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Searching for Sustainability: Interdisciplinary Essays in the Philosophy of Conservation Biology. Bryan G. Norton. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003. 554 pp., illus. $30.00 (ISBN 052100778X paper).

Searching for Sustainability: Interdisciplinary Essays in the Philosophy of Conservation Biology examines the quest for sustainability from a variety of disciplinary viewpoints beyond conservation biology. It is a pluralistic and problem-oriented book. Most important, the author—who is a professor of philosophy, science, and technology at the School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology—emphasizes environmental ethics in a transdisciplinary framework. The author's two complementary, though not easily integrated, goals are (1) to understand sustainability as a policy goal independent of multidisciplinary perspective and (2) to show how philosophical discourse and argumentation, carried on within scientific and management contexts, can result in new insights and how changes in philosophical views have been achieved.

The use of the phrase “searching for sustainability” in the title is an excellent reminder that, at present, humankind has only an aspiration to live sustainably. Not only is the question of how to attain sustainability perplexing, but, even if this desirable state is achieved, several generations will be needed to confirm that sustainability has been reached. The author affirms that the most effective conservation ethic represents a concern that humankind leave a habitable planet for posterity. Most discussions on sustainability, however, focus on using technology to alter natural systems so as to serve humankind's unexamined demands. Suggestions rarely include altering human society's “needs” in order to develop a harmonious relationship with natural systems.

The book is composed of 27 papers, divided by category into six main sections. Despite this compartmentalization, transition from one concept to another is remarkably smooth. A number of authors (e.g., Thoreau) appear frequently in various sections; however, redundancy is remarkably low, and use of an author's writings more than once serves to link the various components.

Without meaning to criticize the sequencing of the components of the book, I suggest that paper 10 in section III be read first. This analysis of the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future (WCED 1987)—arguably the most influential work on sustainable development—will be beneficial to any reader not familiar with the literature on sustainability and its complexities. Along the same lines, paper 26 should be read by anyone with even a modest interest in sustainability; it states the issues concisely and objectively. Also intriguing is Thoreau's portrait of materialistic consumerism as an immature developmental stage of the person (p. 32).

Even though I had some initial reservations on this pivotal issue, I am inclined to agree with Norton's statement in paper 11: “It would be an ideal outcome if the various disciplines— economics, ecology, philosophy, environmental health, and environmental chemistry, to mention some prominent ones—could speak about social values in a common evaluational vernacular.” Norton believes that a clearly articulable difference between economists and most environmentalists exists, and also between economists and members of other disciplines, because of the difference in perspective of the array of disciplines. Environmentalists, he argues, are moralists; they believe that human beings have an obligation to protect the environment for its own sake. Economists, on the other hand, believe no such obligations exist.

A major deficiency of the book is its failure to emphasize humankind's dependence on the planet's ecological life support system, which provides such services as maintaining the atmospheric gas balance so that it benefits humans. Norton discusses ecosystem services, but he places little emphasis on their aggregate function as a life support system. The subsection on biodiversity and resources would have provided a superb opportunity to cover this topic. I would like to have seen the author's evaluation of such volumes as The Ecology of Commerce (Hawken 1993) and Natural Capitalism (Hawken et al. 1999). Industrial ecology (e.g., Tibbs's article “Industrial Ecology” [1992], Socolow and colleagues' Industrial Ecology and Global Change [1994]) also deserved attention, since it advocates the hybridization of two systems often viewed as polar opposites.

I am happy to add this book to my library, and I expect to use it frequently. The notes are very helpful and the references exceptionally broad. The goal of providing principles that combine individual experience and a participatory ecosystem process is admirable. Finally, the book is a “good read”: Even though the scope of this volume is great, it is remarkably easy to read and refreshingly free of disciplinary jargon. I recommend it to anyone wishing to gain a multidisciplinary perspective on the problem of sustainable development and its possible solutions.

References cited


P. A. Hawken 1993. The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. Covelo (CA): Island Press. Google Scholar


P. A. Hawken, A. Lovins, and H. Lovins . 1999. Natural Capitalism. New York: Little, Brown. Google Scholar


R. Socolow, C. Andrews, F. Berkhout, and V. Thomas . eds. 1994. Industrial Ecology and Global Change. Cambridge (United Kingdom): Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar


H. Tibbs 1992. Industrial ecology: An environmental agenda for industry. Whole Earth Review 77:4–19. Google Scholar


[WCED] World Commission on Environment and Development 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford (United Kingdom): Oxford University Press. Google Scholar


JOHN CAIRNS Jr. "ETHICAL ENVIRONMENTAL FUTURES," BioScience 53(10), 1007-1008, (1 October 2003).[1007:EEF]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2003

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