This is the first post of a three-part series by Jeremy Benstein – look for the forthcoming posts later this month.
Here’s the rub: our lives and the society we live in are unsustainable. There is ample proof of this. And so we, the activists – top-downer policy wonks, and bottom-upper grassrooters – shout from the rooftops that we need to be sustainable. Yet even as we mount campaign after campaign, we know in our heart of hearts that this is not the ultimate ideal we should be striving for. We feel that we must promote sustainability as a necessary minimum. At the very least, we must be sustainable – for how can it be otherwise?
“Mere continuing” however (for isn’t that what ‘sustaining ourselves’ means?) can’t be all there is to work for, or to look forward to, and given the lack of enthusiasm and deep widespread support, the public at large seem to be aware of that.
The fact is, though, that properly understood, sustainability contains within it some breathtakingly inspiring ideas, if only they are unpacked and framed correctly. True sustainability ultimately means replacing linear growth with a more cyclical conception of regeneration, thus creating a world that holds within it the possibility for ecological, personal and societal renewal that is the key to long-term flourishing.
In order to understand the force of the idea of renewal, let’s take a deeper look at some of the limitations of the current perceptions of the idea of sustainability.
Sustainability: Too Much – Yet Not Enough
Even though sustainability is a broadly inclusive socially progressive “big-tent” vision for a better world, as it’s currently used and understood it has two critical problems, conceptual and rhetorical-strategic. Let’s look at each in turn.
One problems is that while “radical” sustainability can be a completely new way of looking at things, a different paradigm, it is more often seen as very mainstream and reformist, coming from the accepted economic discourse of “more,” or at least “as much as possible.” For example, a sustainable yield of some resource (trees for logging, fish in a fishery) is defined by the maximum harvest possible that will not lead to depletion of the resource: enjoying the fruit without harming the fruitfulness, as it were. This is of course a crucial limit, not least because we surpass it so egregiously in so many fields.
But this understanding is very different from the theme of this blog- sova – the idea of “enoughness,” a deeply satisfying sufficiency: not the maximum possible consumption for an ongoing high standard of living, but the minimum required for a life of dignity, security and joy, available to all. The universe of discourse of sova is not efficiency, quantitative indicators, and damage-minimization, but rather, humility, gratitude and compassionate justice.
Sustainability, in this limited sense of maximum possible yields, should be the most basic and obvious systems condition that no human activity should violate – but it does not fit the bill of being an inspiring, almost utopian ideal to strive for.
This is the other critical problem with sustainability: that it does not motivate the masses, ignite the imagination, that it is drab and very un-fun, not too different from ‘just getting by.’ The activist-chemist-designer Michael Braungart often points this out: “Sustainability is boring. It is just the minimum. If I asked you: ‘How is your relationship with your girlfriend?’ and you’d reply ‘sustainable’, I’d feel sorry for you.” Sustainability, he argues, is a terribly passionless, lackluster banner to wave. Wayne Visser, of the Guardian, agrees. Change, Visser argues, requires capturing the hearts and minds of the public, and sustainability, despite its truths and merits, has not done it.
Many sustainability advocate diehards would disagree, for they (we) have something different in their heads about what they mean, which is one reason why sustainability is so difficult to communicate as an ideal.
What’s a good sustainability advocate to do? The first thing is to disentangle the idea of sustainability from its own roots, from the environment. This is particularly surprising and even painful for environmentalists, but no less counter-intuitive for the general public.
Sustainability vs. Environment
Many people think that “sustainability” is just another word for “caring for the environment.” Sustainable = green. Trendier, for sure, but essentially referring to the same issues and concepts. In other words, the essence of what it means for humans to continue to exist and flourish on this earth is summed up in understanding and improving our relationship to the physical infrastructures of our society: air, water, land, energy, the built environment, and last, and sadly often least, the rest of non-human life.
This is mistaken on a number of levels. The first is that equating the two mistakes the part for the whole. A clean, healthy, productive environment is only one of the components of the larger and more inclusive multifaceted vision of the world-that-could-be that is sustainability. At the very least, this would also include a robust, democratic economy, a just, egalitarian, interconnected society, and a culture and politics of compassion and inclusion. Clearly, not your usual tree-hugger fare.
More importantly, however, reducing sustainability to matters of environment loses entire dimensions of human existence, and creates a blind spot that might be the greatest obstacle to creating deep, long-lasting and systemic change – what Annie Leonard and others call “game-changing solutions.” Allowing the physical environment to take center stage focuses our attention almost exclusively on matters of space and place. These are, of course, important: place-making, and taking care of our homes, communities and larger spatial environments are indeed central to building a sustainable society.
But, again, the spatial is only part of a larger picture. As noted, there are of course the social, economic, political and cultural sides of life that demand attention and “revisioning.” Even beyond these, though, the other dimension that is becoming increasingly important in promoting sustainability –often ignored or down-played – is the temporal one. Recognizing the importance of time, time scales, and time cycles is one step in the rehabilitation of the idea of sustainability.
One way in which the idea of sustainability already embodies a deeply temporal insight is in its focus on intergenerational justice and responsibility. Recognizing the importance of this third dimension of time is crucial. Look at it like this: economic thought is basically a line, with one question – does the line on the growth graph go up or down? Economic reasoning is one-dimensional.
We know though that the rising tide of economic growth doesn’t float all boats, and so social concern brings in a much-needed second dimension: how is that wealth distributed in different sectors and classes of society? If wealth is being created, as it is in our growth-oriented society, everybody should be a getting a little richer, not just the vastly wealthy becoming more so.
Reality, though, is three-dimensional. And even though the idea of “environment” is primarily linked with matters of space and place, a concern for the earth is not only about our common home, but also about our common future. Realizing that we have inherited the world from previous generations and will bequeath it to subsequent ones, means that even a focus on just distribution, if limited to the here and now, is no more than partial.
Sustainability is about sustaining our abilities over time. We must not sacrifice long-term benefit for short-term gains – that is simply robbing our grandchildren to feed our children, and the height of unsustainability. As activist and visionary David Brower was known to have commented: “Environmentalists may make meddlesome neighbors, but they make great ancestors.”
But even that doesn’t begin to exhaust the discussion of sustainability and time.
Dr. Jeremy Benstein is the co-founder of the Sova Project and the co-founder and Deputy Director of the Heschel Center in Tel Aviv, and director of the Center’s Environmental Fellows leadership program. He holds an A.B. degree from Harvard, a master’s degree in Judaic Studies from the Schechter Institute and a doctorate in environmental anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He works extensively in leadership development and capacity building with environmental activists and educators in Israel, and has lectured widely (US, Canada, England, Italy, Spain, Turkey) on Judaism, Israel, and the environment, including the environment as a focus of shared citizenship between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Jeremy’s interests focus on the interplay of religion, culture and values with questions of sustainability, topics he has explored in his book The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006). He writes a weekly column for the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz.com on the Hebrew language, and is recently remarried and lives with his spouse Annabel and their five children in Zichron Yaakov
The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations. All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.