Sustainability Ethics, or It’s More Than About Grandkids

I believe that climate change is real. By making that statement, I assume that some climate change skeptics will refrain from reading the rest of this post. That’s OK, because this post is not aimed at them; perhaps that will come in another writing in which I discuss non-scientific reasons to care for the environment, since science turns them off. Instead, this writing is for those, like me, firmly planted in the camp of climate change believers.

Several years ago, my wife and I decided that we did not want to have kids. We made that choice with plenty of thought and care, all the while putting up with the many people who scoffed at our decision and told us that we’ll eventually change our minds, particularly after our peers have children. Well, after over 17 years of marriage, we have seen plenty of friends have children and have welcomed three nephews and one niece, for whom we are very proud Auntie and Uncle. And yet despite all of these little ones, our no-kids decision has never been more permanent.

Don’t get me wrong; we love kids. My wife spent over a decade in the early learning field and I used to be a substitute teacher for 4th-12th graders. Currently, playing with our nephews and niece is an extreme pleasure for us, which we would be devastated to give up. But having kids of our own is not for us, and we gladly join the thousands of childless couples who feel the same way (or who have had to accept childlessness for physiological reasons).

What does a childless lifestyle have to do with climate change? Nothing with climate change per se, but a lot when it comes to the ethics of sustainable living. Time and again, from grassroots leaders to stars of the green movement on the national stage, I hear this chorus: “our actions now will make the world better for our kids and grandkids.” Whenever I hear such talk, I immediately tune out the speaker because their rationale for environmental responsibility is based on the wrong reason.

What about those who have no kids or grandkids? Am I then allowed to go and willy-nilly burn fossil fuels? Sure, I have nephews and a niece that I care about, but they’re not my kids. And even if the mantra included all familial kids, there are plenty of people who don’t have nieces or nephews either. My point is that you cannot have an ethics of sustainability for everyone based on a rationale that only affects some of the people.

A more accurate ethics would end the chorus above after the word “better” or include something like “for everyone, including people who you will never know.” But talk like that is likely never to gain much ground because it doesn’t play into our subconscious inclination toward selfishness. After all, a person is more likely to rescue their own child than they are a complete stranger. Yet, from an objective point of view, both people are human beings and in all regards equal, therefore equally worth saving.

The same could be said of trying to save the environment. Whether or not one has kids is not the point. Future generations of people — many of whom I will never get the chance to meet — will be affected by my (and our) actions or inactions on the environment now. A proper ethics of sustainability should ditch the talk on grandkids, and rather implore listeners to care about fellow human beings simply because they are fellow human beings. Perhaps by doing so our ethics will align to care about people as people, and positively impact the world in more ways than just the environment.

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