 cities, including Minneapolis and Saint Paul and several other Minnesota cities, have formally agreed to abide by the Kyoto Protocol and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  My organization has examined a dozen of the pioneering Kyoto cities and found that the only greenhouse gas producing sector of the economy over which they exercise any real control is the building sector.

A carbon neutral building strategy would be applied in three steps.

First, to all new buildings, private as well as public.

Second, to all existing public buildings.

My organization sent a memo to Obama’s energy transition team in November asking the incoming President, by executive order, to require all 450,000 federal buildings become carbon neutral within 5 years.  We argued that aside from the greenhouse gas reductions that would ensue, this strategy would accomplish two very important objectives.  The federal buildings would become the training ground for the nation’s architects and engineers in applying the new principles of sustainable buildings.  And in every community there would be several kick-the-tires models of retrofitted buildings that are carbon neutral for people to visit and learn from. The memo was received.  So far the administration has decided not to embrace the strategy.

Third, to all existing private buildings.

When applying the carbon neutral building initiative to existing private buildings governments we will need to adopt another new rule. A major deterrent to people upgrading the efficiency of existing buildings is that they can borrow only at high interest rates for short terms.  But cities can borrow for 20-30 years at very low interest rates.  Therefore governments should borrow money and structure the resulting loan to households and companies such that it can be paid back through energy savings.

Both of these new rules could be adopted by Minnesota.  The carbon neutral building rule can be adopted by any jurisdiction in Minnesota.

That we live in an age of tumultuous change is almost a cliché.  But we should recall Bertrand Russell’s insight about the distinction between change and progress.  Change he said is inevitable.  Progress, however, is problematic.  Change is scientific.  Progress is ethical.

We will have change whether we will it or not.  But to achieve progress we must fashion new rules that guide human genius in new directions, toward the building of a sustainable and equitable future.

David Morris
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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.

David Morris
Follow David Morris:
David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.