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Ethics, Policy & Environment

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Ethics in Agenda 21

Sarah E. Fredericks

To cite this article: Sarah E. Fredericks (2014) Ethics in Agenda 21, Ethics, Policy &
Environment, 17:3, 324-338, DOI: 10.1080/21550085.2014.955312

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Published online: 18 Nov 2014.

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Ethics, Policy & Environment, 2014
Vol. 17, No. 3, 324338,

Feature Article

Ethics in Agenda 21
Philosophy & Religion Studies, University of North Texas, Denton, USA

ABSTRACT Although environmental ethicists often focus on applying ethics to policy, the ethics
embedded in policy documents such as Agenda 21 are also significant. Though largely ignored by
ethicists after early responses to the document focused on intrinsic value, Agenda 21s ethics are
particularly valuable for their ability to resonate with many people and link politics, technical
studies, and ethics. For instance, their use draws attention to the need to ethically evaluate
sustainability indexes and identifies limitations of existing indexes. At a broad level, this study of the
ethics of Agenda 21 also suggests that the ethics of international environmental policy documents
deserves more attention.

In The Moral Austerity of Environmental Decision Making, John Martin Gillroy and Joe
Bowersox assert that there is a division between the study of ethics and politics in the
modern Western world. They maintain that this division contributes to environmental
policy discourse that is dominated by market-based reasoning and avoids normative
analysis (Gillroy & Bowersox, 2002). While their diagnosis is astute, their edited
volumelike the work of most environmental ethicistsfocuses on one way of
overcoming this gap: influencing policy-making with the reflections of professional
ethicists. Considering policy a source of ethics is considered much less often.1 This lacuna
in the literature can lead ethicists to overlook norms that are acceptable to many people
worldwide and are embedded in policy discussions, useful information when trying to
assess and influence future policy. Additionally, ethicists engaged in a unidirectional
connection between ethics and policy preserve the bifurcation of these realms rather than
recognizing the ways ethics and politics mutually influence each other.
This bifurcation and the problems it can cause are illustrated by the historical reaction of
ethicists to the documents of the United Nations Conference on Environment and
Development (UNCED) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro: Agenda for the
Twenty-First Century (Agenda 21) and the Rio Declaration on Environment and
Development, a scientific, economic, and governmental blueprint for sustainable
development and a list of ethical principles respectively. Responses to these documents
led to the development of the Earth Charter as a replacement for the Rio Declaration, the
focus on Agenda 21 as a technical rather than ethical resource, and a rift between technical
and ethical studies of sustainability, particularly with respect to indicators and indexes,

Correspondence Address: Sarah E. Fredericks, Philosophy & Religion Studies, University of North Texas, 1155
Union Circle #310920, Denton, TX 76203-5017, USA. Email:

q 2014 Taylor & Francis

Ethics in Agenda 21 325

tools used to measure progress toward or away from sustainability. Identifying the ethics
of Agenda 21 and comparing them to the Earth Charter will illustrate that they are more
similar than was often assumed. The value of Agenda 21s ethics will be demonstrated by
using them to analyze indexes. In sum, the ethical value of environmental policy
documents, as illustrated by the case study of Agenda 21, should be given more attention
by ethicists due to the possibility of applying these ethics because of their utility; their
ability to resonate with many people; and because their use pushes people to focus on the
intersection of politics, technical studies and ethics as is needed to address practical
environmental problems.

The Earth Summit: The Rio Declaration and Agenda 212

In the 20 years since the 1992 Earth Summit, the documents of this conference have
significantly influenced both environmental policy and ethics, particularly relating to
sustainability. To understand these implications and their limitations, we must first
understand something of the documents themselves.
Representatives from over 170 nations aimed to link technical and normative elements
of sustainable development by adopting both Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration at the
Earth Summit. Agenda 21 is a blueprint for movement toward sustainable development
through scientific, economic, and legal means (Robinson, with Hassan, P., Burhenne-
Guilmin, F., & under the auspices of the Commission on Environmental Law of the World
Conservation Union The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural
Resources, 1993). Agenda 21 implemented the vision of sustainable development outlined
in Our Common Future, best known for its definition of sustainable development as meet
[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations
to meet their own needs (Robinson et al., 1993; World Commission on Environment
and Development, 1987). To meet these goals, Agenda 21 emphasizes the economic,
environmental, and social dimensions of sustainable development. For instance, it
examines poverty and consumption; the use of atmospheric, land, and oceanic resources;
and the potential contributions of women, youth, and indigenous people to sustainable
development. As a blueprint, Agenda 21 identified financial, scientific, legal, and
educational methods of promoting sustainable development but did not develop new
scientific knowledge.
Indeed, many of Agenda 21s arguments are predicated on the need for more, and more
thorough, knowledge, assuming that it is necessary for and will lead to better decision-
making and action. The focus on indicators and indexes, means of quantifying progress
toward sustainable development, within Agenda 21 and the resulting popularity of
sustainable indexes in governments, non-governmental organizations, and businesses
illustrate this prioritization on knowledge acquisition and its popularity in the wider world.
The Rio Declaration, a set of rights and responsibilities to aid sustainable development
was constructed as a companion to the technical blueprint of Agenda 21 (Earth Charter
Initiative). The Declaration is comprised of 27 principles promoting cooperation among
individuals and nations to respect the interests of all and protect the integrity of the global
environment and development system (United Nations Conference on Environment and
Development, 1992). It begins with a firm statement of anthropocentrism, Human beings
are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development, which pervades the rest of the
principles (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 1992).
326 S. E. Fredericks

