Making Space for the Emotional Story of Sustainability

When I first set out in 2008 to craft a 100% sustainable lifestyle that would be accessible for anyone in the world to mimic, I had my heart in the right place.

I believed that “sustainability” was a matter of too many humans and too little Earth.  I imagined that if I reduced my ecological footprint to zero–that is, producing no waste, just perfectly balanced inputs and outputs of food, water, and energy–then I would have essentially subtracted myself from the imbalanced equation, and created a model from which anyone could borrow, so they too could subtract themselves from the problem of global unsustainability.

It seems quite strange to me, looking back, that I considered myself and my impact on the world–as measurable only in terms of my material substance.  In other words, that I was only “a body”–and not my education, my relationships, or any of that stuff.  Also, that accounting for my body had to be done with literally no consequences to the material world.  It’s almost like, as I say in Episode 1 of the Sust Enable series, that in terms of my physical footprint, I would disappear completely.

Instead, as soon as I began to try to live along the lines of my warped, rigid plans for 100% sustainability–I didn’t disappear.  “I” came into sharp, uncomfortable focus.  Many of my internal assumptions and attitudes, which were “behind the scenes” while I carefully planned and strategized what my perfectly 100% sustainable life would look like, were suddenly exposed by conflicting experiences that defied my expectations.

Some parts of that initial lifestyle expanded my realm of awareness and have become a positive, integral part of my life (such as learning to identify plants).  Some parts were so recklessly ignorant that I compromised my actual life to meet their criteria (like, not having the know-how to grow my own food, I lost an unhealthy amount of weight).  I also saw how some parts, like the project’s design of me acting as both film producer and subject of the 100% sustainable lifestyle, actually contradicted and undercut my attempt to make a sustainable lifestyle.  I was trying to cram a whole new, unfamiliar lifestyle–and the load of producing and directing an eight-part episode series with crew and interviewees–into just one life, and of course, the pieces didn’t always fit together.  Sometimes I was my own barrier in achieving the 100% sustainability I sought.  Indeed… I began noticing that the most interesting part of this experiment had little to do with the material facts of my footprint, like whether I was using 5 or 20 liters of water in a day–but rather, how my direct experiences were shattering my expectations and forcing me to examine my own deeply-rooted internal assumptions–derived from my culture, my upbringing, my own goals–about sustainability and much more, that I never knew I had

To make a long story short, I ended the 2008 Sust Enable experiment with an enormous and beautifully tangled mess on my hands.  It is my dream to unravel this tangled mess and its numerous lessons in a feature-length artistic documentary film.

What I want to do with the upcoming film, Sust Enable: The Metamentary, is to hold space for the emotional story of sustainability.

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Diversity is Essential to Sustainability, But Native Cultures Offer Little to the Sustainability Discourse… Huh? More reflections on “Sustainability Unpacked”

I spent the last several posts (1) (2) (3) unpacking the 2011 book Sustainability Unpacked.  In each post, I dig deeper into the authors’ premises, in an attempt to open up their narrow framing of the sustainability problem.  However, this does not imply that I always disagree with the authors.  One statement I can unpausingly agree with is this one:

“One definition [of sustainability] cannot and should not encompass the complexity and capture the nuances that are inherent in the word ‘sustainable’.  This does not mean that there is no value in this word.”  – pg. 3, Sustainability Unpacked

Even though sustainability may not have one uniform definition, that does not mean that this word is not an important tool for rallying around visions for how to live in better ways.  Rather than being a limiting factor, the diversity of existing definitions of sustainability clarifies the importance of the sustainability movement, and enriches its chances for success.


“History would suggest that humans have not been very capable of living within their social, environmental and economic footprints; this means that we do not have acceptable models that can be used to learn what works, to increase the possibility that a country will make sustainable choices.”  – pg 8, Sustainability Unpacked

Now, I hate to point out–but I will–that “history” involves the extermination and suppression of multiple histories and narratives of countless native cultures.  So if “history” presents few examples of sustainable living… might that be because colonizing cultures aren’t sustainable, and through colonizing processes we have erased countless stories that might have told of how to live sustainably?

