Sustainability and the Meaning of Life


Last night, our long standing (about 35 years) couples book club met. We usually read a work of fiction, but this time we read a short "memoir" of Leo Tolstoy, [A] Confession. Our book chooser for the occasion had been moved by the recent film of Tolstoy's later life, "The Last Station." In Confession, written in his 51st year, following his greatest literary successes, Tolstoy describes his existential battle with uncertainty about the meaning of life. Asking himself this question, "What Is the meaning of life?", Tolstoy could not come up with a satisfactory answer that he could use to justify his own existence, and seriously flirted with suicide.

Eventually he changed his mind, and discovered a positive reason for his existence. First he had to recognize that he had been asking the wrong question. He had been asking abut the meaning of his life, but then realized that this was not the same question as asking about the meaning of life in general, for everyone alive in the past, present, and future. He saw the peasants (Russia, then, was sharply divided between the peasants and everyone else.) spending their lives successfully, without suffering the pangs of not knowing explicitly the answer to his question, but living as if they did indeed know. He attributed their success to a faith in existence tucked within the vastness of the infinite universe. Once accepting the infinitude of the cosmos against the finiteness of one's own life, one can stop looking for answers and live on the basis of that faith alone. Now with a faith of his own, he was able to rejoin the world he had been shunning.

Not through the sense of religious faith, however. Tolstoy, who began his life with an unexceptional immersion in the Orthodox religion was disappointed and disenchanted with the answers he got from church officials, theologians, and other scholars. After an extended period of silence following the publication of this book, Tolstoy turned to writing again, but shifted his fictional focus to the lives of ordinary people, and toward the mystical. His unorthodox view of faith was not acceptable to the organized church and Tolstoy was eventually excommunicated.

Coming back from our book club, I started thinking about our conversations about the book, especially the parts touching on Tolstoy's distinction between the finite and the infinite. Somehow, I sensed a connection between his journey and my own quest to find the meaning of sustainability. Remember that I define sustainability as the possibility that all life will flourish on the planet forever. I have often been challenged on my use of forever as failing to reflect our awareness of the initial appearance of life on Earth nor the expectation that our home will disintegrate in a few billion years hence.

I usually argue that forever, as it is used here, is just a metaphor for a very long time. Tolstoy's pondering makes me think of another reason why it is important to include forever, that is, infinity in the temporal dimension of the universe. If we think only in terms of our own lives, then like Tolstoy's discovery, there is no reason to justify our existence. But in the context of the mystery of the infinite, sustainability is fundamentally an expression of faith that we exist in an infinite cosmos whose expanse harbors whatever reasons we might find for existence.

And although we expect to disappear a long time from now, short of a vast migration to another hospitable planet, we can, and I believe should, celebrate the mystery of our existence. We should strive to keep our world going, and to live our lives fully within it, as did the faithful peasants of Tolstoy, even though we would say they lacked much of what we deem necessary for flourishing. If we think as most do today that sustainability means only to keep things from collapsing in the present or near future, we will be unable to answer anyone who asks "Why should we?" except as some statement of our hubris.

I now know more clearly why I always criticize this common use of sustainable. Sustainability requires that we get beyond all of the arguments made on the basis of the finite, the known world, formulae, positive knowledge, and so on, and open up to the possibility of the infinite and the mystery that life is and always will be. Then, it makes sense to conduct our individual lives so that all life will flourish on the planet forever. In the meantime, we seem to living as did Tolstoy before his epiphany, coming close to suicide.