Towards a (Re)Definition of Sustainability: Justin Van Kleeck and Caroline Savery. 5-Justin

From what you write, Caroline, it is clear that at this point your heart (or mind–or both!) compelled you to try the 100% sustainable, Sust Enable “experiment.” And you learned and shared many good things with us–mistakes not to try again and great methods for living sustainably. That is wonderful, and it is surely going to stick with you; after all, we learn best not only from direct experience but, I believe, from “mistakes” as well.

Obviously you are not disregarding changes others make, nor are you screaming at them from your soapbox on high to go all the way. My concern, though, is that focusing on such a 100% approach on a larger scale would turn off people to environmentalism. As I said before, there has to be an equal (even greater?) focus on small steps, an equal (even greater?) celebration of little changes, in order to help keep the mood positive and morale high–and the changes occurring, the momentum building, the tide turning!

I think we are both on the same vibe in the end. Heck, we both feel urgently the need to do good for the Earth and to help others do so as well. We both share a desire to see positive things happen and to serve our fellow beings by using all our “tools” to help build a better, safer community. I think we differ mostly in terms of focus and emphasis in the nature of what we write.

I believe, then, we need both the point and the counterpoint within the environmental movement itself. Die-hard Socratic that I am, I believe we need to question all things—in particular the accepted “norms”…and more especially the things we think are “right,” “true,” etc. This self-reflective, synergistic approach to environmentalism will keep it green and thriving, a sustainable force driven by the symbiosis of its dynamic elements.

In this light and the light of our discussion, Caroline, how would I define “sustainability”? Presently, there is no accepted definition; the closest thing is the World Commission on Environment and Development’s definition of sustainable development from 1983: it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1 This is very useful, but I think it leaves a lot out–about individual health and happiness, about more than just physical subsistence but complete personal well-being. It does not quite seem to capture the Green with Heart that I believe is essential to the true sustainability of Life.

So I would like to offer a new definition and/or redefinition of “sustainability,” for environmentalists and the world at large:

Sustainability: Acting to promote the holistic health and happiness of living beings, individually and collectively, while also respecting the planetary resources they depend upon.

The key part of my definition is “holistic.” This opens up “sustainability” to include things usually outside of the purview of environmentalism. There is so much more to Life, and especially human life, than mere survival. Our ideas, models, definitions, and discussions of sustainability need to include more than just environmental issues, concerns, and actions.

In terms of environmentalism, my idea of “sustainability” is essentially a Green with Heart: when you think, speak, and act from a base of kindness and compassion–for yourself, for others, and for all things. That then has truly positive, health- and life-affirming results for you and for the entire universe through the nurturing energy and actions that are created.

May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be sustained.

1. Qtd. in “Sustainability.” Wikipedia.org. The Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 1 Aug. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability#cite_note-1>.

  1. ccpo

    I fear most people don’t live in the college dorm/beatnik/save-the-world, et al., place that you two do and the conversation so far would have lost those you most need to reach: those least like yourselves. Preaching to the choir, ya know? So, thanks for bringing the focus back, Justin, to the definition.

    I agree with you: sustainable must mean different things to different people. I wish this were not so, but it is. At least for now. In the future, that may not be the case as the limits we will be forced to live within will forge a more general understanding of what is required to survive, let alone live sustainably.

    While business as usual (BAU) certainly cannot continue, there is no reason people with widely different values cannot shape for themselves a life that is relatively sustainable. Perhaps this would buy time for the more sobering reality of the need for a complete paradigm shift to sink in. If they can find a way to keep their McMansion using super insulation and living off a (future) solar grid, so be it. Personally, I think population will bring such living to an end in time. Resource after resource will disappear if growth remains the paradigm. We know this, they do not.

    But the real problem is those who just don’t give a damn. And they are the ones who become captains of industry, because the damn they do give is for themselves, their power, their wealth. Is humanity going to change? I don’t see it. And, again, the problem is population. This time, it is in how we arrange ourselves, not necessarily the numbers. The Earth *could* sustain the numbers we currently have IF we were all living in cob homes, growing our own food on our one-to-two acres and living in communities of a few hundred or a few thousand. I forget who said it, but there is a theory that people cannot maintain the sorts of relationships that encourage community and altruism in communities of greater than 150 – 250 people. Beyond that the social dynamic frays and you see moves towards the types of societies we have today.

    So, while Caroline is right in absolute terms, the chance of her vision coming true runs up against how humans have behaved through the ages. We suck. When in large and massive groups. Oh, wait… what happened on Easter Island? Ah, yeah… we suck…

    A paradigm shift, and nothing less than that (or some new inventions that are truly breathtaking in nature), is going to save us. IOW, nothing’s going to save us. However, people who see, think, and feel as the two of you do may well be sowing the seeds of the society that emerges from the ashes of this one.

    Of course, if we’re emerging from ashes, sustainable living will be the only choice as the resources of the world will have been greatly decreased.

    So, what is sustainable? Small groups where peer pressure and interconnections are important enough to shape behavior to the overall good. Living in such a way that the end balance of your life is to have used no more than you replaced, or can be replaced by those you left behind, and in such a way that natural systems can maintain their own equilibrium (not forgetting we are part of that, thus our actions are also “natural” as long as they are attempting to live within the bounds of what the earth can provide without serious imbalance.)

    I think have rambled, but don’t have time to check.


  2. Alison Wiley

    Valuable post, important topic. The way I try to sell personal-level sustainability to a general audience (who are not already green) is to frame it as ‘more joy, less consumption’. I think it’s crucial we reach out to people in the middle ground. What do you think? I’m interested to hear comments on my approach at Diamond-Cut Life

  3. Justin Van Kleeck

    Thank you for your fantastic comment, CCPO. It is hard to argue with you when you say, “We suck.” And I will not do so. However, I would try to spin what you say a little differently. We do suck, but only in particular ways as far as nature goes. Whether or not we admit it, we are part of the “plan” and/or system of nature on planet Earth…even with all our sucks. The main problem with humanity is that, as a species, the general approach to all things (even each other) is usually one of domination rather than cohabitation. But, sadly enough, in the end nature will win and we will end up suffering for our lack of responsibility and misuse/abuse of our ability to reason. The worst part of this is that we have such a profound effect on everything else as well. In the bigger picture, though, even this is just part of the “natural cycle,” I suppose.

  4. ccpo

    I think we are saying the same thing in our comments. I noted we are part of nature in mine – we simply have chosen to separate ourselves. And AI think there is a reason: complexity. Simpler living doesn’t tend to result in abuse of the environment, despite Easter Island.

    Interestingly, living sustainably doesn’t necessarily mean living an idyllic life. One aboriginal tribe I’ve read of manages sustainability with strict birth control and abandonment of the infirm and the old. Not exactly a Liberal Utopia.

    Reality is a @#$@#, as it were. Where we end up should be quite interesting.


  5. Justin Van Kleeck

    Agreed! You make a most crucial point in your comments, too, that I want to emphasize: Probably the best thing we could do as a species to sustain our species, and the planet, would be to STOP REPRODUCING. I mean cold turkey, right away…at least as far as the HAVING babies goes. (I would not even TRY to convince humans to stop having sex!)

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