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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Expanding the social function of storytelling

At the Evolver Convergence two weekends ago, Daniel Pinchbeck uttered a line that has been echoing in my head ever since.  I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something close to “perhaps the reason for storytelling in cultures is about coordinating behavior.”

Coordinating behavior.  Wow.  Whether in a primitive, small-scale human hunter-gatherer clan, or our massive industrial globalized sprawling society, we tell stories not merely to transmit information critical to survival, but to coordinate our behavior relating to the information.  Stories aren’t just “I found a herd of buffalo–come this way.”  Stories have moral conflicts, often represented by contrasting characters, and they have problem solving (conflict and resolution).  Stories are built on our built-in process to make analogies–stories may even be allegories, which recursively tell two stories at once.  Our stories have models for action embedded in them.  Through our ability to relate emotionally, we imagine ourselves in the place of the hero, and we learn, through the drama of the story, what we ought to do to succeed.

The story of how we, as humanity, might achieve sustainability may not star a single hero.  It may not have an obvious villain.  Since we are the ones that made this mess, and the ones who are compelled to clean it up, maybe the (hi)story of how we might actually orchestrate such a change in behavior requires a hard, deep look at ourselves–at our natures as the source of incredible creativity, profound compassion, and devastating greed.  Thus, our new stories may look drastically different than they ever have. Continue reading

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