Sustainability Resolutions for 2009

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New Year’s imminent arrival is always a time to think about and make resolutions for the coming year. Take a moment and think about your own list. I am sure you will find almost everything is a sort of promise to stop doing things you consider to have negative consequences, even if the promise sounds like, “I will be nicer to my boss.” Now think more deeply, and ask yourself why did I choose this list of things. Almost all, although you may not use these words, will fall into the category of bad habits, and in some cases, habits that are not only ineffective in their intended results, but boomerang back to harm you. These habits are the most dangerous because they are addictive, not merely ineffective or cause unintended consquences.

Now think again about the items on your list. I bet they are very limited in scope. You probably have chosen things about yourself--I will stop overeating and exercise more… (I hear myself here); about your immediate relationships--I will be more considerate of my in-laws and co-workers…; and maybe about the larger world--I will buy more organic, locally grown food and turn down the thermostat… But I suspect you will not ask yourself why these items show up, maybe year after year. Many ineffective and persistent habits are the result of looking at the world through a soda straw and failing to see the larger context in which your sphere of action falls. Unsustainability is the result of just such habits, only on a culture-wide scale.

The most powerful resolution to make is to put aside the usual promises and dig deeper and more systemically to discover the underlying causes for your bad behavior. My guess is that most of the causes arise from failing to recognize the importance of the web of relationships you live within and the need to take care of them. The need to take care of yourself, others, and the natural world is the true core of human being. Only out of such caring can deep and lasting satisfaction come. The much more superficial idea of the need for things is a relatively recent story to explain our actions to ourselves. I believe this story comes from another related story--that of modernity, itself. At its center is a mechanistic model of the world including life forms. It takes too much space in a blog to explain the intricate connection between our core beliefs and the way we act, but my book does this.

The humanizing, civilizing history that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other living creatures rests on just such taking care of phenomena that were perceived to be important to survival and flourishing. Families and clans were the consequences of taking care of others understood by our ancestors to be critical elements in creating sustainability, the possibility of flourishing. Clothing was not just some thing to be acquired, but an object needed to take care and protect one’s body. But at some moment in history, fashion entered the lexicon, and clothes took on an additional role, the need for things acquired in conformance with social convention. In the first case, the act to invent and acquire clothing was a form of authentic satisfaction, fulfillment of some perception based on the recognition of the need to care for one’s body. In the second case, the action in inauthentic, arising out of a need to conform. Think again how much you do that is driven by conformance, propelled to a large degree by the incessant onslaught of advertising.

Consumption, the hallmark of modern, market-driven societies, plays a double role in our troubled world. The first is as a direct causal agent in unsustainability. Through our consumptive life styles, we are changing the life support system in which we have evolved in unknown, but probably pathological ways. Led by the wealthier nations, we are already appropriating more than one Earth’s worth of the resources we need. Although it is critical to stop the accelerating unsustainability, we must take a different positive step to create sustainability. The absence of the first does not mean an equivalent presence of the second.

The second is the place that consumption plays in the current story of ourselves, which is leading us ever farther from the core of sustainability as flourishing. Like all addicts, we seek more and more things faster and faster in futile attempts to find satisfaction and the realization of what is deeply buried in our unconscious and absent in the modern culture story. A simple shift from speaking about our need for X to our need to care for Y would be a first step to find authentic satisfaction and the emergence of flourishing.

Taking care of the world is more than buying green goods. Actions like this may help reverse unsustainability, but do not change the essential story of the need to take care of the world. Unfortunately and largely unwittingly, the greening movement is playing right into the hands of our addiction. We must act with two-fold intentions: 1) be smarter and more careful about what we acquire(living “greener”) and 2) ask ourselves what is it that I am really taking care of (being). The holiday season is full of examples to reflect on--do my family and friends want the objects I am giving or do they want the relationships that the gifts represent? Sustainability needs everyone to understand the centrality of the second question and then to act accordingly. We are often told in these days of crisis that innovation will be the key to recovery. Beware. The innovations that truly matter are the innovations each one of us create in changing our habits from having to caring for. The cleverest of engineers and scientists cannot do that job for us.