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Published on August 2nd, 2008 | by Justin Van Kleeck

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Towards a (Re)Definition of Sustainability: Justin Van Kleeck and Caroline Savery. 1-Justin

[Authors’ Introduction: This represents the first in a series of posts in which Sustainablog contributors Justin Van Kleeck and Caroline Savery discuss sustainability--in both philosophical and practical terms--and ultimately grope our way towards some definition(s) of "sustainability." The posts grow out of e-mails that we traded recently relating to Caroline’s Sust Enable project. This is not a debate or an argument, nor are we trying to prove one perspective right or wrong; it is a discussion, a chat, a pow-wow between two folks trying to live green. Each of us will post three articles (for a total of six), and in our final ones we will give our own definition of sustainability. We encourage readers to comment on individual posts and on the overall dialogue at the end.]

Caroline, having followed your posts on the Sust Enable project with great interest, “Hard Lessons in Sustainable Living: The Tent Trauma,” in particular sparked me to touch base with you. I have been thinking a lot about what you are doing and about sustainability in general.

I want to say first off that I greatly admire and respect your “experiment” with trying to live 100% sustainably. Your bravery is just awesome, not to mention inspiring, and the fact that you were able to share some very useful insights with others makes it even more commendable. It is easy to hold up folks like Thoreau who go out “into the woods” and rough it for a given period of time without in turn actively working to learn from and protect nature. You have taken on that challenge, Caroline, and I commend you.

But what I have been thinking/wondering about is the overall importance of efforts like yours vs. smaller-scale, less “extreme” efforts at sustainability. Let me explain what I mean. There are folks like yourself who go whole-hog and try to be 100% sustainable, to “live off the grid,” to be a complete closed cycle, to consume no or virtually no resources, etc. These folks definitely make a difference and can inspire others to live conscientiously–even if not to the same degree, and even if they do not share their experiences with others.

At the same time, though, I cannot help but feel that at this point in time, the “extreme” environmentalism is not the kind that is going to have the greatest, most enduring effect and presence when it comes to helping the planet. I just cannot believe that the majority of modern folks, country mice or town mice or city rats, will take seriously the extreme green or bother to try following that model. But I do think that very little things, put into practice slowly and realistically, are much more amenable to far more people. (I talked about this in my early post on myths of environmentalism, by the way.)

If a billion people change a light bulb to a CFL or adjust their thermostats or take a canvas bag to the grocery store, does that make a bigger impact than 100 people living “off the grid”? I am not sure what the numbers would look like in terms of savings, etc., but I feel pretty confident that more people would be open to living green in a way that is sensible (in modern cultural terms) as well as sustainable.

Certainly, we need to feel and act on the urgency to make changes. Most of the reliable experts are telling us we have less than 10 years, until 2017, before we reach a likely point of no return. But I have not heard anything saying that complete, radical uprooting of modern human existence is required. So I think the little steps individuals can take are completely useful, especially when multiplied exponentially and coupled with the more serious actions required by governments and corporations.

In personal terms, I also believe that those steps towards sustainability (little or big) have to be self-sustaining, too, not unhealthy or overwhelming. I guess it all comes down to knowing what you are physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of; what things truly sustain and nourish you; what your priorities and resources are; and what are the kindest things you can do, speaking in holistic terms.

By knowing these things, or learning them along the way as you do your “experiments with truth” (as Gandhi put it), you can ensure your own welfare while working for the welfare of all beings and the Earth.

Original image credit: Johann Dréo at Wikimedia Commons.



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About the Author

I am an ethical vegan (since 1999), a writer, an educator, an activist, an organizer, and a vegan-of-all-trades. I have a PhD in English but then left academia to work on social change. I focus on veganism, animal rights, local foods, farming practices, environmentalism, and sustainability--starting from the position that humans are just one part of the biosphere, not the center of it.



6 Responses to Towards a (Re)Definition of Sustainability: Justin Van Kleeck and Caroline Savery. 1-Justin

  1. Gustavion says:

    I think that when it comes down to it… most effort for sustainability will eventually come back to how ‘green’ the businesses that produce goods or provide services are. It’s important for individuals to support companies that benefit the environment. For example, http://www.simplestop.net stops your postal junk mail and helps out the environment.

  2. Really good questions… I don’t know what the ratio trade off is concerning how big of an impact one person “off” the grid has versus 100 people turning down their thermostat. I don’t think it matters – it still comes down to individuals wanting to make a difference and acting on that desire. That is what we need – people moving towards sustainability because of their own volition. If they want to, then the movement becomes sustainable rather then just another fad.

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