Sustainability If

Painting of two bluefin tuna surrounded by swirls of hundreds of little fish

By Lisa Kemmerer

All oppression creates a state of war.

– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex


“Sustainability” refers to an “ability to endure across time.” In the environmental movement, “sustainability” statements always entail an unstated “if.” In this usage, a particular action is deemed unsustainable if we value and wish to protect and preserve certain aspect of the natural environment.  Certain actions/consumer options are considered sustainable if they do not cause worrisome environmental problems.  Environmentalists who note that our beef habit is unsustainable are really saying that our beef habit cannot be sustained if we are to preserve rainforests and freshwater, if we are to arrest dead zone growth and climate change.  In these instances it is readily apparent that sustainability rests on common shared moral commitments to protecting the environment on which we depend. In this context, if we were to make a full and complete statement with regard to sustainability, we might say:

  • Eating bluefin tuna is unsustainable if we intend to protect endangered species.
  • Eating cheese is unsustainable if we hope to arrest the spread of dead zones.
  • Eating shrimp is unsustainable if we value ocean ecosystems, including essential, fragile deep-sea reefs.

In each of the above cases the “if” is rarely stated, and what we are likely to hear or read would look or sound something like this:

  • Bluefin tuna is unsustainable.
  • Cheese is unsustainable.
  • Shrimp is unsustainable.

When we finish the sentence, stating clearly the unspoken but essential “if,” we realize that statements of environmental sustainability rest on a moral commitment to make selections that decrease, rather than increase, environmental degradation.  In short, we come to see that sustainability statements rest on commonly held moral values.  We also come to see that our responsibility as consumers is often omitted—the product is labeled “unsustainable.”

What is most interesting about the missing “if” in the environmental context is that reinserting this conjunction allows us to see that sustainability is the key not just to environmental justice, but to social justice more broadly. Sustainability can fruitfully be employed in any social justice context. Consider in these more diverse applications of the term:

  • It is unsustainable for racist police to brutalize Black civilians if we hope to arrest the spread of hatred and violence.
  • Forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term is unsustainable if we value self-determination.
  • Permitting only heterosexuals to enjoy the financial and social benefits of legal marriage is unsustainable of we intend to protect human rights.
  • If we are committed to an ethic whereby we value justice and protect the vulnerable from the exploitation of the powerful, eating chickens is unsustainable.


Landscape view of a cattle herd in a cleared rainforest area

Sustainability is not just about cycling and recycling, it is also about redistributing wealth, yielding wrongly-gained power to the disenfranchised, and protecting all who are vulnerable from the miseries of exploitation and oppression.  Unsustainable behaviors—racist, sexist, homophobic, speciesist, ableist, ageist, and consumer behaviors—ought to be avoided not only if we value clean water and forests, but also if we value justice and peace.

At the end of the day, these unsustainable behaviors are interconnected. For example industrial fishing is unsustainable not only because it harms ocean ecosystems, but also because it is unjust—industrial fishing harms indigenous communities dependent on depleted ecosystems for subsistence survival.  Industrial fishing is therefore unsustainable if we intend to protect the comparatively powerless—ocean ecosystems, indigenous peoples, and fish—from powerful corporate interests and their indifferent/uninformed consumers. Similarly, factory farming is unsustainable if we value rainforests, fresh water reserves, and the earth’s present climate, and also if we value worker’s rights, the protection of defenseless farmed animals, and the health of unsuspecting consumers who suffer from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and obesity because of animal products they consume. These practices are unsustainable if—but not only if—we intend to protect the natural environment from horrendous environmental degradation. They are also unsustainable if we value justice and peace—if we intend to protect the vulnerable, whether minorities, the disenfranchised, or other species.


Further Reading

Kemmerer, Lisa. “Defending the Defenseless: Speciesism, Animal Liberation, and Consistency in Applied Ethics.” Les Ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum 9:3 (2015).

Kemmerer, Lisa. “Ecofeminism: Women, Environment, Animals.” DEP: Deportate, Esuli, Profughe. Ca’ Foscari University of Venezia, Italy, 23 (2013).

Click here to download the introduction to Speaking Up for Animals: An Anthology of Women’s Voices

Click here to download the introduction to Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice


KemmererDr. Kemmerer is a professor of Philosophy and Religion and a prolific author in animal ethics.  Her books include In Search of Consistency: Ethics and AnimalsAnimals and World ReligionsSister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice, Call to Compassion: Reflections on Animal AdvocacySpeaking Up for Animals: An Anthology of Women’s Voices, and Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education. She is particularly interested in intersections of Nonhuman Animal advocacy and environmental advocacy in the spirit of Marti Kheel, as is evidenced in her 2015 publication Eating Earth: Environmental Ethics and Dietary Choice and her editorial work for the 2015 anthology Animals and the Environment: Advocacy, Activism, and the Quest for Common Ground.