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.

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The # of Humans Problem! Or, the Ongoing Framing of Sustainability through Implicit Mainstream Premises

“The question must be raised: how many humans can the Earth sustain under the unavoidable constraints of climates and soils?” –Preface to Sustainability Unpacked

When researching formal literature on sustainability, I often encounter questions and statements like this one.  From this mainstream framing, “sustainability” is viewed as being an issue of finding a way to manageably “fit” together the puzzle pieces of the natural environment and our human aspirations.  It is no wonder to me that my original design for the Sust Enable episode series in 2008 consisted of seeking a universal “one-size-fits-all” system for balancing that finicky ratio of existing humans to natural resources.  I bought the premise that we humans have managed to transgress our niches in the global self-regulating ecosystem, and thus we desperately need to speed up our efforts–whether through advanced technology or massive consensual behavior change–to “fit” on planet Earth.  This attitude is, to put it mildly, twisted.

Within this question, posed so early on in Sustainability Unpacked, there are several premises I’d like to, myself, unpack.

1. Your question is too narrow.  Here’s my suggestion for a better question:
“Given almost 7 billion humans at the time of writing, and one planet Earth, what kinds of people would be able to sustain themselves here?  What kinds of systems would allow for the maximization of life potential (recognizing that human potential is usually enhanced through enhancing overall living systems)?”

2. “How many humans” is lazy wording.  It’s how we choose to live, not how many we are.  Continue reading