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Sustaining technology: From sustainable development to the craft of moral life

Davison, Aidan G.M. (1999) Sustaining technology: From sustainable development to the craft of moral life. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In this dissertation I inquire into the moral possibilities opened up by the ideal of sustainability in the technological society. I argue that these possibilities have been obscured over the last two decades as the ideal of sustainability has been increasingly interpreted in narrow technical terms. In response, I search for a broader form of practical discourse within which the problems of technology and the ideal of sustainability can be held together, thus informing and invigorating our moral lives.

The recent ascendancy of the global agenda of sustainable development has come at the cost of making environmental discourses increasingly technocratic and neocolonial. This agenda claims to advance the prospects for social equity and planetary well-being by making technology more ecologically efficient. This agenda is 'ecomodernisf. It belongs within the modern project that seeks social improvement through the pursuit of efficiency. It remains wedded to narratives that portray nature as the servant of a technological master who stands somehow beyond rather than in 'his' world. The morally rich ideal of sustainability is thereby coopted within the project of ecomodemism in a way that funnels anxiety about the earth's survival into a technological attempt to colonise the future.

An often neglected consequence of the project of mastery is that moral philosophy has been emptied of practical content as technology, the focal fact of our lives, is theorised as neutral tools in the service of an ethic of liberation. In providing an alternative to this instrumentalist theory, radical ecological critiques need to explore the interplay between the technological world in which we live and the world-views that define our thinking. In my search for a rich practical language within which to articulate the moral ideal of sustainability, I avoid either canonising or demonising technology as if it were external to our humanity. I propose instead that technology is the medium through which we build our world. Further, it is in the process of building worlds that we become oriented toward moral questions about what is most valuable in human experience. I thus describe technology as forms of practice that may sustain or enervate our experience of belonging to a world rich in goodness.

The ecological crisis tells of a profound disorientation in the technological society as to what invests richness in human life. This disorientation does not result in bewildered inactivity, but in ever more urgent attempts to master an imperilled, inhospitable future. In response to this erratic restlessness, I turn to practical forms of reasoning that illuminate our unsustainable world as a world that endangers our essential correlationality.

I conclude that the moral life-blood of the ideal of sustainability is our desire to live in a world that sustains us through drawing out of us our ability to care for the things and others that inhabit it. Giving practical expression to this 'sustain-ability', this craft of sustenance, it is my hope that we will begin building worlds more worthy and more capable of being sustained than the one in which we find ourselves.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Barns, Ian and Hallen, Patsy
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