Sustainability is one of the major topics of the 21st century. More than ever before, politics, industry and society are now struggling with the issue of how to responsibly deal with limited resources. Professor of Philosophy and ethicist Konrad Ott explains why sustainability policy is first and foremost an ethical question and what role the pandemic could play.
On the one hand, a boom in cycling and a reduction in emissions, but on the other hand, disposable masks and online shopping: the coronavirus pandemic has both a positive and a negative effect on the environment. Konrad Ott, professor at the Institute of Philosophy advocates seeing this exceptional situation above all as an opportunity: "The pandemic brings a lot of things into question, our normal way of life is something that we have not had for more than a year. It was a time of taking stock, a time of asking ourselves: what is really valuable in life? So let us now consider how the future normal state of our society should differ from the pre-pandemic one. We have knowledge about climate change, biodiversity and nature conservation, the scientists have done their homework." Ott illustrates this with an image from ancient mythology. Kairos is the god of the right moment, described as a youth with a curl on his forehead with the rest of his head being bald. "If he passes by and an opportunity is not seized at that right moment, then he disappears, the window of opportunity is lost and might not recur for another generation," explained the ethicist.
Seizing that opportunity is something that can be done, for example, in matters of mobility. The pandemic has shown, not least through the boost in digitalisation that has accompanied it, that it is possible to implement a high level of mobility with less traffic, for example, through working from home. "Mobility means I can achieve certain objectives. I could theoretically reach almost every point on the globe within 24 hours, but I prefer to live here in the provinces," stressed Ott. "In addition, I am distinctly mobile even though I sit here the whole day long. From 2pm to 4pm I am in a digital meeting in Bremen and from 4pm to 6pm I am in Konstanz via Zoom. There are many other people who are more transport intensive because they commute 80 kilometres every day, but they are not particularly mobile because they always travel the same routes." In the tourism sector, too, various business models from cruises to short haul flights are being reviewed, he added.
But why should sustainability policy put so much responsibility on individuals? How we deal with natural resources, the climate or biodiversity raises the moral question of what kind of world future generations can expect to live in, according to Ott. "If I then look at the difficulties of intellectually shaping responsibility for people who do not even exist yet, who cannot speak for themselves, whose values I do not know, whose individuality I cannot know – then it changes from being a moral question to an ethical question. Ethics is, after all, a reflection on moral questions. Sustainability has two normative dimensions: on the one hand, responsibility for the future and on the other hand, the question of values of nature." Both were anchored in German Basic Law a long time ago. In 1994 – soon after the reunification of Germany – protection of the natural foundations of life alongside national objectives such as democracy, the rule of law and the welfare state were written into the German Constitution under Article 20a. Eight years later, this article was extended to include animal welfare.
Sustainability has two normative dimensions: on the one hand, responsibility for the future and on the other hand, the question of values of nature.
Whether or not policy-making does justice to this individual responsibility is a question of perspective. In any case, Ott urges us not to ignore the successes: "I can now look back on 45 years of environmental policy and we have achieved quite a lot at national level. Pollution control of the air and waterways, 40 percent reduction in CO2, implementation of the Water Framework Directive, designation of national parks, protected areas for birds and marine life – I could list so much more. The situation in Germany is not nearly as bad as it is described in some apocalyptic crisis narratives. But we should not think that one percent of the world’s population can solve a global problem like climate change." In this respect, he said, we must look mainly to medium-sized, rapidly developing countries and our own role as pioneers, for instance, in phasing out coal and expanding renewable energies. Technological development and diffusion can help emerging markets to transition straight to renewable energies without making any detours. "Then perhaps we will be in a position globally to keep global warming to significantly below 2 degrees, ideally even to 1.5 degrees," said the ethicist.
Further reading: Konrad Ott/Reinhold Popp (ed.): Die Gesellschaft nach Corona ökologisch & sozial. Perspektiven für Deutschland & Österreich. LIT Verlag Münster, 2020.