Sustainability: Shifting Perspectives


What does that word bring up for you?

I think for some people it brings to mind eco-terrorism and dirty hippies. For me, it’s really about balance. I’m no expert in sustainable practices, but I have some pretty strong feelings about them, and since you’re unfortunate enough to be following this blog, you’re just going to have to read them.

Before we get started, I want to clarify that I’m not going to sit here and tell you how happy the planet would be without humans, that everything exists in some utopian balance, and that if humans would just stop being assheads, everything would be dandy.

That’s silly.

Nature certainly has a way of maintaining balance, but it’s not always pretty. Sometimes animals waste for reasons humans can’t deduce. Sometimes population control means a virulent virus or an avalanche. Sometimes species go extinct because a meteorite punctures the earth, or a volcano eruption blocks sunlight for a few years. Shit happens.

I’m also not going to tout that we need practice sustainability for moral reasons. I have lots of little soapboxes that I enjoy standing on for my moral views, but morality can be relative (and it certainly isn’t getting us anywhere in the political sphere). Everyone has their own truths to follow, and so for me, the best argument for sustainability is a logical one: if we depend heavily on certain resources and we are not maintaining or caring properly for those resources, aren’t we spelling a pretty clear end for our species when those resources poop out?

Sustainability is about changing your perspective. Instead of fooling ourselves into thinking that resources are limitless and that we can float along this way for the rest of human existence, we need to shift our focus a little – if we want to, that is. No one’s putting a gun to your head, demanding that you start kissing Mother Earth’s ass. In fact, sustainability defies what we are as a species to a certain extent. As an individual, I’m not going to be around in 100 years, so why on earth would I make my daily decisions based on what the people living 100 years from now need? Humans, like all other animals, are a selfish species. We’re alright with getting the next generation born and raised, but that’s about as far as we’re willing to extend ourselves. If Right Here Right Now wasn’t the case, society would look a lot different than it does today. There are extremists on both ends of this cause, but like most things, healthy habits and ideas can be found somewhere in the middle (in my opinion).

So that means that sustainability has to be a decision of your own, since it’s not genetically ingrained in us as a species. Many people call humans parasites and that’s not entirely untrue. It doesn’t have to be used in the derogatory way that it’s usually meant, but it’s a good way to see where our shortcomings are in maintaining human society. As I said earlier, my opinion about sustainability is that it’s about balance, so that’s where I’m coming from here.

(insert froofy image of yin-yang here)

Balance is about trying to match what you’re taking with what you’re giving (or replenishing, to use a better word). In a society like ours, where our priorities are far too skewed to remember to “give back,” this isn’t easy. At least in the US, we’re taught that working your 40+ hours a week is the only way to a good life – and if you don’t believe that, you are by proxy a lazy liberal, communist, or a socialist that voted for the black guy. And, in fact, working your ass off all week for basic necessities or limited luxuries makes it hard to want to give up basic conveniences. I’m one of these people.

Which is why the shift in perspective is so important, in my opinion.

How can we reduce stress on our resources in our everyday lives? What conveniences can we do without to benefit both ourselves and the resources upon which we depend so heavily? To quote Lierre Keith, authoress of The Vegetarian Myth, “We owe our entire existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” Let that marinate for a minute.

What are our basic necessities? Food, space, shelter, and clean water. Those are the only things that we really need to survive, and how do we manage them? Our food often comes from at least 1500 miles away, our clean water (which is not a renewable resource) is under pressure of pollution, and our space is getting more and more crowded. (As a sidenote, I often wonder if one of the reasons cities are so volatile is because we’re all crammed in there together without the appropriate space between us. Any species has a certain bubble in which they can live before getting stressed out by another individual living too close, and each habitat has a “carrying capacity” – resources that can support a certain population density before being depleted.)

So the goal, then, is to look at our basic necessities and how we’re utilizing and replacing them. We will, in fact, run out of them if we don’t replace them, especially considering our usable land space is well over-populated, our topsoil is mostly gone, we’re depleting trees at an alarming rate, and our freshwater is not being preserved the way such an important resource should be. It’s about getting more critical with our questions and our thinking, and developing a healthy sense of skepticism for new products – and mentalities – that appear to “fix” an ecological problem.