No social group has ownership of the ‘realistic’ answers.  However, we can learn lessons from the struggles of many different sectors of our global society and how these groups have resolved their problems.  Yet, we also should not naively believe the vision that societies more closely linked to their bio-resources (i.e. the ‘back to nature’ approach) are more sustainable and could, therefore, be used as a guideline for ‘how to consume resources’ sustainably.  This would be naive and foolish.  People living ‘close to nature’ have a tough life and it is not as idealistic as some portray.” – pg. 8, Sustainability Unpacked

With Sust Enable 2008, I can attest to the truth that inserting oneself in a “close to nature” situation is NOT automatically a way to be more sustainable… so long as one still possesses the view that one is trying to “consume resources” more sustainably.  The authors may be right–native cultures, through being embedded in their ecological contexts, some for thousands of years, may not provide models for “how to consume resources” more sustainably.  Let’s look carefully at the words chosen here.

The Haudenosaunee Native American philosophy I am most familiar with (via my friend Phil Seneca) centers on being in dynamic relationship with myriad living systems, and describes material boons supporting human survival (i.e. a good harvest, a successful hunt) as gifts.  Maybe by relating to the world in terms of “how to consume resources”… maybe therein lies the problem.  Maybe this attitude is what “societies more closely linked to their bio-resources” can instruct us about.  Maybe this attitude is incompatible with sustainability–as the lessons I took from Sust Enable 2008 made clear to me.

By inserting myself abruptly into a tent, into a so-called “natural” environment, without any respect for the natural systems I was invading, I was reenacting my culture’s “brave pioneer” hero idiom, pushing myself into the landscapes of alien systems and aiming to conquer them through human will and ingenuity.  And through my subsequent struggles, I learned to relate to the systems defining and making possible my life, instead of trying to subjugate them to my will–instead of just “consuming resources,” I saw myself in dynamic entanglement with equally complex and sovereign living systems.   Continue reading


“Constraints to Human Capital”: More Unpacking of “Sustainability Unpacked”

When I came across the book Sustainability Unpacked at my local library, I was thrilled by the book’s sexy title.  I was personally hoping to discover the global sustainability discourse critically unpacked… but instead, this book does little to unpack claims of “sustainability.”  It is fairly traditional in its interpretation of “sustainability”–that “sustainability” means figuring out how many humans, and in what configurations, can we fit on planet Earth, indefinitely.  What it “unpacks” is a whole lot of aggregated data about the planet and humans.  The word “unpacked” seem misleading to me… the title suggests a bold claim of critical inquiry, but it delivers authoritative scientific information within a mainstream “sustainability” framework, as though “sustainability” needed no unpacking at all, apart from being defined by four interlocking ecological necessities (for human survival): water, forests, food, and energy.

In my last post, I “unpacked” some of the implicit assumptions buried in the authors’ problem statement around which their book orbits.  Here, I am going to delve further into the book’s preface, in which they set up their interpretation of the sustainability “problem,” which the data in their book will address.

Still from Preface:
“These unavoidable constraints control the globe’s productive capacity and set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed.”

That the fairly static, material quantities of organic molecules, water, soil, and sun, control the planet’s capacity to produce material goods–this seems like an intuitively solid claim.

… but that they also “set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed”?

