Sustainability is mainly a spiritual crisis, not a material one

The more godlike he becomes, the less godly Homo economicus behaves.” – Andrew Nikiforuk

When I started out as a sustainability activist, I firmly believed that “sustainability” meant finding better, more efficient ways for humans to live within the means of our resources.  I considered the problem of sustainability as a problem of materials and design: too many humans, not enough global resources to fulfill our aspirations.  So, to fix this problem, we must design more efficient ways of fitting on the planet (a la Buckminster Fuller, of whose life work I was a faithful follower at the time.)

Over the course of four years, my definition of sustainability and subsequently, my life’s course, have been revolutionized many times.  I continue to actively integrate many diverse perspectives on sustainability into my life.  But perhaps the most significant thing I learned from my journey thus far is that our serious lack of sustainability is not strictly a materials problem.  It is mainly a problem of how we interpret the world in which we live.  Today we have very real material problems, such as ocean acidification and global warming, but these material manifestations are an effect of what is, at root, a spiritual crisis.  A spiritual crisis exemplified by the persistent assumption that the nature of reality is fundamentally objective and material.

Many people still harbor the belief that human beings are not, at our most basic level, living beings–that we are more accurately defined by our intellectual, artistic and technological pursuits, and that one day we will transcend our earthly limitations and jet off throughout space as sheer consciousness, utterly free.  Four years ago, I too believed that humans are vastly and uniquely more accomplished and intelligent than the rest of life–that we were “special,” and thus could play by our own rules.  I believed that with the same gumption and elbow grease we used to build our modern society, we will easily overcome the environmental management problems facing us.  In other words, I believed firmly in the supremacy of humankind.

Possibly the only reason I am not an evangelical “transhumanist” today is that I ended up putting my supremacist philosophies to the test, through embarking on an ambitious project to devise and then embody a universal formula (like a Theory of Everything) for 100% sustainable living, perfectly balancing the equation between Earth materials and human lives.  The formula would be so perfect that if every human reorganized their customs and applied this formula to their lives, everywhere on Earth, we would achieve total global perpetual sustainability–i.e., a sustainability utopia.

Of course, my initiative fantastically failed.

But I didn’t.  My consciousness (itself never short on gumption) rose from the ashes attempting to make sense of what all had happened to my grandiose project.  Which proved–if nothing else–that I am not my aspirations.  I am a living body who can survive–and indeed thrive–after the successes or failures of any of my projects.
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“The Tuhoe Building” Suggests Two Sustainability Stories in One

The Tuhoe Building – Te Wharehou o Tuhoe from Alexander Behse on Vimeo.

It’s so wonderful to me, as the director of Sust Enable: The Metamentary and The Sust Enable Project, to see a surge in new independent documentaries taking a reflexive and/or allegorical approach to the stories they are telling.  This film in particular seems to suggest that in the story of a building, one can see the shapes of a story about how humans can create a sustainable future.  In my experience, asking questions about what makes something–like the Tuhoe Building–sustainable necessarily requires deeper reflection and this kind of holistic, systems-thinking storytelling that seems to be telling more-than-one stories, integrating multiple scales and angles, into one whole.  I look forward to seeing the full film!

Sust Enable: The Metamentary is seeking to join up with a full production team in order to bring this vision to life.  If you can help, please contact us.  And check out these other ways to support!

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Live: Greenpeace activists attach themselves to anchor of Russian ship assisting oil-drilling rig in the Arctic

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What does it mean when human beings, and high profile ones at that, put their lives on the line to defend against a perceived threat to future lives?

These Greenpeace activists, which include their International director, have attached themselves in a small motorboat to the anchor of a massive ship poised to assist in completing the construction of an oil rig in the Arctic.  Their sign proclaims “Do Not Destroy Our Children’s Futures.”  How do these activists connect their “children’s futures” to the issue of this boat completing an oil rig?

On the level of our biological reality, the molecular building blocks of life (water, carbon, etc.) all interconnect and blend together through global systems.  These people seem to be identifying their lives with the importance of the biological quality of life of their children’s futures–which they connect to whether or not more carbon-based fossil fuel is drilled and burned.

