Diversity is Essential to Sustainability, But Native Cultures Offer Little to the Sustainability Discourse… Huh? More reflections on “Sustainability Unpacked”

I spent the last several posts (1) (2) (3) unpacking the 2011 book Sustainability Unpacked.  In each post, I dig deeper into the authors’ premises, in an attempt to open up their narrow framing of the sustainability problem.  However, this does not imply that I always disagree with the authors.  One statement I can unpausingly agree with is this one:

“One definition [of sustainability] cannot and should not encompass the complexity and capture the nuances that are inherent in the word ‘sustainable’.  This does not mean that there is no value in this word.”  – pg. 3, Sustainability Unpacked

Even though sustainability may not have one uniform definition, that does not mean that this word is not an important tool for rallying around visions for how to live in better ways.  Rather than being a limiting factor, the diversity of existing definitions of sustainability clarifies the importance of the sustainability movement, and enriches its chances for success.


“History would suggest that humans have not been very capable of living within their social, environmental and economic footprints; this means that we do not have acceptable models that can be used to learn what works, to increase the possibility that a country will make sustainable choices.”  – pg 8, Sustainability Unpacked

Now, I hate to point out–but I will–that “history” involves the extermination and suppression of multiple histories and narratives of countless native cultures.  So if “history” presents few examples of sustainable living… might that be because colonizing cultures aren’t sustainable, and through colonizing processes we have erased countless stories that might have told of how to live sustainably?

No social group has ownership of the ‘realistic’ answers.  However, we can learn lessons from the struggles of many different sectors of our global society and how these groups have resolved their problems.  Yet, we also should not naively believe the vision that societies more closely linked to their bio-resources (i.e. the ‘back to nature’ approach) are more sustainable and could, therefore, be used as a guideline for ‘how to consume resources’ sustainably.  This would be naive and foolish.  People living ‘close to nature’ have a tough life and it is not as idealistic as some portray.” – pg. 8, Sustainability Unpacked

With Sust Enable 2008, I can attest to the truth that inserting oneself in a “close to nature” situation is NOT automatically a way to be more sustainable… so long as one still possesses the view that one is trying to “consume resources” more sustainably.  The authors may be right–native cultures, through being embedded in their ecological contexts, some for thousands of years, may not provide models for “how to consume resources” more sustainably.  Let’s look carefully at the words chosen here.

The Haudenosaunee Native American philosophy I am most familiar with (via my friend Phil Seneca) centers on being in dynamic relationship with myriad living systems, and describes material boons supporting human survival (i.e. a good harvest, a successful hunt) as gifts.  Maybe by relating to the world in terms of “how to consume resources”… maybe therein lies the problem.  Maybe this attitude is what “societies more closely linked to their bio-resources” can instruct us about.  Maybe this attitude is incompatible with sustainability–as the lessons I took from Sust Enable 2008 made clear to me.

By inserting myself abruptly into a tent, into a so-called “natural” environment, without any respect for the natural systems I was invading, I was reenacting my culture’s “brave pioneer” hero idiom, pushing myself into the landscapes of alien systems and aiming to conquer them through human will and ingenuity.  And through my subsequent struggles, I learned to relate to the systems defining and making possible my life, instead of trying to subjugate them to my will–instead of just “consuming resources,” I saw myself in dynamic entanglement with equally complex and sovereign living systems.  I am not the heroic figure, with the ecosystem as my backdrop.  I am co-determined, co-created, and I change depending on which angle I am viewed from.  I am subject to my environment, and my environment is subject to me.

One thing that the peoples of native cultures may offer that would make any conjecture about their quality of life from a civilized person moot, is this: a sense of self-knowledge through connection to place, to fitting their particular place in the ecosystem.  For Westerners, our story of “who we are” involves the ever-expanding rape and theft of others’ resources, and the dichotomy of our supremacy with others’ inferiority.  It is an increasingly untenable, unpopular belief system, and it is inherently unstable, as the membrane between “them” and “us” is infamously inconsistent, situational, and the lines often are drawn based on greed.  Those of us embedded in this culture, urged to participate in this divisiveness, are left feeling equivocal, scared, and essentially adrift.  We lack a strong identity, expect in comparison with others–we believe in our superiority.

We also feel that struggling is evil–we want to eliminate struggle, and insulate ourselves 24/7 from having to struggle.  “Back to nature” cultures are dismissed by the authors of Sustainability Unpacked in part because they live “tough lives.”  I think what they mean by this is these people live lives that are more closely linked to the variances in their direct environments.  Their lives are dynamic and require creativity and collaboration.  What a sin, amIright?  The unique appropriateness of the technologies each culture devises to deal with the variances in their unique environments, and the successes they’ve had over millenia, is utterly glossed over by the authors–the authors focus on the fact that they have to struggle.  What if struggle was viewed as profoundly life-affirming, even necessary for mental and social health?  What if dynamic engagement with one’s environment, and one’s survival being subject to forces larger than you, was not viewed with terror but with humility?  What kinds of social boons has our avoidance of struggle gotten us?  Oh yeah–years upon years of desperate hunger, poverty, crime, increasing class divides, etc., because those of us with means insulate ourselves from those worlds, from having to struggle.  From having to care. Because if I’m just innately superior, then you must be inferior if you have to struggle.  RIGHT.

Global colonization by Europeans began roughly 700 years ago.  Humans, as defined by our species’ boundary (homo sapiens sapiens), have been around for at least 250,000 years.  So, since the authors would so easily dismiss “back to nature” (i.e. native) cultures for what they have to offer us as we move urgently toward a sustainable planet, I ask you to consider: who has more sophisticated technologies for improving their quality of life, if quality of life is defined not by material accumulations but by lack of dissonance in action and thought, by feelings of belongingness and rootedness, by the perception of being embedded within an abundant environment that provides generously to you (rather than an environment from which abundance must be anxiously, violently wrung)?  Who, then, should we be modeling ourselves after, and whose behavior should we be dismissing?  This book, like most other products of our culture, talks as if the way we’ve arranged ourselves today is mostly fortunate, is definitive of progress, or is perhaps somewhat unfortunate (given the oppressiveness of colonization and industrial society), but definitely inevitable–hence, we can only tweak our systems, we could never just “do away” with them.  Natural humans and natural history may sing different tunes.  This society is only apparent, not inevitable.  It is built entirely upon ways of perceiving and relating to the world, and hence it is entirely changeable.

If, over thousands of years, we have innovated so many different cultures and ecological niches among our diversity of human societies, we can probably innovate a global response to unsustainability.  Since all human cultures form as an adaptation to environmental stresses, our current declining global ecosystems will be the motivation behind processes to culturally innovate our next best survival advantage.  Yet this burgeoning new culture may look very little like what our society looks like today… it may have more to take from native cultures than from modern industrial society, or it may be an intelligent merger of the best from both.

But when you listen only to the stories of your own culture, you cannot dream as big or be as creative, for you cannot imagine what other models might exist.  I know this firsthand, through my grossly wrong-headed “pioneering” approach to achieving sustainability with the Sust Enable episode series in 2008.  This post today was compelled mostly by the tone of dismissal the Sustainability Unpacked authors’ use in proclaiming that “back to nature” cultures don’t have much to offer to the sustainability discourse.  On the contrary.  Respect for all ways and walks and forms of life, and all ways of knowing, is essential to attaining sustainability.