Our intentions—noticed or unnoticed, gross or subtle—contribute either to our suffering or to our happiness. Intentions are sometimes called seeds. The garden you grow depends on the seeds you plant and water. Long after a deed is done, the trace or momentum of the intention behind it remains as a seed, conditioning our future happiness or unhappiness.

—Gil Fronsdal
 

The idea of momentum, originally taken from physics, has gained a popular meaning which we see in sports, politics and now in the sustainability movement. For an individual or effort on a positive path and growing toward a point where a tipping point or critical mass is achieved, momentum can be a blessing which, appropriately enough, provides additional encouragement and energy.

With the increased knowledge and interest in sustainability issues, the momentum is palpable and also can serve as a cautionary benchmark—not to stop the arc of a movement as it evolves and broadens, but to explore the intention or seed that is being planted. As any movement builds in mass and energy (this is the physics part) it tends to gain speed. I’ve paid homage to cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien previously in this newsletter, who observes that “change takes place at nature’s pace—not in the fast lane, but in the slow lane.” 

In order for the sustainability movement to truly be sustainable, we need to draw more powerfully on lessons from nature about how our organizations, communities and broader efforts can develop in a powerful way, and in an intentional way. We often want to create or tap into a sense of momentum in our days and in our work, careening toward the completion of the week or a project with a sense of urgency. While this seems like a common experience in our culture, which is focused on results and ‘getting things done’ it can be especially challenging for those of us who work as activists, organizers, or advocates, where there is a pressure around the injustice we might see attend to or resolve issues now 

Permaculture, the philosophy and practice of designing systems that model nature, carries a set of principles that I keep posted next to my desk. The first is ‘Observe and Interact’: a gentle and profound reminder to listen when we are engaging with any new system—an ecosystem, an organization, a community—rather than jumping right in. If we can truly listen, observe and interact with others who are connected to whatever we are doing, the momentum comes as a healthy seed of intention, which is more deeply rooted and can thrive. 

As momentum around sustainability grows, we also need to ensure that what we are seeing is what I would refer to as ‘authentic sustainability’—it’s easy for a popular concept to become co-opted and for the term to become meaningless. Unfortunately, in many places, the term sustainability is still conflated with environmental or green practices.

When we leave out the social issues nested in the concept of sustainability, we lose a critical element of building greater momentum: the people who we work with, or who are affected either historically or potentially in the future by certain policies and practices. 

Momentum requires a slowing down and an attention in order to speed up. Consider the fable of the tortoise and the hare: it’s not necessarily about moving fast that gets us where we need to be; in fact, we might miss the important details, compromise our own health, or unintentionally exclude others.

A more sustainable and humane culture asks that we pay attention, take care of ourselves and include everyone.

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