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Published on August 3rd, 2008 | by carolinesavery

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Towards a (Re)Definition of Sustainability: Justin Van Kleeck and Caroline Savery. 2-Caroline

Hi Justin,

I deeply appreciate your thoughts and your comments from “Towards a (Re)Definition of Sustainability – #1″.  I can tell that this is something you’ve been chewing on!  Me too.

I believe that changing a million lightbulbs to CFLs is absolutely NOT sustainable, because CFLs are currently (and probably will never be) manufactured sustainably, and so that option is simply unacceptable in terms of one-Earth sustainability.  It may be more “green,” but it’s only an excuse to continue exploiting the Earth and its priceless natural arrangement.  Besides, what are the benefits of using more electricity versus not putting more and more mercury into our landfills and environments due to CFLs?  I’d like to see those numbers, too.

I think I seem radical (and truly, some of what I’ve tried has been too intense for me to even handle) because I demand sustainability NOW, and reinforce that sustainability can be possible NOW.  You are correct in saying that, in terms of basic “impact,” 10 people living off the grid makes less of a global difference than 1,000 people changing lightbulbs.  But will using “green” lightbulbs–or any kind of lightbulbs at all!–ever be one-Earth sustainable?

For more on this same kind of lens/perspective, check out Derrick Jensen.  He argues that, for instance, using less gasoline doesn’t mean all the gasoline won’t get used up.  We are simply attempting feel-good tactics to remove ourselves from the guilt that comes with this awareness: that we are utterly dooming ourselves and all of life on Earth by our worldwide actions.

So what’s the trade-off there: a life that’s slightly more inconvenient (but possibly more satisfying) that allows for life on Earth and a thriving ecosystem… or one single lifetime that is convenient, comfy and luxurious, at the expense of hundreds of lifetimes to come?  Jensen sees something fundamentally wrong with the Western-European culture’s dominant ideology that is now globe-wide: one of looting and pillaging, competition, and cruelty.  I agree: life is far more satisfying when you reject certain ideas that American culture promotes and live more simply, live more true to yourself.  It’s not just a practical revolution–it must be a personal, ideological one too, if it is ever to be effective.

In my mind, here’s why I think radical sustainability is more effective: I believe in the power of human beings to be flexible, creative, and to respond to their situations.  I believe that the culture we accept for ourselves shapes nearly all of our desires and dreams; therefore, our desires and dreams are quite malleable.  I recognize that Earth itself, with its unfathomable girth and possibility, is also very malleable to what life does on its surface.  I believe, however, that we are beginning to see the results of assuming Earth to be endlessly exploitable–drastic, life-threatening change like global warming and tightening of food/water resources.  Since humans are responsible for this mess, why oughtn’t they commit all their incredible mental faculties to cleaning it up?  I am confident that if the power of the human imagination is the variable, we simply need to apply it to the appropriate problems–sooner than later–to innovate a way towards an ecology in which life can thrive (as opposed to the world we are heading for, in which all types of life struggle to survive.)

To me, it begins with “growing your perspective”: seeing past only the convenience of a single choice in your life in the moment, to beginning to grasp the “Butterfly Effect” consequences of your action.  We have learned by now (I hope) that our actions aren’t only comprised of the effect we can see or understand them to have.  We may have always suspected that “externalities” never existed (because it defies logic), but now, what were once considered externalities of risk when we perpetuated environmentally damaging actions are collectively manifesting–the consequences becoming visible–in a profound way.  That makes our responsibility to those choices vastly more significant and broader.  But this is the way to a global community and a global democracy: dialog about responsibility, boundaries, cost-benefit and hope.



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  • Jay

    I agree. I have become so much more aware thanks to your “experiment”. I have also changed my ways, sometimes slightly, sometimes in bigger ways, but all because of you. Thank you.

  • http://www.izmetsdream.blogspot.com Izmet

    I think you, and Justin, make excellent points. There is no panacea for our current environmental difficulties. This crisis did not occur overnight, and won’t be corrected overnight, either.

    That doesn’t preclude the fact that we must start somewhere and immediately. Trying to stop the enormous environmental damage that has occurred would be like trying to stop an ocean liner moving at top speed. However, all stopping begins with slowing down, so at least we have begun in some small way to slow the damage.

    Anything positive that can be done will always benefit from participation by the masses. As long as the solutions offered are not “wolves in sheep’s clothing”! Ten families living off the grid may not impact the world immediately, but every person they influence to live more sustainably is a step closer to sustainable world.

    Education is still essential to effecting a positive change, but there can be no change without action.

  • http://www.sust-enable.com Caroline Savery

    Great comment, Izmet! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Well said.

  • http://www.creativecitizen.com Scott

    love the post…

    I think the most important thing is taking the actions we know are green…reducing waste, emissions, water usage, energy etc. and that we can’t buy our way out of this crisis.

    if you have to get some clothes, hit the thrift store; make a compost pile; buy food without packaging; walk and ride a bike; eat a plant-based diet, stop sprinkling the grass etc… these are sure bets, so let’s get to it…

  • emmer

    even if we brake hard, it will be a while before we stop and then reverse. yes, if we brake slowly, we will go off the cliff. but we can’t do 60 to 0 instantly. change all the bulbs to cf. use fewer bulbs. make sure everybody you know understands they will save $ while they green. give the damn bulbs to people. teach a reduce, reuse, recycle class for your recreation dept. go solar. put your money where your mouth is and be the life you wish to see. develop a working relationship with your political reps. lots of cliches. but still, we have to spread the knowledge and show that altho life must be lived differently it can be good.

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