Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Ecological Virtues

Well, as promised, this will now be a single post and not a series because there was less interest expressed than I expected.  Each of these brief notes could be expanded to be a post in itself.

What Virtues Should Be Nurtured if Humanity is to Live in an Ecologically Sustainable Fashion?

I can think of nine (9) such virtues, but I make no claims that these are exhaustive.  I would like to give credit where it is due here, but I can’t. The following comes from notes I took several years ago in one of the annual meetings of the Society of Christian Ethics, but I can no longer read the speaker’s name.  Nevertheless, readers should know that what follows is not original with me and, if any have seen this in print, please let me know so I can give proper attribution. No plagiarism intended.

  1. Sustainability: This is the virtue of living within the bounds of the regenerative, absorptive, and carrying capacities of the earth, continuously and indefinitely.  Within limits, the earth regenerates and renews itself–cut trees grow back if not overlogged; without overfishing or over-hunting, species’ populations will renew. Within limits, the earth can absorb our pollutants, even carbon emissions, and clean them from the air and water–but those limits are being reached and surpassed.  “Carrying capacity” refers to the ability of the earth to handle human populations. The maximum carrying capacity is not known, but is believed to be somewhere around 10 billion people–a number we are fast approaching.  When we fail to limit our own population size, we inevitably encroach on the habitats necessary to sustain the populations of other plants and animals–creatures God created and called “good.”
  2. Adaptability:  Closely related to sustainability is the virtue of adaptability.  Recognizing ecological limits, the virtue of adaptability accomadates to those forces and constraints of nature that cannot be changed.  Adaptability is an ecological virtue because so many environmental problems evidence the lack of it–e.g., reducing an ecosystem or a species’ population to a remnant that can be annihilated by a single natural disaster.  One of the reasons I have a very traditional view of human sinfulness, of our fallen nature, is that we pridefully insist that everything else in God’s creation adapt to us, but we refuse to adapt to natural forces. We often pay the price.
  3. Relationality:  This virtue can be defined as the acute sensitivity to the fact that everything is connected and has consequences for everything else.  Relationality demands that one think holistically and refuse to act as if one’s actions have no consequences.
  4. Frugality:  Here is a virtue that was much stressed in ages past, even at the beginnings of capitalism, but which is derided in our post-modern, late capitalistic culture.  Thrift, moderation, efficiency, simplicity of lifestyle, and stringent conservation are all implied by frugality.  It is the antithesis of consumerism and prodigality (and, thus, is subversive in our cultural context).  Frugality thrives on the control of one’s consumption, the reduction of waste, and comprehensive recycling.  Our grandparents in the “Greatest Generation” of the Great Depression and WWII cultivated frugality mightily, but it has been increasingly lost in the post-WWII era. The recovery of frugality is essential.
  5. Equity:  This is the virtue of justice as it is applied to the distribution of the world’s goods and services so that all human beings have the essential material conditions not just for bare survival, but for human dignity and social participation.  Since economic deprivation is a major cause and effect of ecological degradation, equity (distributive justice) is a necessary condition of ecological sustainability.  This virtue also applies to the fair distribution of costs and benefits for pollution and other forms of ecological degradation.
  6. Solidarity:  This virtue is the moral response to human interdependance.  Solidarity today must be global and environmental.
  7. Biodiversity:  Biodiversity is (currently) a fact of nature.  It is also a virtue to be cultivated:  the extension of solidarity to the whole biosphere.  Respect for biodiversity is a commitment to sustaining viable populations of all other species in healthy habitats until the end of their evolutionary time.  It is, therefore, characterized by antagonism to the radical reductions and extinctions of species.  This virtue, unlike sustainability, seeks to save other creatures for their own sake, not only for the sake of humanity’s own well-being.
  8. Sufficiency:  This is the overtly political member of the ecological virtues.  Solutions to ecological and/or economic problems must be proportionate to the intricacies and magnitude of the problems.  Sufficiency is the opposite of “too little, too late.”
  9. Humility:  This the self-realistic virtue that recognizes the limitations of human knowledge, technological ingenuity, moral character, and biological status.  It avoids overconfidence in human powers to control nature, exaggerations of human authority and rights over nature, and undervaluations of other creatures and their rights–to exist and thrive.

Additions, corrections, and discussion greatly welcome.  I do NOT suggest that a focus on virtues is all that is necessary for an ecological ethic, but I do think that this dimension is a necessary focus alongside considerations of a deontological and/or consequentialist nature.  I believe these virtues correspond to the overlapping dimensions of the ecological crisis:

  • Pollution of air, ground, and water.
  • Global Warming
  • Ozone Depletion (which will add to global warming)
  • Resource exhaustion
  • Overpopulation
  • Maldistribution of goods and services
  • Loss of Biodiversity
  • Perils associated with Genetic Engineering

October 15, 2007 - Posted by | ecology, theology


  1. The maximum carrying capacity is not known, but is believed to be somewhere around 10 billion people–a number we are fast approaching.

    A case has been made by many that our carrying capacity is less than 10 billion and perhaps less than our current 6 billion. We are able to feed people in the numbers that we currently do because of the “advances” made in agribusiness by relying upon fossil fuels for fertilizer and transport.

    Of course, as fossil fuels peak in the coming years and decades and the price begins to skyrocket, affordable food will be a problem and therefore, feeding all ~7 billion of us a problem.

    There are also serious questions about our water supply.

    Good list of virtues. I’m still thinking on them.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 16, 2007

  2. Dan, you’re right that our carrying capacity may have already been exceeded. And it has come at the expense of the habitats of many species which are now endangered.

    Some of our current population problem seems to be one of distribution: Europe’s rapidly falling population could use some of China’s millions.

    We don’t want birth control through draconian measures like a “1 child policy” enforced by coerced abortions, sterilizations, and the like. But we need to have free contraception and education in family planning–because nature’s methods of population control are even harsher than China’s: famine, pestilence, and resource wars.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2007

  3. As population continues to increase – perhaps beyond our carrying capacity – we may be faced with some devastating ethical dilemmas. No good freedom lover wants to propose forced population limits, but if in our liberty, we live beyond our means, then we’ll be faced with the same realities that non-human species face: a natural culling.

    Unfortunately, in our case, it will be the poorest and those with the least resources that will pay the bulk of the price, I fear.

    On the environmental front, did you see that the Olmsted Conservancy here in Louisville is awarding (sit down) McConnell their highest award this Friday?! It’s Halloween come early…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 16, 2007

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