Overall we progress from shallow interpretations of “sustainability” to deeper, more philosophical and personal ones. This film itself contains multiple shifts in perspective, with a trend of progressively expanding and including/integrating the domain of problems, solutions and stories over the course of the narrative. Every narrative and stylistic decision is tied to an insight about sustainability emerging from our research and interviewing process.
The Narrative Arc
Act One: The Problem Has a Name: Unsustainability
“[This] is the most important fight that any group of humans has ever engaged in, ever.” – Bill McKibben
The story starts like any standard political-environmental documentary: with the Urgent Problem. Global climate change–it’s a problem for all of us, caused by some people living outside of their “environmental means.” The consequences of global “unsustainability” are encroaching with each passing moment. We desperately need to correct our behavior to stabilize the planet’s ecosystems.
After finding out her environmental footprint would require five planet Earths to sustain, 21-year-old activist Caroline Savery decided to confront this problem by designing a “100% sustainable” lifestyle that would be accessible to anyone. On May 1, 2008, she quit her normal life of creature comforts “cold turkey,” moving out of her apartment and into the woods in urban Pittsburgh, PA. Building on DIY low-impact techniques, she began growing her own food, collecting rainwater, biking everywhere, and making passive solar appliances. Her mission was to show that it would be easy, fun and more fulfilling to live a totally sustainable lifestyle.
BUT… as soon as the project began, it became clear that something was very wrong. After enduring sleeplessness, unhealthy weight loss, poison ivy, and losing nearly all of her belongings to mold, Caroline walked away from the project with serious doubts: if that lifestyle wasn’t “100% sustainable,” then what does ‘sustainability’ mean? Her hope is that by learning more about sustainability, we can do a better job of attaining it.
Act Two: Getting Better All the Time: Measuring and Modifying Sustainability
“What gets measured, gets done.” – Peter Drucker
Caroline’s quest to uncover the true meaning of sustainability sets off the film’s action. The first thing she finds out is–no one seems to know for sure! There are countless different approaches to “being sustainable”–yet some common themes come up. At first Caroline turns to the “experts” for authoritative answers (academics, business leaders). Caroline’s life experiences–during and after the original Sust Enable lifestyle–are presented as exemplifying sustainability insights. The argument is that Caroline’s initial 100% sustainable lifestyle experiment failed because how it measured “100% sustainability” was inadequate. Thus, if she only enriched her understanding, she would improve her effectiveness at achieving sustainability.
As she deepens her quest, her beliefs and lifestyle shift naturally, to the point where she may be living more sustainably now than during her “100% sustainable” project… Yet she also finds that not all sustainability ideas are applicable within the context of an unsustainable society. Will we be able to figure out how to truly live sustainably on this planet, before it’s too late?
By employing the traditional narrative framework of the Hero’s Journey, the audience empathizes with Caroline’s struggle and begins seeing how broad sustainability theories are implicated in the direct consequences playing out in someone’s life. The first half of the film is structured around comparing Caroline’s story with interviewee testimony about the true meanings of sustainability. Interview style is formal–Caroline seeks answers, and mentors give them. Themes presented in this section include: Interconnectedness, Intersectionality, Stewardship/Responsibility, Systems-Thinking, Understanding Impacts.
Act 3: Unsustainable Attitudes
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” – Albert Einstein
But each simple answer concerning “how to be more sustainable” seems to lead to more difficult questions. Critical theory appears, with scholars of ecology, biology, cybernetics, and civilization, etc. calling into question mainstream assumptions about sustainability–for example, as having to do with “maintaining” an ideal equilibrium, as being something we have to control or manage, as being something more technology can “fix,” etc.
Likewise, Caroline’s central position in the narrative is questioned, when activists from marginalized communities point out that global environmental change disproportionately impacts poor people of color. The cultural roots of imperialism, colonialism, and agriculture are traced back to an ideological separation between “self” and “other.” Spiritual and indigenous leaders explain how these incorrect orientations to ourselves and our environments lie at the root of “unsustainable” behavior.
We gradually shift to more qualitative than quantitative evaluations of Caroline’s “sustainability.” We examine the attitudes of guilt, superiority, and alienation underlying Caroline’s original urge to reject her society and “fix the world’s problems by herself.” These internalized attitudes are shown to be counterproductive to sustainability principles of Stakeholder Engagement, Diversity, and Dialog.
Considering the deeper implications of these sustainability principles, it is no longer sufficient to “look” sustainable in front of the camera–the film must be sustainable “behind the scenes” too. The film’s focus shifts from Caroline’s story to the impacts the film is having during production, and the messy compromises required to adapt to be more sustainable. The film’s stylistic modes begin to mirror the subject matter, featuring motifs such as cycles and dialog. Sometimes being sustainable may not look sustainable at first, because deeper work is being done. No one person’s experience can provide the yardstick by which sustainability is measured–including Caroline’s. Our journey into sustainability has become challenging and messy. Even though there are no clean, clear answers anymore, this work somehow feels necessary and important.
The film then advances into a more mosaical, dialogic space, exploring themes of transformative process and inclusive participation. Caroline fades from the center position in the narrative as interviewees directly engage one another in organic conversation. Here is where more typically marginalized voices come to the forefront: mothers, farmers, activists, indigenous leaders, spiritual leaders. Their personal and professional journeys with sustainability are shared in their own words.
We find that there is a complexity and diversity of experiences, and lessons rarely emerge in a convenient, linear fashion. It is no longer about seeking to prove which principles are “right” through comparison with Caroline’s experiences, but rather, holding space for the process of people questioning and discovering the meanings of their lives through the lens of the word “sustainability.” Having lost certain narrative touchstones like a clear hero and persuasive prescriptions, the audience must summon critical thinking to draw their own insights from the collective space. We begin to feel that total resolution to the film’s driving question is less important than simply bearing witness to these peoples’ efforts and stories. On the other hand, some surprising agreement emerges from across seemingly vast ideological distances.
Act Four: Integration
“The result of this union would be, not the fortuitous result of a series of approximations and concessions, but the harmonious synthesis of two aspects of a single thought.” – Jacques Ibert
From the messy, collective space emerges the promise of a more informed, collaborative answer. Like an ecosystem, the disparate threads seem to weave together toward a complex harmony. Caroline reappears in the narrative, her story now just one of many meaningful ones in the efforts to achieve sustainability. This is where the greatest degree of synthesis between the perspectives is achieved, and our hearts connect to the most profound of the film’s insights. Themes include: Synergy, Symbiosis, Oneness, Complexity.
While we feel the stories are converging and about to climax–that the film’s core question will be answered–there is a final twist. Despite the journey we have just traveled, we are reminded: No one account of sustainability can contain all the answers. Paradoxically, solving the world’s problems will be achieved by engaging with these issues, but this process is never complete and no one can yet claim that their answer is universally right (hearkening back to the original Sust Enable episode series premise). Thus the film’s quest is handed over to the audience to continue the work in the real world, through a dramatic conclusion paired with immediate audience engagement subsequent to the film’s ending.