It focuses attention on protecting the environment and natural resources of vulnerable

humans and ensuring their ability to participate in decision-making. It also supports
states rights to exploit their own resources as allowed in international law and the UN
Charter (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 1992). The
Declaration emphasizes responsibilities of states, and to a lesser degree individuals, to
cooperate to eliminate poverty, to conserve protect and restore the heath and integrity of
the ecosystem, and to reduce consumption and enact solid demographic policies, but
also recognizes the contributions that groups of people who are often marginalized
including youth, indigenous people, and women can make to sustainability initiatives
(United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 1992). In sum, the Rio
Declaration significantly contributed to international agreements about rights by naming
the responsibility of governments and individuals to promote the rights of individuals,
groups of people and nations with respect to their environment (Rolston III, 1994).
Though Agenda 21 is often seen as merely a technical blueprint for sustainable
development, it too is infused with ethical priorities, many of which align with those of the
Rio Declaration. Yet, because Agenda 21 is not intended to be a definitive ethical
statement, its ethical content and method are generally implicit and are open to a variety of
Ethical language is most often explicitly used in Agenda 21 when acknowledging the
need to consider diverse values about reproductive rights and medical practices as it
asserts that methods used to prevent and treat diseases should be adapted to religious,
social, and ethical values of individuals and cultures (Robinson et al., 1993). Agenda 21
also promotes unspecified values as states that governments should reinforce both values
which encourage sustainable production and consumption patterns and policies which
encourage the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries
(Robinson et al., 1993). In a few places, Agenda 21 refers to specific values or ethical
concepts potentially useful for promoting sustainability. For instance, hima, traditional
Islamic land sanctuaries, are touted as instruments that should be used to promote land
conservation where appropriate (Robinson et al., 1993). Thus, Agenda 21 supports diverse
ethical values at least where such values promote sustainable development (Fredericks,
Moral considerations are, however, assumed throughout Agenda 21 rather than
explicitly named. An analysis of its policy recommendations and the rhetoric used to
discuss them will reveal its ethical priorities: adequate assessment of the situation,
adaptability, farsightedness, equality, responsibility, cooperation, and efficiency. These
principles are general guidelines for ethical action that mutually influence each other and
can be specified in different ways depending on environmental and social conditions.

Adequate Assessment of the Situation

Agenda 21s structure and its treatment of specific issues reveal its emphasis on adequate
data assessment. Each section begins with up-to-date, comprehensive, and reliable data.
Scientific assessments, environmental research, and education are touted as necessary to
reach sustainability objectives (Robinson et al., 1993). Additionally, its focus on both
consumption and production as major contributors to environmental destruction arises
from a more careful consideration of the facts than Our Common Futures prioritization of
poverty as cause of environmental crisis (Robinson et al., 1993; World Commission on
Ethics in Agenda 21 327

