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Achieving an Ecologically Sustainable Society

What would Plato suggest we do to restore the earth’s health? Could Plato’s Republic offer wisdom to help us save our planet? Melissa Lane, professor of politics and associated faculty member at the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) at Princeton University, addresses these questions and many more in her recent book, “Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living.”

In an interview with PEI, Lane describes the inspiration for this book and what she determined, through many years of research, to be at the heart of what modern sustainability needs to achieve.


Melissa Lane (Photo: Denise Applewhite)

PEI: How do you define sustainability?

Lane: I define sustainability broadly as the production and reproduction of a society relating to the environment in ways which are both valuable in themselves and sustainable over time. I think sustainability must be understood as a dynamic idea which will continue to change as contexts change. It relates to a broad condition for what I call, drawing on Plato, a conception of the good -- realizing potential and improving quality of life, protecting and enhancing the earth as an ecosystem. So sustainability is not about maintaining the status quo ad infinitum into the future, or about sustaining what is damaging as well as what is worthwhile. It is about reconfiguring society within the limits of the earth so that over time, society will be ever more able to realize and instantiate what is good and valuable. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t make sense to make ‘sustainability’ itself into our principal goal; the goal is rather to achieve other independent goods in sustainable ways. The ultimate aim should be for ‘sustainability’ as a separate good to disappear, becoming wholly absorbed into the structure and nature of every other good that we pursue. In the meantime, however, significant attention and initiative are required to reshape our society on sustainable terms.

PEI: What inspired you to write this book?

Lane: Before coming to Princeton in 2009, I taught at the University of Cambridge, where I became very much involved as a faculty member with the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership and the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme. For over ten years, I had the opportunity to engage regularly in talking with business and public policy leaders about the challenges of sustainability and about the broad frameworks of ethics and politics that could be used to think about them (and I continue to be a Senior Associate of the Cambridge Programme). It was this experience – and in particular teaching the image of the Cave from Plato’s Republic – which inspired me to write this book. My goal was to explain how Plato’s idea of the stability of the relation between the individual and the society, which depends upon internalization of virtues and what is good, is at the heart of what modern sustainability needs to achieve.

PEI: What are your recommendations for living sustainably in the United States today?

Lane: I don’t have any special expertise in relation to this question as I’m not a policy expert. I use philosophy and political theory to demonstrate the importance of thinking about how we think, as well as how we live, in relation to sustainability. My hope is that this will inspire others to begin and continue concrete efforts to redesign the goals and means of their organizations and their own personal life in a more holistically sustainable way. Many people are already far along this path, and the book celebrates their stories, showing that the reenvisioning of individual motivations and social goals in sustainable terms is already begun. My contribution is to articulate those stories in Platonic terms, showing how a Platonic framework can help us make sense of the nature and extent of the changes required, and so to formulate further commitments.

PEI: What are a few of the most significant changes individuals can make to help the collective?

Lane: Again, while I’m not a policy expert, I do argue that individuals can become examples for others, and that our individual choices constitute changing nodes in what others construe as the ‘normal’ way to behave. I am not in the business of prescribing specific changes to others, but I would encourage people to think about how to reconceive their projects and lives to make them not merely less harmful in terms of carbon emissions, but more positively designed to contribute to a broad-based set of solutions. Retrofitting your house for energy efficiency is a good example: it’s less sexy than solar panels, but actually reduces the gap that needs clean energy to fill, while changing the standards for the housing stock on the market.

PEI: What are the most important ideas about sustainability you hope to communicate to your students?

Lane: I encourage students to think about sustainability not simply as posing technical, scientific, or economic challenges (though those are considerable), but as inviting us to rethink the history of political thought and of ethics in order to develop frameworks adequate to the challenges posed. In the spirit of the Princeton grand challenges, I explore how the humanities can speak to the challenge of sustainability, articulating ideas of value, psychology, and motivation, which must be at the heart of any adequate response.

PEI: Has your teaching changed as a result of the research you conducted to write the book?

Lane: I am planning at some stage to teach a seminar on environmental ethics and political thought in which I could address these issues more explicitly. Meanwhile, however, I try to incorporate an awareness of present challenges into the way that I teach the great works of political theory.