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.

Like the 2008-me, I think many people believe our global unsustainability crises amount to just another problem that the best minds of our society will tackle and fix, like for example, how to get a man to the moon.  I think many people believe it will just be a matter of moving resources around on a map, like a game of Risk, until everyone gets a fair amount, or until the population and society’s aspirations can balance with the world’s account of natural resources.  To these people, sustainability is a materials-only conundrum.

From where I stand right now, from what I’ve gone through, today, sustainability to me is a consciousness conundrum.  Today, I strongly doubt that effectively addressing sustainability issues has much or anything to do with designing a universalizing balanced “footprint” equation.  I notice that so much of our society’s problems seem to derive from humans acting unilaterally to seize our material surroundings for human aspirations, before fully understanding the long-term, life-impacting consequences and natures of such materials (see: nuclear power, dams, plastics, toxic industrial byproducts…).  Let’s not assume that taking the same tack now will fix the problems it sired.  Maybe our tack, and not the sophistication of our strategies, is what is preventing us from being sustainable?

I have come to believe that sustainability is more akin to a way of relating to and interpreting the world, than a method for managing its contents.  “Sustainability” has more to do with quality than quantity–without an ideological or cultural shift that shapes how you relate to the world, you cannot achieve 100% material sustainability for longer than a moment.  I don’t necessarily believe that sustainability is a new concept for humankind.  I do believe that every single one of us can attain awareness of the meaning of sustainability–and it may be a different, private meaning than your neighbor’s.

I think that people embedded in American cultural and socioeconomic systems have an especially hard time getting in touch with a “sustainability consciousness” because, as I discovered through my own project’s “tangled” results, so much of what American culture prioritizes conflicts dramatically with what a sustainability mentality emphasizes.  (I look forward to unpacking this further in Sust Enable: The Metamentary.)  I think Americans (young Americans especially, but also Westerners in general), as a type of people with certain culturally influenced ways of thinking, need some special support in making sense of the messages emerging in the sustainability discourse, and I think an interesting, creative documentary film might be an ideal, helpful vehicle.

Because creative documentary films tell stories that are emotionally relatable.  Indirectly but by proxy, through emotional relation when watching a film, we “let in” new perspectives into our internal worlds, and consider the experiences of others as though they were our own.  Given the urgency of our global unsustainability crises, a great documentary film is a tool to quickly reach beyond our own narrow frames of reference and receive new insight.  I think the word “sustainability” today is alienating to many Americans–but maybe less so when represented by someone who thinks like them and relates to their experiences, yet from that point, can take them deeper into “the rabbit hole” of sustainability.

Believe it or not, there is ample drama built into the process to understand sustainability.  Doing sustainability activism is chock full of hope and heartbreak.  There has never been anything greater at stake.  What if humanity doesn’t survive the collapsing of the systems we rely on for our lives?  Considering the extent of “globalized” civilization today, if this civilization collapses just like the many before it, we now might take the whole life systems of Earth down with us!  We need to work rapidly and drastically, but too much haste might cause serious and irreversible missteps.  Whole methodologies are tossed out and reworked through realizing that our methods of achieving sustainability are not themselves sustainable.  Our brains endure the constant stress of new ideas, lessons, and strategies, and struggle to integrate it all.  Sustainability work is extraordinarily difficult, taxing, and terrifying.  We need to succeed, but what if it’s all in vain?  Despair and nihilism constantly threaten to absorb and nullify the hard-earned insight that is emerging through our struggles right now.  Because sustainability requires internal, ideological changes in perspective, more so than (or at least before) adjusting material realities, the “sustainability infrastructure” we desperately need to be building is to give more space for the emotional stories of people wrestling with and painfully developing sustainability consciousness.  We need to work on building community where people feel safe to explore new ideas about sustainability, and to fully feel their own grief and hope and confusion.

Sust Enable: The Metamentary will accomplish this by not subscribing to any strict protocol or even any particular data set.  It will embody and depict the process of a metamorphosis, a personal transformation, not a tweaking of policies and procedures.  This film acknowledges that sustainability is not fully defined, and it may never be–but what matters is how we relate to this word.  What do we take from this word?  How can it help us explore and describe our experiences?  This orientation will foster a shift in audiences from the common “utility attitude” when considering sustainability to a relational attitude.  With Sust Enable: The Metamentary, we will eschew the authority to define “sustainability” conclusively–and instead we will establish the space where anyone can explore, contribute, and take from the discussion.  The film will be inclusive of many different perspectives and participants, considering its audience as co-definers and co-meaning makers.  Sust Enable: The Metamentary will offer a place for debating, a place for critical thinking, a place for discovering surprising resonance, and a place for breaking down in sheer sadness.  This is needed in our world.  We are shifting, and it means not just a rewiring of our material systems, but of our social systems, and each of our brains, hearts, minds, and bodies.  This can feel very scary and shaky at times.  To process this pain, fear, and ambition, we need a safe space, a community of people equally, if uniquely, committed to delving passionately into ideas of sustainability, no matter how messy it gets.