Environment and Development, 1987). This more thorough assessment is possible

because Agenda 21 considers diverse types of data.
Agenda 21 also attends to the situation as the very process through which it was
developed and endorsed was influenced by political feasibility. Reaching consensus
among over 170 nations reined in the most extreme or idealistic proposals (Robinson et al.,
1993). The diversity of its creators contributed to Agenda 21s awareness of the importance
of considering cultural contexts when implementing its suggestions whether because
developing countries may require monetary, technical, and knowledge-based assistance
from developing nations or because cultural priorities will shape population control
policies (Robinson et al., 1993). Thus, Agenda 21 is concerned about quantitative economic
and environmental data and data about social and political contexts and community values.
When Agenda 21 is read as an ethical document (as it is here), the principle of adequate
assessment of the situation emerges as an ethical guideline. The authors of Agenda 21
presume that in order to develop and implement a normative vision of sustainability one
must understand the environmental, economic, and social elements of the situation for
which sustainable development is desired. Thus, Agenda 21s emphasis on adequate
research and data is an ethical principle. While a policy-focused environmental ethicist
may think this point is so obvious that it does not warrant attention or at most is a
precondition for applying ethical principles but is not itself ethical, prioritizing adequate
assessment of the situation is an ethical principle for several reasons. First, in the grand
scheme of environmental ethics, some ethicists prioritize the individual biological,
geological, economic, or political details of the situation much less than their commitment
to abstract ideals. Holding that the details of a particular situation matter when
determining a course of action rather than applying absolute duties or rights is an ethical
position. Secondly, acknowledging a broad range of data as important to the situation is
a significant ethical move when compared to literature that assumes environmental issues
are pure matters of science, devoid of values or that environmental issues are primarily or
solely moral issues that can be completely resolved through changing values.
Third, Agenda 21s prioritization of the situation recognizes the relationship between
technical and moral assessment of sustainability. Identifying a particular action as being
more or less sustainable involves a technical assessment of what can be sustained and
a moral assessment of what one wants to sustain. Technically sustainable policies and
actions will not be implemented or maintained if their results are morally unacceptable to
their users. Ideals about what should be sustained will not be implementable over time if
disassociated from technical realities. Thus, ethicists must seek out the best available
technical knowledge about systems they want to sustain to move toward sustainable
development, the goal of Agenda 21.3 To refuse to recognize or locate such knowledge is
to act unethically.4
Repeated injunctions about the need for further research, education, and collaboration
among nongovernmental agencies, academics, governments, and citizens of all sorts
reveal Agenda 21s method for melding knowledge and ethics. Since presuppositions
about values shape knowledge, interdisciplinary collaboration, including attention to
ethics, is needed to identify knowledge about and values of a situation. Thus, adequate
assessment of the situation encompasses both ethical content (knowing a situation is right)
and a method to employ this principle (collaborating with experts) (Fredericks, 2014). Its
link to the Rio Declaration only reinforces this trend.
328 S. E. Fredericks

Nearly as pervasive as Agenda 21s emphasis on data is its focus on the adaptability
of environmental law. Adaptability is frequently discussed when Agenda 21 advises
governments, scientists, and non-governmental organizations to work at the right scale to
address sustainability issues development (Robinson et al., 1993). Adaptability also
surfaces as Agenda 21 recognizes that different types of policies are needed for developing
and developed countries and for different constituencies within countries (Robinson et al.,
1993). For example, Agenda 21 notes that policies inspired by it should align with the
specific personally held values, and ethical and cultural considerations of its users
especially with respect to reproduction and medicine (Robinson et al., 1993). This
openness to diversity leaves Agenda 21 open to pluralist interpretations and indicates its
commitment to being adaptable to a variety of cultural assumptions within the paradigm of
sustainable development.
Agenda 21 also promotes adaptability over time. Temporally adaptable environmental
laws are necessary in light of changing needs and circumstances within a particular
subpopulation, culture, or country (Robinson et al., 1993) and lets those implementing
Agenda 21 respond to new environmental and social knowledge. While adaptability may
not seem ethical, it arose from the coupling of (1) the recognition that universally
implemented policies often damage the environment and minority human populations (if
not everyone) with (2) the assertion that differential experiences of environmental benefits
and burdens between human groups is not just. Adaptability also guards against the hubris
of belief that one knows enough about environmental situations to make a policy decision
for all time, a danger if knowledge is emphasized as it is in Agenda 21. Additionally,
adaptability is necessary given the variation in environmental and social contexts across
space and time, and the fact that these complex socioecological systems are continually
Adaptability also reveals part of the ethical method enabled throughout Agenda 21: the
ethical terms that infuse the document are broad enough that they can be endorsed and
specified by people of diverse ethical and cultural backgrounds (Fredericks, 2014).
Furthermore, since Agenda 21 applies adaptability to environmental law, of which it is an
example, then it implies that the ethical principles themselves may need to be revised in
light of critical reflection, new situations, and new knowledge. Thus, as with adequate
assessment of the situation, we see that adaptability imparts ethical content, here, that one
should make decisions that can be applicable to many contexts, and ethical method, here,
accepting that ethical content may need to be revised over time.