What on Earth do they mean by “human capital”?  Well, I sure hope they don’t actually mean how much cash money humans can generate in the world–which seems like it could be implied, by a scheme to account for all the world’s resources and convert them all into commodities for our human economic marketplaces–but which would be a laughably absurd measure for the book’s grand claims of universal significance.  Does “human capital,” then, mean the number of existing human living bodies?  In that sense, yes, increasing the number of living human bodies does require soil, water, sun and other inputs, and thus does have a “material constraints” component.  But why not say “number of humans,” then, than “human capital”? Continue reading


The # of Humans Problem! Or, the Ongoing Framing of Sustainability through Implicit Mainstream Premises

“The question must be raised: how many humans can the Earth sustain under the unavoidable constraints of climates and soils?” –Preface to Sustainability Unpacked

When researching formal literature on sustainability, I often encounter questions and statements like this one.  From this mainstream framing, “sustainability” is viewed as being an issue of finding a way to manageably “fit” together the puzzle pieces of the natural environment and our human aspirations.  It is no wonder to me that my original design for the Sust Enable episode series in 2008 consisted of seeking a universal “one-size-fits-all” system for balancing that finicky ratio of existing humans to natural resources.  I bought the premise that we humans have managed to transgress our niches in the global self-regulating ecosystem, and thus we desperately need to speed up our efforts–whether through advanced technology or massive consensual behavior change–to “fit” on planet Earth.  This attitude is, to put it mildly, twisted.

Within this question, posed so early on in Sustainability Unpacked, there are several premises I’d like to, myself, unpack.

1. Your question is too narrow.  Here’s my suggestion for a better question:
“Given almost 7 billion humans at the time of writing, and one planet Earth, what kinds of people would be able to sustain themselves here?  What kinds of systems would allow for the maximization of life potential (recognizing that human potential is usually enhanced through enhancing overall living systems)?”

2. “How many humans” is lazy wording.  It’s how we choose to live, not how many we are.  Continue reading


“The Tuhoe Building” Suggests Two Sustainability Stories in One

The Tuhoe Building – Te Wharehou o Tuhoe from Alexander Behse on Vimeo.

It’s so wonderful to me, as the director of Sust Enable: The Metamentary and The Sust Enable Project, to see a surge in new independent documentaries taking a reflexive and/or allegorical approach to the stories they are telling.  This film in particular seems to suggest that in the story of a building, one can see the shapes of a story about how humans can create a sustainable future.  In my experience, asking questions about what makes something–like the Tuhoe Building–sustainable necessarily requires deeper reflection and this kind of holistic, systems-thinking storytelling that seems to be telling more-than-one stories, integrating multiple scales and angles, into one whole.  I look forward to seeing the full film!

Sust Enable: The Metamentary is seeking to join up with a full production team in order to bring this vision to life.  If you can help, please contact us.  And check out these other ways to support!


Hunger and Education are the Two Biggest Factors Affecting a Place’s Sustainability, according to “Sustainability Unpacked”

Sustainability Unpacked: Food, Energy, and Water for Resilient Environments and Societies, by Kristiina A. Vogt plus a conglomerate of authors, is a somewhat technical book that analyzes recent global data about the planet and its human population, and attempts to draw links between human activities and our planet’s stock of finite material resources to see if some populations can, will, or do attain “sustainability.”

This book delves into the sustainability data by national borders: in a given nation, how are they doing, proportionally, with regard to human population, forest area, agricultural land, fresh water availability and treatment, and energy resources? While there are problems with examining global sustainability by the politically-consensed-upon boxes of national borders (when, in reality, the Earth and her overlapping ecosystems have no such borders), one reason to do so is to examine how the political conditions of particular nations (especially, in comparing decision-making processes and histories of “developed” countries with “developing” nations) impact their consumption of natural resources.

“Natural resources…” I feel compelled to say that this term gives me the willies. I should note here, that my overall discomfort with this book (and others like it) is its assertions that continued heavy manipulation by humans of their natural ecosystems is the only methodology for achieving global sustainability; simply–and simplistically, in my opinion–because humans have heavily manipulated their landscapes up to this point in history, so we are just going to keep doing so. Thus we need to use science and governments respectively to develop formulas for global equilibrium (aka “sustainability”) and implement those formulas effectively. Since surviving my arrogant one-size-fits-all attempt to develop a universal method for 100% sustainable living in 2008, this attitude agitates and disturbs me, for reasons I will discuss elsewhere. However, I recognize how widespread is our society’s faith in science and government (over other methods of knowing), so I respect the weight of such publications in shaping future activity around sustainability. I also respect the authors’ expertises in their areas of study, and their urge to share what they know in the ways they know it.

