Towards a (Re)Definition of Sustainability: Justin Van Kleeck and Caroline Savery. 3-Justin

I honor the sense of urgency you express in your post, Caroline, especially because of the fact that you are not feeling it and then getting frozen by fear with a sense of not knowing what to do. Nor are you simply screaming and dictating what others should do without getting active yourself. Instead, you are striving to realize 100% sustainability now, in your own life–and then sharing your experiences along the way. That is priceless, and we need more people with that much dedication…no matter how far they take sustainable living.

But here is my reaction to what you have written. One danger of such an approach to sustainability is that it presents an all-or-nothing, zero-sum scenario in which only large (“extreme”) measures are valued or presented as viable options. If that becomes the predominant model of sustainable living–and of environmentalism–then it has the strong likelihood of turning off many folks who are not entirely convinced or who do not share your sense of urgency.

Plus, it seems to present a sort of cold-turkey path to going sustainable: Drop everything you know in your life so far and live β€œgreen”…or else! To expect the majority in modern society, which is going more towards ease and convenience along the Western paradigm than anything else (just think of China, for example), to do this sort of sudden break with habit is just not realistic.

My feeling is that the most effective, realistic approach to sustainable living for the broadest demographic of individuals is a slower approach–starting at, say, 40% sustainability and then increasing at a pace that is comfortable but not indulging complacency–with or without a goal of reaching 100%.

Why does this baby-steps approach seem better to me?

Well, it helps ease people into the changes. As they get more comfortable with sustainable living–its sacrifices, its hardships, its differences–in a gradual matter, they have a chance to adapt/acclimate themselves to it with a better likelihood of sticking with it. Think of people who go on crash diets, lose tons of weight…and then gain it all back, with interest!

A slower approach also gives people time to learn more and so realize sustainability in a fully educated way, which in turn would be more effective (immediately and in the long run). You talk about this yourself, Caroline, in your third rule of sustainability. Just changing all the bulbs on a whim might mean a person is clueless about the very real issue of mercury in CFLs. Education is key, and knowledge is power–and sustainability requires an informed citizenry. But this knowledge is so vast that it has to be given time to be acquired and then sink in.

Lastly, I firmly believe that going all-or-nothing exposes a person to very real, and potentially very harmful mistakes in methods used to try and realize the IDEAL of sustainability. It becomes too easy to go extreme and try to be perfect, 100% sustainable, ideally and idealistically at the top; it becomes too easy to ignore one’s own heart and the realities of one’s personal situation–one’s limitations, one’s abilities, one’s personality.

Your first rule, β€œbe gentle to yourself,” shows you understand this well. I, too, know this from firsthand experience. My health is “sensitive,” to put it most succinctly, because of the fact that I have gone (and still go) too far for myself when it comes to trying to live up to the ideal of full sustainability. I have ignored my gut and listened to my ego; I have hurt myself in the desire to help others.

Ultimately, I have vowed to do whatever I can to save and serve the welfare of every sentient being. But, if I get caught up in ideals and extremes and all-or-nothing thinking, then I quickly forget a crucial fact: I, too, am a living being on this planet Earth. For me to hurt myself is, in turn, to hurt the life of this planet Earth.

For me to go all-or-nothing, and especially to then expect others to do the same, is not to respect the fact that every being has particular needs, particular limitations, and, yes, particular weaknesses. For me to expect every person to be 100% sustainable is to undervalue, and to risk insulting, the very real, very positive things they are doing to better the planet…no matter how small, even as small as a twisty little light bulb. To accept nothing less than perfection, 100%, is not to cultivate or to practice what we really need: a Green with Heart.

  1. Meg

    I am really enjoying this discussion. It has given me much food for thought. Both of you make convincing arguments for your point of view.

    I feel that, unfortunately, Justin’s approach seems more acceptable to most people. But I really don’t believe it is enough to change your light bulbs and take reusable bags when you shop . . .

    There is more action required and while living ‘off the grid’ is probably more than what is required I think its imperative that we make it clear that CFL’s and hybrid cars etc are just a start on the path towards a more sustainable society.

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Meg! I agree with you 100% that JUST changing a bulb or taking a bag with you to the store is not going to make a big difference in the end. My main points, though, are 1) that we cannot undervalue small steps in a focus on huge leaps (as the only or preferred method), and 2) that little steps SHOULD be the warm-ups to much bigger, more significant steps.

  3. Maria Surma Manka

    Thanks for this conversation you guys, it’s really interesting. I am skeptical of the “drop everything and go 100% sustainable” mantra because I wonder where it goes from commonsense to impossible? How do I encourage my friend, with a baby on the way and in med school, to live 100% sustainably? Build her own cabin in the Minnesota woods and only buy used medical books? or not be a doctor at all because so much plastic is used in the profession?

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