2002 Denver Annual Meeting (October 27-30, 2002)

Paper No. 6
Presentation Time: 3:30 PM


FISHER, George W., Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins Univ, 3400 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218, gfisher@jhu.edu

Discussions of sustainability must engage three questions: How should we allocate resources of time, energy, and material between meeting human needs and those of the natural ecosystem? Between current human needs and those of future generations? And between the needs of us in the west and those in the still-developing world?

Answers to ethical questions like these depend heavily upon our sense of what it means to be human and the responsibilities implied by that understanding. To be reliable, our sense of who we are and how we ought to behave must be grounded in an accurate objective knowledge of ourselves and the context in which we live. To empower us to do the right thing even in difficult circumstances, our self-understanding must elicit in us a deep sense of subjective commitment.

Many moral traditions, both secular and religious, convey their subjective power through mythic stories of heroic ancestors or creation. When it questions the objective truth of these stories, science tends to undercut their subjective power. But science – especially Earth science – also offers stories that convey an accurate understanding of the context in which we live and can elicit a deep subjective sense of engagement. They tell grand stories of shifting continents and rising mountain chains, and touching stories of once-dominant animal groups being replaced by newcomers. These stories convey a sense of awe, affinity with other creatures, and perhaps gratitude for being a part of the story. They provide a vision of Earth community that is vastly expanded in both space and time, and a sense of the intricate ways in which all elements of the system are connected – a vision that offers a rich source of ethical insight by showing how human flourishing depends upon the health of the Earth system as a whole.