How will we achieve global sustainability… when we can’t even define it?
The Urgent Riddle: What Does Sustainability Mean?
Today, figuring out how to achieve global sustainability is our society’s biggest and most urgent task. How we respond to today’s compounding ecological, social and economic crises will define our generation. These crises point to deep flaws in our global systems–flaws which may be summarized as being “unsustainable.” So what, then, would sustainability look like?
The word “sustainability,” derived from Latin, is a relatively new word to the English lexicon, appearing in popular usage in the last 1960s. But over the past few years, “sustainability” has exploded in popularity, now being used widely in mass media advertising, policy-making, global activism, and is increasingly common in the average conversation. The question “what does sustainability mean?” seems like a simple one. But as a matter of fact, there are many competing definitions of “sustainability.” These definitions often share common themes, but they may disagree on what how to measure sustainability and what must be sustained. Despite our desperate need to enact sustainability on all scales, we are far from consensus.
There is, however, some intriguing alignment. The Sust Enable Project has isolated at least 12 themes that appear across the sustainability discourse, from the diverse perspectives of academics, activists, parents, teachers, economists, indigenous leaders, spiritual leaders, business leaders, and more. Does this suggest that there may in fact be a nature of sustainability that we are on the verge of fully defining? What if we could find evidence to prove the “sustainability” of these themes from our own life experiences?
In one young American’s life, as she idealistically sets out to live in “the most sustainable way possible” for a three-month extreme sustainable-living challenge, these 12 themes emerge from hard lessons learned during real life events, unfolding on camera. If these themes can affect and provide guidance for an individual’s lifestyle, what resonance might these themes have to global efforts? What parts of our current economy, culture and society appear to be contrary to these themes? Is today’s diverse “sustainability movement” forcing the emergence of tangible methodologies for how to live sustainably on this planet? What would we change if we fully understood the meaning of sustainability? How would this understanding change us?
Origins of Sust Enable
I stumbled upon the intriguing possibility of a common nature of sustainability through some unique experiences that changed my life forever. For three months in 2008, for my senior film project in college, I started a web-based educational episode series in which I was going to try to live a “100% sustainable” lifestyle. At the time, I took “100% sustainable” to mean that I would only be permitted to use as many resources on a daily basis that the Earth could “afford” for me–that is, one-six-billionth of the world’s known or estimated natural resources. I used the Online Ecological Footprint Calculator as my guide. As soon as I started the project, it was clear that my definition of 100% sustainable was profoundly misinformed. By the end of three months, after enduring poison ivy, malnutrition, failed relationships, homelessness, and extreme stress and depression–all of which was documented on video–I was forced to reevaluate my definition of “sustainability” and reconsider how my life measured up.
Over the next two years, as I struggled to digest the lessons that those painful months taught me, I was amazed to discover that many of the lessons I had derived from my failed project were also appearing in current academic and scholarly literature from a range of different disciplines. I began to wonder: might there be a universal nature of sustainability (or of sustainable systems), that we can test through clues embedded all around us–appearing likewise in critical theory and in our embodied experiences? How do we know when something is sustainable versus unsustainable? If we tried to apply and embody these so-called principles of sustainably, how would that transform the way we do things? How would it change the way we look at the world and ourselves? Why is achieving sustainability desirable? All of these questions, and more, are designed to “get at” the slippery meanings of sustainability.
Sust Enable: The Metamentary
In Sust Enable:The Metamentary, I will interview a wide selection of people about their definition of sustainability. I will juxtapose their answers with footage from my life during the brutal three-month Sust Enable project in 2008, and footage from my involvement in the ongoing filmmaking of Sust Enable: The Metamentary. Although my lifestyle today looks dramatically different from the highly contrived three-month lifestyle experiment of 2008’s Sust Enable, I’d argue that I’m actually living more sustainably now than ever. This story of inspired struggle and its hard-earned lessons will hook an audience of people eager to learn about sustainability and sustainable living. The narrative will progress through the lessons I learned: each time an element of my “100% sustainable” lifestyle in 2008 turns out to be unworkable, the interviews and comparison with my current life offer insight and clarification to how to successfully embody sustainability themes. Throughout the narrative arc, the (12) major themes will emerge, exciting the audience into hoping for a grand unified definition of sustainability by the end of the film. However, the film will stop short of resolving its core question; as a recognition that sustainability is being defined right now by our collective engagement with it, the film implies that it is now the audience’s work to continue making and finding meanings in their own lives.
The film, which is currently seeking support for production, continually evolves as we learn and integrate lessons about embodying sustainability.
Style, Method, and Structure
What makes Sust Enable: The Metamentary special is that it is trying to be a “sustainable film”: it will integrate principles of sustainability, as they are identified in the narrative, within its own creation.
Sustainability themes will be intentionally incorporated on the level of (1) the film’s narrative arc, (2) its stylistic construction (for example, illustrating the theme “diversity” at the level of editing and shot composition), and (3) in the film’s own continuous production processes. Thus The Metamentary is “meta”–it is reflexive, taking its story’s overarching themes of sustainability and quest to “live sustainably”–and integrating them into its own ultimate fate. This avant garde approach is, in fact, justified by the prominent sustainability theme called “holism,” or “systems thinking,” meaning the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In the drama that unfolds, whenever the main character’s basic quest is in danger of collapsing–the film itself is as at risk. This approach will excite jaded audiences who are tired of political expository environmental documentaries and are hungry for a taste of the real transformational potential–and the real work–of applying “sustainability” to our lives.
Another core sustainability principle is inclusiveness: we will not shy away from the conflict. In constructing the narrative, we will strive to honor all voices, from the quietest to the loudest, from the most informed and the most mainstream, to the most radical–because we are all important participants in the process to define sustainability.
This reflexive stylization, built meticulously around sustainability principles, will also create a heightened experience in the audience of the subject matter–which is necessary, as sustainability is not something that can be merely defined intellectually. Sustainability is being defined right now by the ways we engage with the world. The film will stop short of answering its core question, implying that it is now the audience’s work to find answers in their own lives. Through the experience of the film as a whole, the audience will be primed on deep levels to notice subtle evidence of sustainability in the phenomena surrounding them, to engage in critical dialogs about sustainability, and to trust in their own experiences to guide them. The deep inspiration behind this carefully-developed approach to Sust Enable: The Metamentary is the belief that the more people that critically engage with issues of sustainability, the more viable a sustainable world becomes. The mission of Sust Enable: The Metamentary is to engage people to see themselves as stakeholders and co-participants in the process to define “sustainability”–and that their efforts will set the stage for truly sustainable futures.