We are now engaged in a worldwide conversation about the issues of human longevity on Earth, but no national leader has yet framed a satisfactory vision of sustainability. It is still commonly regarded as one of many issues on a long and growing list, not as the linchpin that connects all of the other issues.

—David Orr

Many people have shared that they don’t really understand the idea of sustainability—even those who are colleagues in the field. It sounds good, but is it just a buzzword or new mantra, or is there something revolutionary emerging that we need to pay some attention to and learn more about? This is a relatively long article—compared to past issues of The DIRT—and so for those of you who’d like the quick fix, here it is: there is no quick fix.

While sustainability is an idea that’s becoming more of a social movement and a practice, it’s about taking the long view, cultivating balance, and connecting issues and challenges that might seem unrelated to come up with new and creative solutions.  And it requires our ongoing attention and engagement if we are to develop sustainability’s full potential in our communities and more widely.

Particularly where social issues are concerned, we often sacrifice the importance of connecting with others and exploring the bridges and barriers to working together and including a range of voices. Without spending time actually working through these very human issues, the sustainability concept loses its power. I’ve heard people say that sustainability is already stale and not an accessible way of reaching out to people not in the field, or who are wary of the associations with mainstream environmentalism (we often see the term ‘ecological sustainability’ used), which still challenged in its ability to reach out to more diverse communities.

But sustainability is not simply a lens capable of connecting many current challenges and issues. Equally important, it’s also a critical tool for helping people think in a more holistic, systemic and long-term sense—if we can describe it effectively, inspire a broader audience, and provide people with both individual and collective paths to participation. 

A first step, before doing any framing or defining is to set the stage and ask why we tend to marginalize new concepts such as sustainability, which is relatively young, only emerging in our vocabulary in the last 20 years. Perhaps there is a weight of the status quo that acts—not intentionally, but from an inertia of sorts—to slow the adoption of new concepts and the evolution of movements that can truly bring change. And, as has been already mentioned, sustainability faced challenges from the start—not simply in tackling such an enormous idea and the practical steps to getting there but also from being associated and emerging from an environmental perspective.  

Sustainability, as it was defined by the Bruntland Commission Report, Our Common Future (1987) is about meeting the needs of people currently without compromising the needs of future generations.  Since that time, the description of a “three-legged stool” balancing environmental concerns, social equity issues and economic vitality (from local communities to a global scale) has emerged. Fortunately, we are seeing increasing examples of the importance and application of such linkages. Various issues— among them global warming, energy, environmental justice, sustainable agriculture and food, sustainable/green business, green building, appropriate planning and development, and the involvement of youth and the public in community and environmental service—are becoming  more regularly featured in the public sphere.

And though they are still overshadowed by other issues, particularly immediate crises that grab the headlines, discouraging trends, and advertising that still promotes a culture of consumption (and exacerbates the pressures on all three legs of the stool—environment, economy and equity), there is a growing sense of a shift occurring and connections organically occurring among these issues.

Recently, an article by Thomas Friedman on The Power of Green appeared, calling for a new geopolitics based not on nationalism, but sustainability. In it, Friedman draws connections among issues of national security, economics and the environment as a call for leadership for the US in both domestic and international arenas.  This is still framed by articulating an environmental agenda, although issues pertaining to social equity and economics are included. 

For a more local and perhaps more accessible connection to what sustainability might look like, one only needs to look at some of the fantastic work being done by grassroots organizations and coalitions who are having a community impact, while building a national and global understanding and awareness of these issues. One example here in the Bay Area are the efforts via the Ella Baker Center and Apollo Alliance around promoting Green Jobs for Oakland and working with Speaker Pelosi on shifting policy via a Clean Energy Jobs bill.

And thousands of organizations around the world are working on these issues, as documented by the new interactive global database Wiser Earth, emerging in conjunction with Paul Hawken’s new book Blessed Unrest. Sustainability is about moving toward a truer ecology by linking issues of environment, equity and economics on a number of levels. But a concept like sustainability cannot grow into policy and practice unless we add two additional tools capable of motivating and inspiring people to make a difference: engagement and education. 

David Orr, who is quoted above, has also written that “sustainability requires a recovery of civic competence”, and this means that we need to work even harder on educating youth and the public and engaging our communities in issues that affect all of us. “Earth Day” is a wonderful way of doing that, but we need to build our capacity for educating and involving people on a broader level in their daily lives and in their communities.

And we must also be vigilant about ways in which concepts like sustainability cannot only be misunderstood or isolated, but co-opted. In a special “Green” section of the SF Chronicle this week, there is a full page add that announces: “Get Wealthy Off of Global Warming”. While we need to shift toward more socially and environmentally responsible investments, we need to be very clear about what values we are trying to communicate and instill in a more sustainable society.  It may be true that we fundamentally can’t understand the concept of sustainability without simply trying on some innovations and practices first. There might be some efforts at sustainability that initially include unsustainable practices, and that things can in some ways get better as they get worse.

Recent questions about carbon offsets (do they really reduce pollution?) and ethanol and biodiesel fuel (how do we balance food and fuel, and will plantations for biofuels accelerate deforestation?) illustrate this point. If sustainability is about seeking balance, we need to be able to embrace and reconcile the shifts that will occur and the imbalance and contradictions we might wrestle with as we work together to figure it all out. 

Most importantly, whatever our understanding or involvement with sustainability issues and social change, we must do something. In a letter last year to California Governor Schwarzenegger about the global warming issue, a group of sixty scientists and economists asserted that “the most expensive thing we can do is nothing.” And we should be encouraged by Elizabeth Janeway’s thought that “individual actions become transformative social change when enough of them occur.” 

 I’ve found it also helps to try keeping a sense of humor while we strive to create more positive change. One of my favorite encouraging bumper stickers counsels: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in a sleeping bag with a mosquito.”

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