Of the many socio-environmental-economic vertices studied, when comparing a country’s measure of sustainability to other factors affecting the country, the data proclaims one thing clearly: the two most pronounced trends globally, is that sustainability is contraindicated when a country suffers from (1) hunger issues, and (2) lack of education.

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The Next Evolution in Advanced Film Styles

It is worth insisting that the strategies and styles deployed in documentary, like those of narrative film, change; they have a history. And they have changed for much the same reasons: the dominant modes of expository discourse change; the arena of ideological contestation shifts. The comfortably accepted realism of one generation seems like artifice to the next. New strategies must constantly be fabricated to re-present “things as they are” and still others to contest this very representation. –Bill Nichols, “The Voice of Documentary”

MC Escher - Hand with Reflecting Sphere

MC Escher – Hand with Reflecting Spher

Since reading Lord of the Flies in ninth grade I have been obsessed with the idea of allegory–of encoding one meaning within another, like Russian nesting dolls.  Analogy, allegory, simile, metaphor… to learn is to build from analogy.  The brain creates narratives to describe direct experiences through analogy; for example:

Pain : Your Body :: Whatever Behavior I am Doing : You (Your Survival).

So what if you simply increase the complexity of analogies to the point where you have to reference the system itself that is thinking in order to contextualize a point?  An observer becomes aware of his own observing activity when the complexity of his collective brain connections reaches a critical mass.  At this point, moviegoers are very familiar with cinema language and narrative conventions.  We are well aware of what’s going to “come next” in a formulaic film.  So what will be the next for filmmaking?  How do we continue making films that thrill, inspire, and stimulate whole populations?

After over 100 years of exposure to cinema, audiences are primed for the next level of movie experiences.  Some folks in Hollywood have interpreted this to mean IMAX, 3-D, CGI, and extra-long, convoluted story lines.  There’s even talk of building movie theaters whose seats jolt around based on action on the screen, and Smell-o-vision.  Yet as all these technological bells and whistles are tacked on to your moviegoing experience, stories become more and more impoverished–Hollywood now produces mainly stories based on only on franchises: sequels, prequels, and remakes.  As the costs to produce these high-tech movies skyrocket into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Hollywood becomes more hesitant to produce original content, thus stifling fresh, perhaps simpler ideas… meanwhile, those increases in movie spending is passed off to the consumer, in form of crazy high ticket prices.  Is this really what innovation looks like?

I see cinematic innovation a little differently. I believe a film’s story is enhanced when the story effectively refers to the assumptions of its audience–when the audience’s expectations become a factor in the story’s development.  When a film draws attention to its frame, its medium, it by extension draws attention to our expectations of that that medium.  This further draws on our historical exposure to and immersion in the evolution of film language, which further draws into light our social and cultural constructions of meaning — our “reality” — that is embedded in each one of us.  Documentaries and avant garde narrative films from the likes of Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, and Charlie Kaufman do much to challenge our projections of a normal, predictable world, by challenging our expectations for a film and a meaningful film narrative.  You can refer to the film, and yet still the film can morph from that process.  This is, essentially, how creating new film products over time “locks in” certain style and narrative standards (like the close-up and parallel cutting, for example), while simultaneously opening up new possibilities for innovation in the films that follow.  In this way, film evolves.

Film is a highly technical and petroleum-based medium, but at its roots it is not a new medium.  At its roots, film is a sophisticated form of performance and storytelling, which are archaic (no negative connotation) methods of communication that are foundational to the way we relate to the world.  The function of sharing stories is to encode social values — that’s why, even in elaborate fantasies, the underlying structure of the story will often involve archetypes like hero, villain, mentor, and so forth.

