Towards a (Re)Definition of Sustainability: Justin Van Kleeck and Caroline Savery. 4-Caroline

  • Published on August 4th, 2008

Dear Justin,

You make some very effective arguments! You are right to use my own posts in illustrating your thoughts.  Granted, those posts, written toward the end of the Sust Enable project, demonstrate that my original concept of Sust Enable did not pan out because its original assumptions were flawed.  Indeed, for other people to have success with living sustainably, they must be gentle, have fun, and go slow… three things that I failed to consider for myself when undertaking the “radical” experiment.

I think the strongest point you make with your last post is the importance of living in a way that honors your own health and wellbeing, not just the Earth’s.   This is something that I’ve learned to consider the hard way, through the tribulations of the Sust Enable project (during which I ran up against my own physical limits of hunger, sleeplessness, and stress).  I completely agree with that: respect for yourself, as a living being with needs, comes first in making a healthy approach toward respecting the Earth and other living systems.

However, I recognize that our level of comfort is learned–it is borrowed from the culture that surrounds us.  It is by no means an “absolute” measure of comfort or happiness.  Even our very venues for acquiring what you and I need to survive are hugely affected by the culture we were born into.  People in Third World and sometimes Second World countries live sustainably every day–and in my experience when visiting Mexico, are considerably happier than the average American.  Is this because they have struck a good balance between respecting the natural world and their own personal patterns, in ways that over-worked, over-stressed and over-consumptive Americans can only dream of?  It’s a theory.

Americans tend to think that they enjoy a far higher quality of life than others on the planet.  Compared with those who struggle to meet their basic needs, this statement is obviously true.  But this statement is also false, when one considers how anxious, cruel and diseased the mentality of the average American is (the industrialized world has extremely high rates of mental disorders compared to the rest of the world).  You cannot be environmentally sustainable if you are not first caring for yourself.  Yet we live in a culture that relentlessly breeds anxiety in us by constantly reminding us that we are not good enough, and we are not keeping up with our neighbors, our co-workers, and with what our partners want.  I cannot believe that the U.S. culture can allow for personal OR environmental sustainability then, with an agenda like this.  Such attitudes are psychologically destructive–and represent an overall destructive tact that we cannot sustain, under any circumstances.

It is very untrue that I expect everyone else to change their lives to begin living extreme, all-or-nothing idealistic sustainability.  I expect nothing from anyone else.  I am only responsible for myself on this Earth, and I can only represent myself when acting.  At most, I would enjoy it if everyone on the planet did exactly what felt true to them, as I am striving to do.  I only feel it is necessary to contribute something to this world for all that it has given to me, so I put myself out there in order to share my hypothesis and my trials and my hopes.

Indeed, I think it is always counterproductive to try to force people into doing something.  Frankly, it is fascist!  It goes against everything that is natural and good.  Sharing, on the other hand, is a fundamental factor to growth.  I simply want to make myself a dartboard and a lab rat of sorts, so that others who feel called to these efforts similarly to how I am, may have some encouragement, insight, or ideas to stimulate their own thinking.  I have no illusions about the impact I’m having or not having–I’m only sure that this is the most optimal way I can be using myself at this time.

I think the issues our global ecosystem are facing are absolutely the most compelling–and the most potentially unifying –humanity has ever seen.  I think it is healthy to throw out something you rely on due to modern society–a television, for example–and see how you can creatively react to that.  You seem to imply that I am interested in a “one-size-fits-all” puritan sustainability.  On the contrary, I am all about creativity!  I am about adventure–throw something out, and then react.  Improvise!  That’s what life is all about.

I made several errors in planning for Sust Enable–I threw everything out all at once, I gave myself a strict timeline, and I gave myself strict (and possibly unsubstantiated) standards for living 100% sustainably.  I set myself up for disappointment… but I narrowly averted disaster.  How else would I have known what is truly personally and ecologically sustainable if I hadn’t tried?

So, why is Sust Enable the story it is–and not any other kind of story?  Because frankly, I am not interested in adapting American culture to slowly, conveniently becoming “sustainable”–as Cradle 2 Cradle asserts, “less bad is no good at all.”  I think it is preferable for us to grow into a holistic alternative culture–one based on sharing and community and mutual aid–that in fact leaves behind all (not some) of the negative and destructive qualities of our Western culture.

In addition, I am not willing to continue to assuage a viewer’s (or reader’s) sense of guilt with easy answers–and my mission finds abhorrent the idea of getting paid for helping others realize something in themselves.  I am interested in integrity, and in empowering people to be more true to themselves.  Someone out there may have had thoughts like I’ve had, that they’re not sure of exploring… until they find Sust Enable.  Getting back to the issue of redefining our cultural values to incorporate sustainability, I value this free exchange of ideas much more than I value monetary compensation.  I sense that we are approaching a critical mass of people who are just “fed up with it all” and no longer willing to accept incomplete, mainstream answers for their questions.  I want to help envision a natural alternative.

Phew. These conversations excite me.  I believe that our dialog about defining sustainability is mutually-beneficial.  Symbiotic even!

Take care & be well,


photo credit: ReubenInStt, under a Creative Commons 2.0 license,
Jonathan McIntosh, under a Creative Commons 2.0 license
becherpig, under a Creative Commons 2.5 license

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