World leaders developed Agenda 21 in large part because of their commitment to
farsightednessevaluating and working to lessen the severe, long-lasting environmental
and social effects of interaction with the environment, as it is known that seemingly
small actions can have significant, lasting effects on ecosystems and societies. Thus, it is
not surprising that references to farsightedness occur (Robinson et al., 1993). Specific
recommendations about integrating farsighted sustainable development into agriculture,
education, and industry also occur. For example, with respect to agricultural policy,
Agenda 21 maintains that ideals of sustainable development should contribute directly
Ethics in Agenda 21 329

to development of realistic and operational medium-to long-term plans and programs,

and thus to concrete actions (Robinson et al., 1993). Farsightedness as an ethical
principle implies that people should always be aware of spatially distant and temporally
long-term interconnections between their actions, those of other people, and cultural and
ecosystem changes. Since Agenda 21 is not an explicitly ethical document and must be
specified for application in particular cases, more reflection is needed to determine how
to make tradeoffs between short, medium, and long-term spatial and temporal
implications and to determine how to best incorporate such considerations into ethical

Although the use of scientific data, adaptability, and farsightedness are prominently
featured in Agenda 21, equality, a principle more traditionally identified as ethical, also
permeates the document. It maintains that all groups and individuals should have equitable
access to physical resources and the political process. Indeed, multiple chapters outline
how children, youth, indigenous people, farmers, workers and unions, business and
industry, the scientific and technical communities, and non-governmental organizations
can play a role in progress toward sustainable development (Robinson et al., 1993). These
types of equity are mentioned in analyses of global cooperation, trade, and economics;
poverty, hunger, and consumption; and the various needs and resources of developing and
developed countries and governmental and non-governmental organizations (Robinson
et al., 1993).

In order to foster equality, adaptability, and the adequate assessment of the situation
Agenda 21 emphasizes two types of responsibility (Robinson et al., 1993). First, it admits
that anthropogenic environmental destruction occurs. It clearly maintains that technology,
overconsumption, and poverty have been the key causes of environmental impacts such as
air and water pollution, deforestation, species extinction, ocean pollution, land destruction,
and desertification (Robinson et al., 1993). Second, it maintains that humans should act to
slow or reverse environmental destruction. Agenda 21 advocates modifying behaviors and
changing values and standards of living to achieve sustainable development but emphasizes
bringing the technology and economic systems of developed countries to developing
countries (Robinson et al., 1993).

Efficiency and Decreasing Consumption

Similarly, Agenda 21 stresses technical efficiency more than decreasing consumption or
changing values (Robinson et al., 1993) as it advocates the principle of efficient
allocation and use of natural resources and information (Robinson et al., 1993). It does,
however, recognize the need for a multifaceted approach as it maintains that humans
need to change consumption and production to reduce environmental stress and meet
basic needs and modify values to progress toward sustainable development (Robinson
et al., 1993).
330 S. E. Fredericks

Agenda 21 also mandates that humans should cooperate to bring about sustainability.
Specifically, it encourages developed countries to share technical information with
developing countries; governments and nongovernmental organizations to coordinate
resources; and, to some degree, the collaboration between new and traditional agricultural
methods (Robinson et al., 1993). Its authors stress cooperation because they recognize the
social and physical interdependence of societies and ecosystems and prioritize the right of
participatory decision-making (Robinson et al., 1993).
This examination of Agenda 21 demonstrates that its technical understanding of this
complex dynamic world is linked to normative principles including adequately assessing
the situation, adaptability, farsightedness, equality, responsibility, cooperation, and
efficiency, which are open to specification by a diversity of traditions.

