I was recently talking with some high school students about sustainability. Like a lot of schools and institutions, the school where I work has latched onto the enigmatic idea that they should be more sustainable.
This is as admirable a goal as I can contemplate. The challenge, however, comes in determining what that means, and how we can all go from the hopeful work on paper to the practices and routines of our lives.
In Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael the narrator leaves one of his first sessions with Ishmael—who is a sort of eco-historian philosophy tutor and life mentor, among other things—in a foul foul mood. The trouble is that Ishmael has given the narrator an assignment. If there is an assignment, then it stands to reason that there is a syllabus of some sort, which implies an ending that approaches, a linear goal that will be attained with due diligence and scholarly application to the task at hand.
The narrator fears the end of his course in saving the world. I understand that—the feeling of finally finding something, only to know it is limited is heartbreaking. On the bright side, the world will always need saving and celebrating, so our labors will always be needed.
What sticks with me now, thinking about Ishmael and the regret of a syllabus, is that we are so culturally locked into linear patterns towards a specific goal. With most institutional and formal efforts towards sustainability, we are still adhering to this formula. If School A, for example, has this number of solar panels, that number of students and faculty active in environmental causes, this percentage of bike commuters, and this amount of local food, then it can be pronounced “sustainable,” or at least more sustainable than School B, which doesn’t hit any of those tidy metrics.
This is treating our aggressively unsustainable culture as a quantitative problem that can be solved by neat rows of records and logical measurements. I see the underpinnings of our crises as qualitative at heart, and so must the solutions be.
Underneath the checklists and initiatives, there is the eternal truth that we are responsible for the state of the world, and we are letting its beauty and power and potential down. There are none but our own skinny shoulders to fix this, no matter how many sustainability studies get funded, reports published, or awards handed out.
We know this. This is why everyone gets snippy and panicky about how much greener they are than others, or defensive when talking about carbon footprints, or why some people lie awake at night, knowing that they could do more for the state of the world. We can have a thousand marches, rallies, vigils, festivals, acts of disobedience, degrees, policies, and metrics of environmental and social success, but until we can reconcile what we each do and live into upon waking each morning, when we align the real and practical actions of our lives with our deepest knowledge and highest hopes, we will continue to live cruelly and always hungry for something.
This is not a sustainable way to be.
It is difficult, though, to know where and how to start, addressing the qualities that can be revised and corrected, learned and remembered in order to calm our scared and rapacious ways of life and bring something simpler, calmer, happier and more sustainable to life. There isn’t a syllabus, there isn’t a handbook, there is not a linear progression that gets us—all of us, even the recalcitrant people who haven’t had the courage or support or love to handle waking up, or taking a first step after coming to face the challenges of now—towards simpler, cleaner lives.
Now is where I ought to offer five to seven tidy points for sustainability. The truth is that I don’t know. Sustainability is a one-size fits all type deal with an easy answer. I do know about environmental systems—about the moving pieces, the complex relationships, the entirely sublime Rube Goldberg type system that is ecology. And I suspect that being a sustainable society looks something like that—an ever-evolving balance of incongruities.
This is a messier answer than most institutions are looking for in their search for sustainability. In that mess, in the fluidity and humble recognition for flexibility and revision, I believe that there is a greater framework to follow than any organized and linear metric. Certainly, we can use the quantitative research—upgrade solar panels, increase efficiency of transport systems, and all the other great changes that come from having good information. The key, though, is to use the science in service to the heart, not the other way round.
As a bonus, beyond linear and back to an ecological approach—there is no end to what we seek. The clear delight I find in word by word, step by step, friendship by friendship building towards a better, kinder world to be the greatest source of purpose and joy in my life. In a quantitative approach to sustainability, I would worry that this sense would fade once the goal is achieved—I would have to graduate from the course, as it were. With a qualitative approach, I know that this is the core and essence of sustainability, and it will never fade.