Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
Labor Day has come and gone and I promised to begin posting again. The Jewish New Year took a couple more days out of my schedule. The Jewish Holidays come this year at the earliest possible time. They will come this early once again in 2089 and then never again so early. It’s OK to begin the New Year so early, but Hanukkah starts on Thanksgiving Day, even before Black Friday. Think of a turkey stuffed with chopped liver and potato latkes!
The New Year Holiday, Rosh Hashanah, is more than simply a day marked to celebrate the end of the Creation. It actually falls on the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. In the Jewish tradition, it is a time for reflection and examination of how one has lived over the past year. Tradition has it that God examines the lives of all Jews and determines if you will go into the book of life or otherwise by the end of the Days of Awe, the ten days running from New Year to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. If you recognize your transgressions during these days and atone for them, you live for yet one more year. Notice I did not use the word, sin.
Our Rabbi always points out that the Hebrew word, chet, often translated as sin, derives from the root word for “miss” or “go astray.” During these Days of Awe, observant Jews are to think of all the ways they have missed the mark, and atone, that is, acknowledge the transgression and correct it. God will forgive all the transgressions directed toward him, but demands that each us acknowledge and make amends for our missed marks directed at others. Hebrew scholars point out that this is the nature of sin that Jesus preached, implying a forgiving Lord.
Over the years, I believe that this practice has made me more compassionate and empathetic. I recognize that the marks I set were often misguided and reflected my own internalized judgments about how one “should” behave based on my own history. I think by now, I have become much more conscious that everyone lives by a set of rules constructed in the context of their own history, and that empathy demands that I am aware of this. Certainly I expect everyone to abide by a common set of moral rights and wrongs, but beyond that my standards are my own. If I dis someone for not living up to them, I have missed the mark of empathy and understanding. If I have failed to love them, meaning to acknowledge the legitimacy of their existence, I have missed the mark of compassion. I always can list many instances every year where I did indeed miss these marks.
It’s not just my Jewishness that has shortened the list. I am not a terribly observant Jew as I have often noted, but I am reminded every year of my heritage at this season. Choosing to think and write about sustainability has also made me much more conscious about missing the mark, but at a cultural level. Cultures are nothing more than descriptions of and explanations for the normal behaviors of all the individuals. Metaphorically, unsustainability is a measure of how far we have missed the mark. Locating the mark is not an easy task, but most agree that it, in part, comes from our Enlightenment notions of liberty. The French national motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” succinctly sums up these ends. We are quite far from these ends and getting farther away these days. Our culture in the US lacks the critical feature of the Days of Awe. There is little or no tradition of asking ourselves collectively, “Why we have gone astray”
It is more difficult to find the mark denoting how we should act toward the non-human world, or “nature” as we speak about it in everyday language. The same Enlightenment thinkers that gave us the motto above, saw nature as something to exploit for human perfection. We have done well by that standard, leaving nature in very bad shape. It has become increasing clear that our forebears set the wrong mark. This error can be attributed to the dominant religious beliefs of the time, coming directly from the story of Creation, which has been interpreted to give dominion over nature to human beings.
If we can leave God out of the story, humans are simply another part of nature. We evolved along with everything else. The distinction between non-humans and us is helpful analytically, but, in reality, we all coexist in a single interrelated world. Taking this as a given, a more meaningful mark would be to preserve the relationship, if for no other reason than to avoid upsetting the system and potentially threatening its existence. If this mark is chosen, we are doing terribly, and have much to do each year to atone—Jews and everyone else.
Let me end with an offer to everyone. Think Jewish for a moment! Think about the marks. In the hurly-burly of life, we tend to forget about them and concentrate only on the problems we face and on the needs we have. Needs are nothing more than the means to the ends we have embodied. If we operate with the wrong ends (marks), the means will leave the world in a bad place. Then stop and think about where you have missed the mark this year. Don’t worry about which of God’s books you will end up in, just start taking care of the real world out there. It is your, not God’s, world to preserve and nurture. If you think this way, “care” pops up as the stance that guides all humans who set their marks rightly and keep focused on them.
The liturgy of this season is full of references to what is missing, what we have failed to do, not about how life is good just as it is. The idea of sustainability doesn’t fit. We aren’t there yet according to the marks we have set for ourselves. The semantics of sustainability wrongly suggest that we are. I had a dream last night in which sustainability has a red line through it and was replaced everywhere in my writing by the word “attainability.” This raises a big problem for me as my books and just about everything I have written is full of the word, sustainability.” I think it is time to stop using it and pair flourishing with attainability instead. Maybe simple using possibility will suffice. More later. Your comments about this would be most helpful.