The Role of ‘Duty’ in Sustainability

The word ‘duty’ is often viewed as having negative connotations. It is often held in opposition to the ideas of personal freedom. Sometimes, people view it as an encumbrance – something that limits our potential and makes it more challenging to do what we want to do. But ‘duty’ is a concept that deserves to be looked at more closely when it comes to sustainability. And one which comes into more prominence in our current situation.

Opinions may differ as to what exactly we mean to ‘duty’. What is duty? Who and what do we have a duty to? Defining the term is crucial to understanding our place in our world. And that understanding is crucial if we are to make our world a better, fairer, more ethical and sustainable place.

Many agree that we have a duty to ourselves and those closest to us. We have a duty to our communities and others around us that we encounter as we live our lives. I would certainly argue that we have a duty to our planet and its wildlife, and to care for our environs as custodians of the land. Some also believe we have a duty to our nations, and broader political systems, to our race, religions or cultural groups…. and more… duty can be a divisive topic – but duty can also allow us to rally around common ideals.

Synthesising the ideas of the different duties we have, in the context of sustainability, it could be argued that they all boil down to the simple ideas that we have a duty to enrich the lives of ourselves and others, and leave this planet better than we found it. This means that the concept of duty tallies with the central ethics of permaculture – care for our planet, care for humankind, and fair share.

We often frame sustainability in the context of rights and personal freedoms. But examining it instead from the concept of duty can help us see that it is incumbent on us all to do the best we can. Wearing masks, practicing good hygiene and isolating when we need to do so are just some of the responsibilities that arise from the idea of our duty (or what we owe) to others. But there are plenty of other daily practices influenced by these ideas. We should all be thinking about what we put out and give, rather than just what we receive.

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