Humans are in the business of developing band-aids. Is your house covered in compact fluorescent lightbulbs? Mine is too. CFLs drastically reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gases, but have you ever read the warning labels on the box and the method by which you should clean up a shattered CFL? They contain mercury, a highly poisonous neurotoxin that needs to be disposed of in a proper fashion. The federal government has yet to come up with such a fashion, and for now, the bulbs end up in landfills when they break. Mercury easily poisons waterways and the soil. So are CFLs the easy fix they’re made out to be? We won’t know for another few decades most likely, but this is what I mean by “critical thinking.” How many of us rushed out to purchase CFLs when they came out, breathing a sigh of relief that we were doing something?

The same goes for electric and hybrid cars. Now, I’m not dissing a vehicle that reduces our dependence on oil, but mining for the components that are used in an electric car’s battery is bad news. You can do your own Google search, but suffice it to say that driving an electric car might be trading one evil for another.

I’m not saying all this to frustrate you or make you feel like sustainability is futile, but if you feel that way, it’s okay. I felt that way for a long time, too, and it passes if you keep pushing through. My point is that, in order to be truly conscious about sustainability, you cannot simply take what you are given. You need to use your brain to decide what’s really sustainable and what’s not, and I’m not saying you should sell all of your belongings and go live in a mud hut somewhere. Just don’t buy into the hype. Ask questions. Read labels. Examine issues. Make your own decisions.

Sustainability is about asking yourself new questions.

“What are the longterm effects?”

“Is this promoting health, or hurting it?”

“Is this balanced, or are we overusing this resource without replenishing it?”

“How can I live a comfortable lifestyle without being wasteful?”

“What do I really need?”

It’s hard to push people to stop being wasteful without pulling morality into it, so I’ll just leave it at that. The fact is that we are an extraordinarily wasteful species, and we need to be questioning our wastefulness as much as anything else. For example, most people don’t compost. Many of us (myself once included) mistakenly think that biodegradable waste won’t last long in a landfill because it breaks down so easily. The truth, however, is that when you have 800 bags of waste piled on top of each other every other day, there isn’t enough oxygen moving around to break anything down. So your banana peel from 1985? It’s most likely still there in some form or another. How about throwing it out your car window, where it can decompose in peace on some vacant lot covered in weeds? True, it may get to decompose, but it may also attract mice, which might attract an owl, which might get hit by oncoming traffic and end up in the hands of a rehabber.

So, yes, I am saying that sustainability involves reconsidering pretty much every decision you make. :) This is a test in facing issues that are ugly, from which we always turn away. It’s also a test in facing the ugly issues that you turn away from inside of yourself, too. Which is, by necessity, exhausting, time consuming, and full of yucky feelings. But isn’t there some inspirational saying that nothing worth doing comes easy?

For the next few days I’m going to be posting about some basic sustainability topics and small changes that you can make if you’re up for it. If nothing else I hope that it will inspire you to rethink decisions or, better yet, take some action.

Thanks for reading! :) Have a great Tuesday.

Posted on December 7, 2010, in Connected Living and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great post! I posted on a similar vein today, too. Must be something in the air.

  2. Thanks so much! Likewise, I love your post, and right now I will link to it, from mine! The thing I hope to work on is in the next 5 years is to not have to work. My dream is to barter with people who can help me out, while I help them out. We’ll see how that pans out, I have a feeling I will have a hard time bartering for gasoline for my vehicle…looks like I will have to keep making money. Heh.

  3. What you’ve written about sustainability really struck a chord this afternoon as I gathered in what is left of the garden salads before the snow and big freeze that are supposed to begin overnight. Our lives are a series of exchanges – with water, food, oxygen, other humans, light, soil etc. – but when we’re taking far more that we’re returning we imperil our own futures, not to mention those of other creatures and the planet itself. If we became as riled about this unequal exchange as we do when a shopkeeper or bank short-changes us there’d be a far greater imperative to seek balance. But strict, monetary economics seems to be the default position to which, increasinly, all other concerns are considered inferior. As with all exchanges, balance and equality is the key.

    • Julian, thanks so much for your comments. I love what you said about it all being a series of exchanges – it is so, so easy to take for granted the few things that actually keep us alive. Cars, jobs, and society do little to actually feed us and hydrate us, and yet how much energy do we put towards our food and water supplies? Pathetically little, especially compared to where the rest of our energies go. For me, it has a lot to do with respect: respecting the resources that support us, by supporting them in return. It’s a cycle, like everything else in life. We’ve just managed to completely forget that in a world without electricity and gas heat, the same things that we rely on right now for survival would still be there if we preserved them.

  4. Really love this post. I’ve been thinking more and more about sustainable living lately, and how to make some changes in my perspective and my way of life. I suppose I’m one of the few who do care about the needs of the human race 100 years from now. :)

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