I sat in my quiet, still, squatted bedroom one morning in April 2010. It was a clear, sunny, and sweetly cool day–the open window welcomed a fresh breeze. Finally feeling a little bit safe after months of reflection and writing, still raw from the psychic turbulence of having many of my assumptions about sustainability confronted, I picked up a printout of the very first article I had found using a Google Scholar search on the term “sustainability,” with the gentle notion that I was finally ready to start my research into what other people working on “sustainability” issues had to say about it. This article was the top-listed one from the search I had conducted a day prior. The article was “A Complexity Approach to Sustainability,” by A. Espinosa, R. Harnden, and J. Walker, published in the European Journal of Operational Research in 2008. To know what others were writing and thinking about sustainability would help me develop my feature documentary film idea, I thought. What happened next was a great shock.
It seemed that every academic argument made in this article aligned perfectly with the substantial revelations I made since the Sust Enable episode series went awry in 2008. My most significant felt lessons from the collapsed Sust Enable project were being reinforced and affirmed on the level of this random, popular peer-reviewed publication about cybernetics.
At the line “this paper argues the need to wield analytical tools that themselves embody the principles of systemic, ecological thinking,” I gasped and uttered “oh my god!” to myself under my breath, as I remembered how the 2008 Sust Enable series failed to effectively achieve “100% sustainability” in part because the negative, critical, stressful production environment produced low-quality footage and an incomplete story. I recalled my resulting commitment to produce a systemically-sustainable film the next time around.
At the article’s explanation about how organisms are “braided” or “coupled” to their particular environment, and that, given this, no objectivity is possible, but the most accurate judgments would be derived from considering the organism within the context of its environment, I couldn’t help but see the connection to my vision–that the new film incorporate ongoing critiques of the film’s own processes into the construction of the film’s story–as being the same core idea as braiding. My breathing had unconsciously sped up; I stood up and began pacing around the room. The authors were so far from me in their orientation, education, and research methods, yet their words struck so close to my experiences… how was this possible?
By the end of the article, with its comments on “wide and democratic participation,” “stakeholder involvement,” “complexity management” and “breakthrough process,” my tears were flowing. I saw how my experiences since Sust Enable 2008, and my ideas for a film inspired from the flaws of my first attempt, might indeed be a very important story to tell. Other people in very different fields and using different methods are discovering the same things I am about the meaning of sustainability… but I might be uniquely positioned to turn these lessons into a creative documentary film. Reading through the Espinosa article again now, I still get chills. It’s hard to express how substantial that day was for me in setting me on the journey toward Sust Enable: The Metamentary.
Ever since, I cannot shake the feeling that there may be some kind of universal nature of sustainability, as natural as the existence of water or of life. Our current social agitation around issues of sustainability may be indicative that we are on the verge of (re)discovering a kind of “natural law”, which could guide us about how we are to live, and live well, as inhabitants of Earth.
And I believe that each and every human can know what sustainability means, and looks like, and feels like. In fact, staking an independent claim to this word, and trusting only your own experiences and body to guide you, is key to developing a unique, individual sensitization to sustainability issues that will only further enrich our dialogs.
Some of us have more opportunities to explore sustainability–like people of native cultures, who are much more concerned with their lifestyle’s local and direct “sustainability” (the braiding of lifestyle to environment) than a civilized person whose Western-derived mega-culture relies on technology that commodifies everything, divorces goods from sources, attacks us with messages constantly reinforcing our inadequacy, frustrates meaningful community, and externalizes industrial costs across the planet. Yet if scientists in an academic critical context could discover the same themes of sustainability that I too had identified through certain dramatic personal experiences during Sust Enable 2008 (and beyond), what does this say about the significance of sharing our experiences and visions for sustainability with one another? What does this say about our interconnectedness, our collective consciousness? What does this say about our gift for insight, and our subsequent obligation to act wisely? What does this say of the potential for us to join forces to solve complex, interrelated problems?
One of the premises of the current, updated Sust Enable project is self-determination and reflexivity: we don’t have to rely on economic or governmental authorities to figure out what sustainability means on our behalf–we can uncover important insight into sustainable living just by tapping into our own unique and diverse realities. Sust Enable: The Metamentary compares diverse interviewee commentary about the meaning of sustainability with footage of a simple life transforming over time, in an attempt to find supporting evidence for common sustainability principles everywhere–even in mundane human experiences. To prove that this insight is ours to take–that we will be the generation to define sustainability, and that we will, in all our wisdom and freedom, get to clarify and renew humanity’s most sacred and most fulfilling work on this planet.
Do you think sustainability probably has an intrinsic nature, universal to all living things? Why or why not? If so, do you think we could ever articulate a universally applicable definition of sustainability?