Some have argued that even the quality of the movie theater environment — in a dark room with other rapt bodies, gazing at a flickering screen — harkens to our biological history of gathering around campfires to share crucial survival information through storytelling.  All the Hollywood film industry is doing (with its billion-dollar budgets, fanatic celebrity culture, and massive exploitation of humans and environment) is telling the same damn Hero’s Journey story in fancy dressing.  Though I’m not one to deny that film is a profoundly beautiful and sophisticated artform, it is also just a means for delivering simple stories, dressed way, way up.  Even as the stylization and technical delivery of these films seems limitless in expansion, somehow, the underlying stories seem ever more shallow.

When a society’s values are shifting as they are right now, we storytellers are pressured to tell meaningful stories.  We need new kinds of film, new stories encoding our new meanings.  I draw my inspiration from the reflexive (self-referencing) narrative and documentary films which in the last ten years have expanded into new dimensions of self-reference, subjective narratives, and non-chronological construction of narratives.  Reflexivity in the film form appeals to me intuitively because this artistic movement of drawing additional meaning into the story from the film’s own construction seems to me to mirror our society’s growing awareness of how our industrial, economic and social actions have widespread, dispersed ecological affects that can end up negatively impacting us in complex ways, even on a global scale.  Reflecting on our big and small life choices, we may discover startling consequences that are tied back to our own little narrative in a way that reshapes us.

My film Sust Enable: The Metamentary is firmly aligned with this movement in filmmaking.  Lots of film theory research and creative development over the past three years has afforded me a strong yet flexible film “container” that will as fully as possible represent its core question “What does sustainability mean?”on all levels of the film’s creation.  The design for Sust Enable: The Metamentary is well-researched and thoughtfully crafted… but what will go in the container?  What defines our current debates about sustainability?
How might this container have to flex beyond known bounds, in order to effectively contain such world-changing questions?  How might film not only be more effectively reflexive, but more inclusive, more participatory, centered on audience-empowerment instead of audience-numbing?
At The Sust Enable Project, we are committed to seeing these questions through; to asking more of the film medium and more of the filmmaking industry.  We want to facilitate people defining their own stories, not to have the same old stories told for them.  This intention is embedded in our productive design, too–we are looking for partners in this ambitious task.  Though we are decidedly not casting for heros or villains, we are currently looking for talented, compassionate, forward-thinking filmmakers and mediamakers to join us, in dynamically modeling a successful, sustainable film and filmmaking protocol on the diverse sustainable successes emerging on our amazing planet.  The socio-economic trend for “infinite growth” will not bear out in the long run, nor can it bear out in our film industry and cinematic technologies either–it becomes unworkably inaccessible, for both filmmakers and film consumers.  Since it cannot grow forever, now is the time to apply our creativity to make film a little more reflexive, a little more provocative, a little more rooted… a little more real.

People’s Sustainability Treaties Identifying Common Pathways to Achieving Sustainability

I found this website today when looking for Occupy Wall Street national events.  Of course, I am always intrigued whenever people work to define sustainability!

I was most intrigued that the diversity of the different voices contained in the fourteen “people’s sustainability treaties” for the Rio+20 conference were able to coalesce on three points, three major principles and strategies for achieving sustainability:

Equity, Localizing, and a Global Citizens Movement are what the people’s wisdoms hold in common about how to achieve sustainability.  Re-localizing value, and putting people, embedded in their unique environments, in charge of their own lives is not just fairer, it is also more sustainable.  Such adjusted society-scale behavior would mimic the intelligent, evolved processes in our planetary ecosystems–behavior understood as networks and flow.

Sust Enable: The Metamentary will explore these same themes–among others–in its exploration of “what does sustainability really mean?”