A Word on Sussing Out “Sustainability”

“Sustainability.” How many times have you already heard this word today?

It’s the kind of word you either love or loathe. Either “sustainability” is something you strongly resonate with, or the overuse of this word irks the piss out of you. When the word came into my consciousness several years ago, it was still a fairly fringe concept. Now, claims of “sustainability” are ubiquitous in our culture. Many people are annoyed with it. The main complaint I hear from fellow sustainability activists these days is “it’s not about sustaining something, it’s about thriving.” Word!

Indeed, the attractive power of a word. A word tries to capture something and transmit it; a word gets at a common experience. The word “sustainability” has an interesting history. Its modern application in connection with economic policy first occurred in 1967 at latest. According to Wikipedia, “The first use of the term “sustainable” in the modern sense was by the Club of Rome in March 1972 in its epoch-making report on the ‘Limits to Growth.”  “Sustainability” continued to be applied to theories of economics and development, being propelled into the mainstream lexicon by the famous 1987 Bruntlandt Report, whose definition of sustainability as “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” is still the most popularly cited one today. Throughout the last two decades, “sustainability” has spiked dramatically in common use. The word today is hyper-proliferating to the point of near meaninglessness, as is illustrated by this comic. 

Sustainability is an emergent concept in our modern times. One would surmise that the increasing popularity of this word corresponds to our expanding understanding of how human actions can substantially impact our environments. Whether or not you grok mega and meta issues like global warming and pollution, the effects of pesticides on pollinators and the impact of our oil spills on ecosystems, to cite just a couple examples, are undeniably linked to human industrial activities and have immediate unpleasant effects. The frenzied rate at which use of “sustainability” proliferates suggests our panicked urge to react to this devastating news. Sustainability is, perhaps, a trigger word, indicating a collapsing belief system and a desperate search for solutions to the apparent “unsustainability” of our economic and cultural systems.

Yet, intriguingly, such an abundant word doesn’t have a clear definition. Despite its Latin roots, Emrgnc has identified over 100 different definitions of sustainability. Given the high stakes and enormous tensions we’re enduring as we debate about how best to achieve sustainability, it’s little wonder we cannot even agree on terms. So what does sustainability really mean?

“Sussing out,” which is English slang, means “to infer or discover; to figure out” or “to size up; study,” according to The Free Dictionary. I like this term because it suggests “sniffing out” to me, like a dog curiously investigating a new encounter. We rightfully ought to be skeptical when examining claims of sustainability. Because of its amorphousness, anyone can use “sustainability” to justify any kind of action–including blanketing what they were already doing to look more “green.” In our modern world where billions of corporate dollars are spent on massaging your perceptions through advertising media, it’s a piece of cake to claim sustainability—but it’s much harder to do sustainability, since the latter involves overhauling entrenched systems. If the corporate chanting of “green” doesn’t invoke widespread sustainability, one must ask: who is qualified to define sustainability? Will it ever be effectively defined? The process of beginning to claim ownership over defining sustainability starts with the act of doubting: doubting that mega-corporations like WalMart and Monsanto could have sustainability figured out already, or that any major institution, for that matter, could have a grasp on such a complex issues as those illustrated by impending threats of systemic ecological collapse. Doubting the authority of others to define sustainability for us invites us to look to our own experiences for insight.

In addition to cultivating skepticism when “sussing out sustainability,” we should begin to claim ownership, ourselves, over this word. Not as a society (for no culture may claim an authoritative answer to sustainability), but as individuals, as family members and neighbors. In our messy, imperfect local efforts to enact sustainability, our dialogs and debates about it, our spiritual and philosophical grappling with it, through all of this, the deep meaningfulness lying dormant beneath the surface of this odd word gradually reveals itself to the collective unconscious. Each time we frame a behavior as being “sustainable” or “unsustainable,” we are altering the landscape of possible interpretations of our world–of consciousness itself. I have interviewed many folks about how they define sustainability, and almost always, the conversation ends up focusing on questions of “how do we want to live on Earth?” or “what do we want to sustain?” There is little doubt that the effects of unlocking such psychic territory will be transformational across the board–but especially to Western societies in particular.