Responses to Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration

Many ethicists, particularly those at the 1994 Conference of the Ethical Dimensions of
Agenda 21, the most significant ethical analysis of Agenda 21, however, were unsatisfied
with the content of the Declaration and Agenda 21. While multiple conference participants
briefly noted their support for the overall goals of Agenda 21 in passing (Brown, 1994;
Heyd, 1994), most focused on critiques. Its emphasis on technical fixes was regarded as
insufficient for an adequate plan for sustainable development (Heyd, 1994). Additionally,
a number of authors aimed to extend Agenda 21s commitment to equity, particularly with
respect to the inequitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens according to
nation or demographic categories such as race (Bullard, 1994; Heredia, 1994). They and
others argued that justice regarding the benefits and burdens of environmental degradation
including who will pay for remediation deserve more attention given their importance in
the implementation of Agenda 21s recommendations (Bullard, 1994; Heredia, 1994;
Heyd, 1994; Ott, 1994; Paden, 1994; Rolston III, 1994; Warren, 1994; Weiss, 1994).
Many conference participants found it problematic that Agenda 21 emphasized the
instrumental value of nature and did not discuss intrinsic value (Heyd, 1994; Katz, 1994;
Paden, 1994; Sagoff, 1994; Tucker, 1994). These are germane critiques if one deems
intrinsic value necessary for sustainability, but the authors do not adequately justify this
claim or why a focus on intrinsic value should overshadow the norms included in Agenda
21. While Agenda 21 certainly emphasizes instrumental, especially economic value, this is
not the only sort of value it includes. Mark Sagoff notes that Chapter 15 [of Agenda 21]
includes spiritual nourishment in a list of benefitsthe rest economicbiodiversity
confers upon human beings. But he overstates his analysis as he continues The Agenda
thus dismisses all non-economic reasons for protecting biodiversity, for example,
religious, ethical, and cultural values, even though these may provide strong grounds for
conservation (Sagoff, 1994). Since Agenda 21 does include spiritual benefits in a list of
benefits of biodiversity, it certainly does not only consider biodiversitys economic
benefits. Unfortunately, Sagoffs exaggeration is repeated and amplified elsewhere:
Donald A. Brown writes Sagoff goes on to note that Agenda 21 dismisses all
noneconomic reasons for protecting biodiversity, for example, religious, ethical, and
cultural values, even though these may provide strong grounds for conservation (Brown,
1995). Here, Brown takes Sagoffs analysis as a faithful representation of what Agenda 21
Ethics in Agenda 21 331

says though it exaggerates Agenda 21s focus. This misconstruction made it into the final
book of responses to Agenda 21 while the positive or neutral notes about Agenda 21 on
related points in the conference proceedings did not (Rolston III, 1994; Weir, 1994). For
ethicists committed to intrinsic value, or even just noneconomic anthropocentric values,
such a portrayal of Agenda 21 would have made it unattractive as an ethical resource,
especially for moral monists, a common position at the time. These perceptions of Agenda
21 coupled with the tendency of ethicists not to see policies as an ethical resource likely
contributed to the fact that Agenda 21 was largely ignored by ethicists after the

The Earth Charter

Indeed, in 1994, Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev backed by the Earth Council,
Green Cross International, and the government of the Netherlands led a grassroots
movement to develop and support a significantly revised version of the Rio Declaration,
the Earth Charter (Rockefeller, 2001; The Earth Charter Commission, 2000). Multiple
drafts and the comments of more than five thousand people were combined to form the
Charter, formalized in March 2000 (Rockefeller, 2001). Since then, the Charter has been
endorsed by hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals. The Charter consists
of a preamble; 16 ethical principles broken into four categories (respect and care for the
community of life; ecological integrity; social and economic justice; and democracy,
nonviolence, and peace); 71 sub-principles; and a motivational call to action.
The Declaration and Charter share many features, but, as intended, it deepens or
changes the Declarations claims in several ways. For instance, both documents examine
the interrelatedness of politics, laws, the economy, societal actions and the environment as
they name rights and responsibilities but the Charter identifies more detailed problems and
recommendations. The Charter shares the Declarations focus on the poor, women,
children, and indigenous groups, but emphasizes their value for their own sake more than
the Declaration. The Charter also emphasizes the need for a new normative vision and
sense of global community, whereas the Declaration focuses on a legal recognition of
rights and duties. The Charter also broadens the discussion of quality of life noting that
when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not
having more and recognizing that spiritual and cultural traditions, political participation,
health care, environmental resources, peace, and relations with biota including but not
limited to humanity, are all critical to well-being. Finally, and significantly for those that
initiated the Charter, it asserts that every form of life has value regardless of its worth to
human beings, a move away from the explicit anthropocentrism of the Declaration (The
Earth Charter Commission, 2000).
In contrast, the Earth Charter parallels the ethics assumed in Agenda 21 in many more
respects. For instance, their ideas of and justifications off farsightedness, responsibility,
equality and cooperation are nearly identical. Through Agenda 21s generality it, when
assessed apart from the Rio Declarations anthropocentrism, leaves the door open to a
wider variety of ethical positions including those of the Earth Charter. When the two
documents diverge they generally do so with respect to efficiency (the Charter emphasizes
attitudinal changes as much or more than the technical fixes Agenda 21 emphasizes) (The
Earth Charter Commission, 2000), adequate assessment of the situation, and adaptability,
particularly with respect to commitments to intrinsic value.
332 S. E. Fredericks