For many millenia, humans could survive and thrive on the assumption that our lives would be relatively free from toxic pollutants and extreme weather and temperature fluctuations that could wildly skew our ability to manage our food and water, and destroy species diversity.  But now, can we really say that anymore?  Oil drilling and burning has produced these effects in our lives on a planet-wide scale.  My generation (I was born in 1986) is a generation not just of traditional cyborgs (whose identities are made up of both natural and technological systems), but also we have been biologically shaped by the technological consequences of our recent ancestors.  People my age and younger will have never interacted with the world the way humans had for thousands of years–we cannot experience the world as being predominantly determined by a vast network of self-regulating systems.  My generation’s only “natural” interactions have been with a thoroughly human-influenced landscape, whether we are considering land use, forests, fresh water, atmospheric makeup, or other biological factors once strictly considered in the “natural” domain.

What kind of consequences will this have on my generation’s consciousness?  I think this photograph of direct action, in which people are putting their immediate bodies in danger in an effort to secure the safety and well-being of a broader living system, is something we will begin to see much more of.

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Sust Enable as a platform for openly “workshopping” sustainability

Sust Enable has adopted many forms throughout its development from a seed film idea two years ago, derived out of filmmaker/author Caroline Savery’s remarkable struggles with the Sust Enable episode series in 2008.

Caroline wanted to share how her life had been radically altered–for the better–through practically testing her naive, culturally-influenced attitudes about what sustainability means in a three-month “sustainable living” experiment.  With a ten-year background in filmmaking, she wanted to tell this story through the film medium–namely, with a documentary that would illustrate her trials, tribulations, and her maturing philosophy that this one little word, “sustainability,” could encode a massive shift in culture, consciousness and conduct.  And from the tough-earned insights she learned about sustainability, it was important to her to approach the production of the documentary film in an authentically sustainable, holistic way.

This seed developed into an ambitious vision.  What if the entire film production process was built upon an adapting, evolving list of sustainability principles?  The world is currently working out definitions of sustainability in a variety of settings, fields, and lives–are there any emergent, common themes to this movement that the film could use as guidelines and models?  What if the film’s entire process embodied these values–would the final product not only be about what sustainability means, but actually look, feel, and be a more sustainable film?  How would this effort contribute to global sustainability? Continue reading

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Sustainability and Sust Enable: Holism

Holism

In a holistic model, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

At first impression, this theme suggests that everything is unified. We are all one. Any human being is actually a complex of other organisms, and the natural environment from which we receive sustenance, is made up of other organisms. Thus, all living things are profoundly interconnected, and the boundaries between us are fluid.  Our world is thus defined not through objects, but through relationships between subjects; not through hard boundaries between things, but through networks among beings.

This requires a shift from the way we tend to view the world, as clearly defined objects and patterns that can be rationally reduced and parsed. In a holistic situation, breaking the system down into parts actually obscures a more subtle nature of the system, that can only be understood when considering the system as a dynamic whole. For our film, interviewees that will touch on this theme include Charles Eisenstein, Phil Seneca, Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, Dr. Allenna Leonard, and more.

Interpreting Holism in Sust Enable: “Systems Thinking,” Holistic Design, and Focusing on the Process

The means must reflect and embody the ends. You must have a sustainable process to achieve sustainable results. Holism is perhaps the theme that most profoundly influences the design of Sust Enable: The Metamentary.

We will interpret this theme in the story by drawing attention to the unity of purpose in the two Sust Enable projects, despite their vast differences in approach. We will illustrate how my current lifestyle holistically incorporates sustainability choices in dynamic balance with other goals in my life—for example, commuting by bicycle is an integrated daily choice that balances my needs for fitness, transportation, community, acquiring skills, and conserving fuel.

Stylistically, we may begin the film with a scene that we revisit at the conclusion with deepened meaning. Or we may, when appropriate, look for parallels between ostensibly divergent points of view and show how they line up conceptually (for example, juxtaposing an indigenous activist’s interview commentary with that of an academic specialist to illustrate agreement.)

Our production processes reflect this theme through our film’s unique approach of seeking to embody sustainability principles (including holism!) at all levels of the film’s creation. We must consider how every decision incorporates sustainability principles as much as possible, and how a choice regarding the story layout, for example, has implications in the real world, and vice versa.

This post is one of a series about The Sust Enable Project’s main themes and principles.  These are themes that have emerged from our sustainability research, that we plan to fully embody in our sustainable filmmaking process.  For more posts like this, check out the Core Themes and Principles category of posts.

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