Sustainability – How to Tell its Story?
Consider for a moment the subject of sustainability.
What would achieving sustainability look like? As many readers will agree, figuring out sustainability will take a “paradigm shift”–a massive adjustment in values and perspective, made all the more difficult today by the “lock-in” of so many different systems of infrastructure built on soon-to-be obsolete values (for instance, huge expanses of paved roads, which assumes the existence and importance of cars, which in turn assumes the perpetual existence of petroleum.)
Understanding sustainability means challenging many assumptions and a lot of the lock-in that holds our society hostage to old ideas and prevents innovation. Also, the growing pains of this process will be widely felt, uncomfortable or even horrible. Likewise, a film that attempts to depict the ongoing social effort to define sustainability may also have to challenge a lot of film conventions that suggest that stories can only be told in conventional ways. The “meta-storytelling” trend is helping to craft a new mythology for our culture, and I think this can be accomplished in non-fiction filmmaking too.
As for the topic matter, what does the nature of sustainability look like when closely examined?
I had the unique opportunity of being forced to closely reconsider my beliefs about sustainability after a failed attempt at living 100% sustainably in 2008. On May 1st, 2008, I independently launched Sust Enable, a three-month attempt to craft a lifestyle within a “one-Earth” ecological footprint in urban Pittsburgh, which would be depicted in a web-based video episode series at www.sust-enable.com.
My express goal was “100% sustainability” in my lifestyle (which is an amusingly vague term in hindsight), but which at the time I assumed meant living within a “one-planet-Earth-sized environmental footprint.” Based on the Online Ecological Footprint Calculator, which assesses your environmental footprint “if everyone on Earth lived the same way you do,” my initial score (and the average American’s) hovered around 5 Earth’s worth of resources.6 My ambitious three-month attempt, with a tinge of heroic sacrifice to boot, was an attempt to rectify that and, implicitly, to use direct action and education to absolve my role in global ecological destruction.
Within just a few days of the project’s launch, however, I noticed many things seemed to be going wrong. By the end of the three-month period, after battling poison ivy, heavy rains, weight loss, and depression, I was overwhelmed with doubts about the original idea for Sust Enable, and about what “100% sustainability” really means…
And while it’s true that there may not be any simple or absolute definitions to sustainability, my extraordinary direct experiences during Sust Enable proved to me that it’s also not entirely subjective, either. When I tried to actualize my naive definition of global sustainability on the world, the world pushed back. Since then, I’ve been committed to trying to figure out just what the world was trying to tell me.
From my processing, much of which interestingly aligns with theories emerging from a diverse range of fields including cybernetics and environmental justice, I’ve come to think that sustainability may indeed have a nature that we are just now beginning to grasp. A sustainable system may possess qualities including but not limited to: holism (it must be considered as a system not as the sum of its parts), reflexivity, recursion (being self-informing), organism-environment braiding, the requirement of diversity and the presence of evolution, plus much more that appears to be just now percolating into the collective consciousness.
Hence, thanks to these characteristics, sustainability may just be the perfect–and perfectly timely–topic for an experimental non-fiction film of this kind, exploring and challenging the limitations of the medium while likewise exploring and challenging the limitations of our typical beliefs about sustainability.