I find it fascinating when new words appear on the horizon of human culture. Through some perceived need, a novel concept emerges in the peripheries of language and begins to reshape dialogue. I imagine that the word “sustainability” first sailed into human consciousness in the 1960s, but was shared only in small groups of like-minded individuals. In the first years of the new millennium, however, the word has been branded on cereal boxes, t-shirts, campaign ads, canvas bags and energy companies, but as this word has become increasingly visible, its meaning has remained ambiguous. In ecology, sustainability refers to a biological community’s ability to diversify and survive over time. I think that this is a good place to start.
As we move into the 21st century, we face unprecedented challenges. The environment is being destroyed, much of the world is at war, and our nation has a tremendous healthcare problem. These statements are grounded in fact, and though various sources may stir up uncertainty, there is not enough evidence to the contrary. With these issues in mind, I believe it is clear that our culture is sick. We are perpetuating inequity, we are demolishing the earth, and we have lost touch with our own bodies. In short, we are eliminating our ability to sustain.
Let me clarify before I go any further. By culture, I am not referring to our American culture, for the values and aspirations that our country was founded on are truly remarkable achievements of the human imagination, which continue through to this day. However, by and large, the citizens of westernized nations have accepted their role as consumers, silently assenting to the means of production and establishments of power.
Don’t agree? Then ask yourself who manufactures your food or produces your energy, and why so many Americans are diagnosed with obesity, asthma, and cancer. It is unsettling to find that there are bugs in our cultural operating system, and it takes an open mind to look past the media and find the truth. It takes an open mind to believe in sustainability.
If ecological sustainability refers to a biological community’s ability to diversify and survive, what does sustainability mean to a human community? Though clearly anthropocentric, I believe that it is necessary to recognize why this task is different for humans than for other species. We, humans, are wrapped up in a Gordian knot of religions, ethnicities, politics and sexualities, which prevent reconciliation and prohibit progress. Though non-human biological communities thrive with diversity, humans have historically done a wretched job of embracing it, and it is killing us. Our ability to incorporate multiple worldviews in an effort to create culture has been trumped by our desire to proselytize a consumer culture that dictates a constructed view of normalism. To be clear, I do not believe that Western culture is bad, but heavy doses of any cultural assumptions are bound to create destruction.
Fortunately, the world is waking up. Novel words and concepts are beginning to enter our communities and alter our culture, providing us with creative solutions to problems on separate planes of consciousness.
So what does sustainability mean?
Avoiding a strict definition, I believe that it is intended to give us pause, among our many activities, and offer us the opportunity to question our assumptions. The evolutionary unfolding of human consciousness has been a remarkable process, and now we stand at a tipping point. The techniques of survival, which have proved so successful, are now antiquated, and it is time to rethink our strategies. We now have the opportunity to intentionally diversify our communities and to dedicate ourselves to the health of the future. In order to do so, however, we must make sure to pause, question our immediate assumptions, and act from a desire to sustain life and to create culture.
Sustainability: The admission that we are the most powerful agents of our collective destiny.