The Charters vision of assessing the situation also differs slightly from Agenda 21s.
Both recognize the need for traditional environmental knowledge, scientific knowledge,
and knowledge of the community situation and values. The Charter acknowledges that
information will often be limited and thus advocates the precautionary principle, but is
less attentive to the political feasibility of implementing its recommendations than
Agenda 21.
While the Charter, like Agenda 21, acknowledges the need for adaptability with respect
to planning for sustainability at all levels, in the face of uncertain knowledge, into the
future, and according to the carrying capacity of the ecosystems (The Earth Charter
Commission, 2000, Preamble, 6a), it tends toward a more static and less adaptable position
with respect to its position on intrinsic value, its largest divergence from Agenda 21. The
Earth Charter explicitly advocates that every form of life has value regardless of its worth
to human beings (The Earth Charter Commission, 2000). This claim differs from the
rhetoric of Agenda 21, which justifies its policy recommendations with more explicit
anthropocentric language that can be amended and elaborated by considerations for the
intrinsic value of nonhuman biota. Agenda 21 promotes activities that may have unknown
or indirect benefits to humans and direct, immediate, benefits to otherkind such as its
support of endangered species and habitat preservation. It is even willing to make short-
term financial sacrifices to do so, but it rarely recognizes the value of otherkind for itself.
Because of its commitment to adapting sustainable development norms to local
community values, Agenda 21 can be implemented by people who do and do not
emphasize intrinsic value while the Earth Charter would be difficult to implement as an
integrated whole by people who did not prioritize intrinsic value because it clearly
prioritizes intrinsic value. Thus, Agenda 21 has a method more open to ethical pluralism,
more adaptable to different circumstances, than the more fixed ethical assumptions of the
Earth Charter.5
Some of the differences between Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter regarding
adaptability stem from compromises to pass Agenda 21. Others may stem from differences
in the documents genre: Agenda 21 is a legal document and spends less explicit time in
ethical reflection so its ethics are less explicit and developed. This difference could,
however, suggest or enable a commitment to different ethical methods. Both Agenda 21
and the Earth Charter maintain that different cultural, religious, and spiritual values will be
needed to specify and apply their ideas. Yet because the Earth Charter is more specific in
its ethical principles, a smaller range of preexisting positions would mesh with it. Agenda
21 seems more open to such development both because it is so much less specific and
because it admits the possibility of developing knowledge and laws beyond what it itself
articulates, unlike the Charter. Thus, Agenda 21, if separated from the Rio Declaration,
could be interpreted as allowing diverse ethical approaches necessary to resonate with the
many ethical systems worldwide.
The focus on the Earth Charter, whether supportive (Aiken, 2001; A Buddhist
Christian Contribution to the Earth Charter, 1997; Earth Charter Initiative; Tucker, 2004;
Weiming, 2001) or critical (Derr, 2000; MacGregor, 2004) drew attention away from
Agenda 21 after the 1994 conference. This reinforced the tendency of environmental
ethicists to aim to put ethics into policy rather than acknowledge and work with the ethics
in policy. This trend plus the general propensity to divide technical and ethical concerns
led to a scarcity of ethical engagement with one of the significant outcomes of Agenda 21:
the exponential increase in monitoring progress toward sustainability.
Ethics in Agenda 21 333

Limits of Ignoring Agenda 21: A Gap Between Technical Considerations (e.g. Indicators)
and Ethical Analysis
After Agenda 21, sustainability indexes became a significant area of scholarly study and
increasingly important part of governmental and business practice, as encouraged by
Agenda 21. Indicators monitor factors key to achieving sustainability, generally using
numerical means. Indexes are compilations of indicators. For example, measurements of
air quality, water quality, and biodiversity may be combined to yield an index of
environmental sustainability. Social and economic factors in sustainability indexes may
include life expectancy or Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Index developers soon focused
on a three dimensional approach (the environmental, economic, and social) to encompass
critical aspects of sustainability and developed hundreds of indexes for local, state, and
national governments; businesses; and ngos (Bell, 1999; Bell & Morse, 2003; Hak,
Moldan, & Dahl, 2007; Moldan, Billharz, & Matravers, 1997; Spellerberg et al., 2012).
While these initiatives have been driven by normative concerns (e.g. the desire for a
sustainable environment, economy, and social life) index theory has centered on technical,
quantitative issues.
Normative studies of particular sustainability issues such as sustainable energy, water,
or agriculture engage substantially with technical studies but rarely engage with indexes
(Martin-Schramm & Stivers, 2003; Thompson, 2010). Those that do are in need of
updating after 20 years of expanding the scope of environmental and social issues related
to sustainability (Daly, Cobb, & Cobb, 1989), are limited in depth (Peet & Bossel, 2000),
or provide seminal theoretical work but do not examine particular indexes (Norton, 2005).
In sum, though some studies of ethics and sustainability indexes exist, this work is
fragmented in that theories of bringing norms into the process are often disconnected from
the analysis of or development of actual indexes. This means that critical questions of
whose ethics should influence sustainability indexes; how diverse ethical traditions can
influence sustainability indexes in a multicultural world; and how ethical and technical
elements can and should relate in index construction, implementation and evaluation are
left relatively unexplored. These issues, and their integration, are critical to developing
and implementing sustainability indexes that are technically robust and align with deeply
rooted normative priorities, as is necessary to move toward sustainability.