Stresses provoke adaptation. In this sense, our dawning realization of globalized interlocking ecological crises is a natural process (if of unusual scale), where we see the danger facing us and are prompted to make urgent decisions about our survival. Whether we can use the word “sustainability” as a bridge between wiser worlds, behaviors, and belief systems remains to be seen. For now, this word and its slippery substance continue to be my preferred tool for hacking away my own “unfit” assumptions: beliefs and attitudes I carry with me that aren’t useful to me but are merely clinging, like molting old skins. Through considering sustainability, I uncover beliefs and behaviors that do not suit how I want to live, that are able to be dropped in my hastening pace toward a more well-rounded and more peaceful sense of myself and my world. In other words, a better-adapted way of living. Thus can “sustainability” poke at our weak spots. How well adapted are we? How equipped are we in a situation where we must effectively react to a crisis of our actual, biological survival?

Is American culture sustainable? Perhaps not in its entirety–so what beliefs are indeed durable, lasting throughout many generations? What behaviors improve survival chances? What ideas contribute to enduring success, of a species, person, society? What sustains us?  This is just scratching the surface of identifying what sustainability might mean.

I hope that you would be willing to relax any attitudes you hold–positive or negative–about this word, as you journey with me, through the rich perspectives of some of the edgiest, sharpest, and most sincere minds of our time. This is not exactly about making arguments about sustainability–there is no need to elaborately justify what we feel. Instead, as organisms and humans, we desperately need to relate. This is about relating experiences of sustainability, sharing freely in an inclusive, respectful manner, to see if there may be some common shape to our emerging insights. May these conversations illustrate a pathway, a sketch, a basic outline of what a future sustainable human society looks like, that, through our frightening errors, we seem to be bumping up against in our fumbling attempts at globalization?

Maybe–or maybe the process of conversing, relating, critically thinking, and trusting our bodies more–is more important than uncovering a concrete definition or set of solutions. One of the most prominent qualities in a surviving, thriving, sustainable system is the presence of diversity–for reasons I will explore in depth later. I have come to suspect that sharing in a diverse, inclusive ocean of ideas, organized under a sexy and shape-shifting word like “sustainability,” can be profoundly enlightening, and probably more productive, than trying to make concrete what is not suited for solidity. Let us revel in the multiplicity of definitions of sustainability, and view the diversity of them as a source of inspiration, not a threat to collective organization.

Diversity is a facet of democracy, ecosystems, and decentralization (localization). Just as in our current social and economic movements, so with sustainability: it is time to democratize this wor(l)d. Defining “sustainability” is not the exclusive domain of corporate think tanks, ad agencies, or policymakers. Let’s us try it out–let’s us try to live it, and through our direct experiences, explore what resonates with our souls, and share it with others! Ask yourself–how do I define living sustainably? When do I feel “sustainable”? Then ask others around you, especially loved ones. You may be deeply impressed by their answers, as I have been.

It is now my life’s work to provide an inclusive, dialogic framework for authentically workshopping and engaging with the emerging meanings of “sustainability.” This is achieved principally through The Sust Enable Project, which aims to be a vehicle for sustainability literacy through innovative multimedia. TSEP’s main project is a feature-length documentary which itself would embody sustainability. Beyond the film, I will be producing short videos, podcasts and blogs in which I would share interviews–or, more accurately, conversations–about the meaning of sustainability from a cornucopia of fascinating people. You may be aggravated, surprised, or delighted by the unique and colorful definitions you’ll find within. My purpose through all of this is linked to my belief that the more people are actively engaging with issues of sustainability in their daily lives, the more viable a sustainable world actually becomes.

This is our opportunity to redefine our goals and values. This is our world and our word. Join me in sussing out sustainability.

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Across Distances, Common Threads: The Catalyzing Moment When I Knew I Must Make “Sust Enable: The Metamentary”

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?

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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

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