Friday, October 7, 2011

What is Sustainability?

The title of this post clearly defines the topic of my musings this morning.  I will start by saying that at this moment I have no real answer for what sustainability is - or at least what it means to me, which is clearly odd considering I've devoted considerable time over the past 9 months to writing a blog devoted to the concept.  It's not that I don't have an understanding of sustainability...the meaning of the word.  It is more that I have yet to determine a) what course of action on global and local levels would truly be sustainable, and b) how I go about enacting that on a daily basis. 

I have friends who have studied sustainability at length through lenses such as natural resource conservation, education, and permaculture.  Those of you who know me personally understand that I place great weight in education.  I appreciate research - thesis, questioning, observation, analysis, theory.  That said, there are too many things out there in this world on which I could hang my educational hat, and in the light of international politics, higher ed admin, and counseling, sustainability did not make the cut. I don't feel the least bit guilty about this - I just state it here to inform the reader that my thoughts are not grounded in any academic paradigm.  They are simply the musings of a person who agrees with the statement one of my students made to me about me the other day - "Clare, you have too many thoughts."

The EPA defines sustainability as such:

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations. (

It makes a good amount of sense to me - to be sustainable one must a) value one's link to the natural environment, b) understand that one cannot abuse nature or the environment just as one should not abuse another person, and c) this lack of abuse should extend into cultivation, preservation, and maintenance of the natural world in order to ensure that it will be around in the future.  Well played, well played - yet I don't know about you, but even that is so vague to me that I could make arguments that a large number of things are sustainable - or to put it differently - a number of people call things 'sustainable,' about which I disagree.  There is a housing complex near where I live that claims sustainability.  I've read up on it and yes, there are 'green' features in each home.  They have energy-saving appliances and locally-sourced materials, and can list off the other things that make these homes 'sustainable.'  I applaud their efforts and think that it is a step in the right direction, but I wonder whether or not new technology is going to be the way to achieve sustainability.

I guess it seems to me that the answer to how we enact existing in "productive harmony" with the natural world would come from nature itself.  I'm all for energy efficient light bulbs and fridges and using solar panels - technology has its place - but there seems to be an assumption in the EPA definition of sustainability that I am not sure I buy.  Saying that sustainability is about trying to get humans and nature to cohabitate earth like two agreeable roommates is to say that humans are not a part of nature in the first place.  I sometimes wonder whether or not the concept of sustainability is broad enough to encompass that.  Jason, my esteemed colleague here on this blog, says on a regular basis - 'sustainability is not enough.'  I laughed at him when he first said it, but when I look at it considering the concept that nature is being separated out from humanity I start to wonder.  I suppose in the end how one enacts sustainability does not have to include seeing the natural world as a series of resources to tend wisely.  I just wonder how many people see it that way.

Living outdoors as long as I did certainly pressed me to see how my body, my being, are in line with nature and that I am not that unlike the trees or rocks or streams or animals.  I can understand why the Native people of this country saw these entities as brothers and sisters rather than as resources.  The very notion of resources implies that nature is there to be used rather than there on its own right just to exist.  That said, nature feeds on itself and treats itself as a resource.  Plants use the sun to grow, animals eat the plants and/or other animals.  I suppose the question of sustainability is how to fold the human adaptation back into the cycles of life.  In that case, green homes start to look a little better - they increase awareness and tip the scale a bit.

I still think there is a long way to go.  Maybe that is why I write this blog - which incidentally is using technology toward solving these issues.  I am interested in thinking more, using less, and making the barrier humans have put between themselves and nature just a bit more porous.

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