Solutions: An Ethical Analysis of Sustainability Indexes

When aiming to monitor progress toward sustainable development, the norms of Agenda
21 are a good place to start since Agenda 21 issued the call for more indexes, especially at
a local level. Additionally, since its norms have already received de facto endorsement by
representatives of so many nations, they resonate with a wide variety of ethical positions.
Beginning here is also advantageous since the ethical analysis will demonstrate that
general ethical ideas such as those in Agenda 21 can provide traction for environmental
decision making and illustrate how technical and ethical elements are and can be linked in
policy-making. Thus, a full agreement about or articulation of ideals such as intrinsic
value are not necessary for ethical analysis to aid policy evaluation and implementation.
Because Agenda 21 uses multiple ethical principles, and thousands of sustainability
indexes have been developed, a thorough, let alone exhaustive evaluation of sustainability
indexes using the ethical principles in Agenda 21 would take more time than is available
334 S. E. Fredericks

here. To narrow the scope of this section while still providing an illustration of the promise
of the ethics of Agenda 21, I draw upon my earlier research on the subject (Fredericks,
2008, 2011, 2012, 2014) but focus here on the ethical priorities of responsibility and
Recall that Agenda 21 promotes two aspects of responsibility: admitting how one has
contributed to environmental destruction and recognizing the need to change actions to
slow or reverse environmental damage. At the widest scale, any index initiative presumes
a modicum of responsibility since the drive to utilize indexes to assess environmental,
social, and economic conditions relating to sustainability comes from the recognition that
humans affect environmental and social systems and the desire to monitor whether and to
what degree a community, business, or nation makes progress toward sustainability. At a
finer-grained level, indexes ability to promote responsibility is deeply dependent on the
details captured by the index. Often, indexes measure the state of a system, say the level of
a pollutant in the air or water, but may not track who is responsible for the pollutant other
than that it is an entity within the system. Further, indexes often operate at a specific
national or local level and do not necessarily track the affects of the region in question on
other regions (Fredericks, 2012). This makes it more difficult to use indexes to foster a
sense of personal or collective responsibility at a level other than the largest level at which
the index is compiled. For indexes to foster responsibility well, they need to be right-sized
and indicate spatial and temporal affects beyond the area directly studied.
Strides are being made with respect to carbon emissions which, all things being equal,
correlate with the affects of a countrys actions on global climate (Eurostat, 2012;
Prescott-Allen, 2001; Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy et al., 2010) and
indicators of financial aid to foreign countries (Eurostat, 2012). These indicators are steps
in the right direction but more work is needed to represent these complex interactions.
Similarly, Agenda 21s focus on equity is embodied in many indexes at a broad level but
faces challenges with increasing specificity. Recall that Agenda 21 focused on equity in
the distribution of physical, economic, and intellectual resources and emphasized the
distribution of political power as it maintained that women, youth, indigenous groups and
cultures in general should be able to influence decision-making based on their values.
Indexes generally align with these goals in that they track average data for life expectancy,
literacy rates, and sanitation rates for a nation, assuming that the increase of these
indicators, all other things being equal, indicate movement toward sustainability. Once in
a while indexes monitor the experience of particular demographic groups to see if they
experience even and equitable access to goods, services and political power. Most
common are indicators focused on gender differences such as life expectancy at birth,
healthy life years, educational or literacy rates, or income or employment rates (Eurostat,
2012; Prescott-Allen, 2001; Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy et al., 2010).
While these indicators are steps toward monitoring the equity of sustainable
development, there are at least two significant limitations of these indexes. First, though
Agenda 21 prioritizes considering the cultural priorities and situations of indigenous
groups, indexes rarely if ever examine whether they experience different environmental,
social, or economic conditions (Fredericks, 2012). When these things are tracked, it is
usually in an index or indicator set specifically focused on indigenous people (Arquette
et al., 2002; Fraser, Dougill, Mabee, Reed, & McAlpine, 2006), not a general national or
community index. These limitations occur because available data are not finely and
reliably disaggregated along the many potentially relevant demographic groups.
Ethics in Agenda 21 335

