Sustainability as social responsibility

You probably noticed that Desjardins’ position fits quite well into the Triple Bottom Line view of corporate responsibility, but it’s easy to see how it fits into stakeholder theory, since almost all stakeholders in a corporation will benefit from that corporation’s sustainable business practices. And its also easy to imagine how Desjardins’ moral imperative can be seen as a social responsibility, because society benefits from the having a clean, stable environment. But the responsibility of business to maintain environmentally sustainable practices is most clearly a social responsibility when we consider these cases in Brazil and India of exporting pollution and agricultural exploitation.

Even if you were to hold a moral view on which the environment itself has no special value, it is difficult to deny that it is valuable to the people who depend on it for survival, and that those people are morally significant. As Desjardins points out, if we do not make our business models more environmentally sustainable, we condemn the poorest people in the world to continued poverty, since economic growth will stall as environmental resources become increasingly scarce.

As we mentioned before, if we have any moral obligations to the environment, those obligations will likely stem from our concern for the people who depend on it. However, there are other reasons we might think that we have these environmental responsibilities.

  1. We might have responsibilities to the environment because people currently rely on it for their livelihoods, health, or even just enjoyment.
  2. We might have responsibilities to the environment because future people, who haven’t been born yet, deserve access to the environment in the same state that it was in when those of us who are alive now found it.
  3. We might have responsibilities to the environment because the plants and animals that live in it are valuable, and worth protecting, not because they are beneficial to humans, but because they are morally significant on their own.
  4. We might have responsibilities to the environment because the environment itself is valuable. Perhaps even if no humans existed, the environment would be morally significant on its own merits, and worth protecting.

As you can see, these reasons are ordered from those to which we are most likely to be sympathetic, to those that are most detached from our normal experience. It is easy to recognize that we personally and other people who exist today either depend on the environment in some way, or at least enjoy it. But it seems like the environment is very stable and it seems unlikely that we will do enough damage to it in our lifetimes to affect any of us who are living now. It is harder to sympathize with people who will live in the future, but easier to see how the slow, accumulated harms to the environment might affect them. It is even easier to see the effects of human activities on the natural habitats of animals, since there are many cases in recent history of animals being harmed or even whole species being wiped out as a result of human industry. But it is difficult to sympathize with animals, since they are so fundamentally different from us and, because of this difference, some argue that they are not morally significant. This alien-ness applies even more strongly to the environment itself, which is not even a living thing, at least in the typical sense. The environment is so unlike a human person that it seems bizarre to attribute to it the kind of moral significance that humans have. But it is easiest of all to see how the environment itself is affected by human activity. Wilderness is all the time being converted to human territory. Forests are cleared, meadows paved, rivers dammed, and canals dug in the name of human progress, and maybe this is all perfectly morally permissible, but we might have at least some reason to limit ourselves whenever possible, for the sake of preserving as much of the natural environment as we can.

As you saw from the cases of Brazil and India, the social problem of poverty only works to compound environmental problems created by the development of human society. We are most sympathetic to the responsibility of environmental protection when we see it as a social responsibility. We preserve the natural environment as much as we can so we can continue to reap its benefits, or so those who are yet to be born will inherit a world that is at least as good as the one we were born to.