Learning to think sustainably for the long-term
People tend to be very focused on the short-term which makes it difficult to convince them that they have to act in sustainable ways because the environment is, after all, a permanent thing.
“The original intention behind technology was to protect us from the environment”, Dr Andreas Spahn explains. “We built houses to protect us from the weather and ships to sail safely over the sea. For the last century or so, though, it would seem that technology has gradually started to threaten nature, which means that we must view technology in a different light.”
The question that arises is whether the western way of thinking is equipped to do this. Classical ethics tends to deal predominantly with the short-term: what are the moral consequences of my actions if I do something that has an instant effect, like assaulting someone or stealing something? When people’s actions are filtered through technology the consequences often become less transparent. In addition to this there are situations in which the effects only become evident in the long-term. In other cultures, nature is sometimes a factor in itself which means that sustainability is easier to integrate into such outlooks on the world. The way in which western society is organized is not conducive to such thinking. The deterioration of the environment is something that will affect future generations but they have no say in the matter. Their voices are not heard in the policy-making processes. From the economic point of view, it is also very easy to pass on the environmental damage “bill” to future generations. These are all aspects that serve to socially sanction short-term thinking.
“What is interesting is the fact that people do, however, acknowledge the importance of sustainability”, Spahn notes. “Despite this they are not able to convert their environmental knowledge into action. To make that extra step they need to be given a push. They are aware of the situation and often ask to be stimulated. Fortunately there are possible ways and means, one may think, for instance, of channelling environmental matters into areas where people do easily allow themselves to be led, such as price in the form of CO2 tax. Ultimately sustainability must become a natural facet of our thinking and that is a goal that can only be achieved by educating and informing the masses.”
In technology itself we are starting to see many positive spin-offs. Increasing numbers of engineers are being trained to constantly bear sustainability in mind when designing. “Engineers are natural problem solvers”, Spahn remarks. “When designing cars they have always automatically considered the safety of the driver and passengers. That is also an ethical matter. Sustainability is a new dimension but not one that demands any fundamentally different ways of thinking. The problem may be different but essentially the basic approach is not.”