Unfortunately, this averaging of environmental, social, and economic situations belies the
real, current, and historic differences between racial ethnic or cultural groups that
systematically hinder progress toward equity in sustainability efforts as is seen in the
environmental justice literature (Fredericks, 2011, 2012).
Secondly, as we saw earlier, Agenda 21 emphasizes the need for culturally specific
values to influence targets of policies for sustainable development. Yet, it is rather rare to
find indexes that involve community-based priorities for sustainability especially cultural
or social issues rather than community-focused environmental or economic measures such
as pollution levels or employment rates. It is especially rare to find culturally specific
values being monitored at anything other than the local level (Fredericks, 2011, 2012).
Again, the lack of reliable data and methods to incorporate this data into indexes
contributes to the problem. Advancing research in these areas is a critical aspect of
fulfilling the equity norm of Agenda 21.

Even these brief analyses of sustainability indexes using only two ethical principles of
Agenda 21 reveal significant benefits from such a process. First, we see that though there
have been significant strides in sustainable development indexes in the last 20 years, that
there is still significant room for improvement especially regarding the spatial and
temporal interconnectedness of sites, the ability to track disparate experiences of
demographic groups, and include cultural values in indexes. Calling attention to these
limitations from the position of analysis from Agenda 21 can spur further research to
improve sustainability indexes progress toward sustainability.
Stepping back from the particular case of sustainability indexes, this analysis reveals
that Agenda 21s ethics are in fact significant and powerful, contrary to the stereotype that
Agenda 21 is just a technical blueprint. Its ethics can identify specific strengths and
weaknesses of existing environmental indexes despite their generality. Certainly Agenda
21s ethics are not as demanding, especially with respect to intrinsic value as many
professional environmentalists, especially ethicists, wished. Yet they can still yield
significant results regarding equity for all people and a farsighted responsibility for ones
actions that even the critics of Agenda 21 mentioned above would likely support. Given
the wide consensus on these matters and the significant room for improvement within
indexes, Agenda 21s ethics at minimum enable a strong baseline ethical assessment. This
is not to say that the Earth Charter is irrelevant; it is, after all, a significant and growing
grassroots movement that is gaining increasing support at high levels of global politics
including the U.N. Rather, it is to say that Agenda 21 also was and is ethically useful,
especially for keeping ethics and technical assessments in policy linked together and for
keeping the door open to a variety of ethical positions. These advantages, and the ability of
Agenda 21s ethics to enhance environmental decision-making, at least about
sustainability indexes, suggest that the normative value of environmental policies and
the ethical methods they allow should be given more attention. For instance, the ethical
method enabled by Agenda 21 raises questions about a theory of, methods for, and tests of
whether people of different metaphysical, theological, cultural commitments can keep
these commitments and work together for a common goal such as sustainability. While
some work has been done in this area, more theoretical reflection and case studies would
help us understand this process better. Certainly, other sorts of research projects may be
336 S. E. Fredericks

suggested by ethical studies of other policy documents. The values articulated by the
United Nations to accompany the literature of the Millennium Development Goals and the
2012 Rio 20 Conference are two sets of documents that certainly deserve attention.
By doing so, all types of interactions between ethics and policy can be studied including
the ethical significance of policy documents. Such work can eliminate artificial barriers
between policy and academic ethics and, more importantly, it can enable people to become
more self-conscious about their environmental priorities and work to ensure that their
decisions, actions, and policies align and foster movement toward their environmental
goals such as sustainability.

Thanks to Forrest J. Clingerman and Nick Sarratt as well as anonymous reviewers for their
Exceptions include Callicott (2009) and Rolston III (1994).
An earlier version of this section which relates the ethics of Agenda 21 to the history of the sustainability
movement can be found in Chapter 2 of my book Measuring and evaluating sustainability: Ethics in
sustainability indexes. New York, NY: Routledge (2014).
Yes, such a principle does raise questions about how to make decisions and act in the face of the limits of
knowledge, a subject addressed to some degree in the principle of adaptability.
Gustafson (1965) makes a similar point that can be extended to a multicultural setting (Fredericks, 2008).
Undoubtedly, many ethicists will argue that waffling on intrinsic value will lead to massive environmental
destruction yet it is not clear that appealing to intrinsic value actually yields different results than
instrumental value coupled with weak anthropocentrism.

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