Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Ethics and Morality

Problems of Sustainable Development, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 13-22, 2008

10 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2010

See all articles by John Ikerd

John Ikerd

University of Missouri at Columbia

Date Written: 2008


With the fall of communism, capitalism became the dominant global economic system. However, widespread environmental and social problems are raising fundamental questions regarding the sustainability of today’s capitalist economies. In fact, the most basic laws of science indicate that unrestrained capitalism is not sustainable. All economic value is inherently individualistic in nature, thus there is no economic incentive to do anything for the sole benefit of anyone else and certainly not to ensure the sustainability of future generations. Attempts to ensure sustainability by assigning economic values to ecological and social costs and benefits inevitably result in undervaluation and misallocation of social and ecological resources. Economic sustainability requires a fundamentally different economic model based on a paradigm of living systems. Living systems are capable of productivity as well as regeneration, and thus sustainability, because they rely on solar energy. Sustainable agriculture provides a useful metaphor for sustainable economic development. However, a capitalist economy can function sustainably only within the context of an ethical and just society. Lacking ethical and moral restraints, capitalists inevitably degrade and deplete the natural and societal resources from which all economic value is derived. Most nations already have in place the institutional structures needed to restrain unsustainable economic extraction and exploitation. All that is lacking is a moral and social commitment to an ethic of stewardship, a commitment to rightness and goodness in our relationships with each other and with the earth.

Keywords: sustainability, capitalism, economics, entropy, living systems, sustainable agriculture, social morality, environmental ethics

JEL Classification: O13, Q2, Q32, Q41, R11, M14

Suggested Citation

Ikerd, John, Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Ethics and Morality (2008). Problems of Sustainable Development, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 13-22, 2008 , Available at SSRN:

John Ikerd (Contact Author)

University of Missouri at Columbia ( email )

5121 S. Brock Rodgers Rd
Missouri, Columbia
United States

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