A New Lens is a project with a basic premise: simplify the conversation on sustainability.
Simplifying anything means we’re starting with a belief that it’s too complex.
The word “sustainable” has caused a lot of confusion, and it’s no surprise why. What images does the word conjure in your mind? Wild, untouched landscapes? A city of green homes and electric cars? A room full of annoying Whole Foods shoppers? Even if I limited this question just to my extended family, I would get each of these replies and more.
The diversity of opinions doesn’t stop with our social circles – companies brand themselves as sustainable; it adorns the description of restaurants across my home city of San Francisco; fishmongers hock their sustainably caught fish and seafood conglomerates advertise sustainably farmed fish. Politicians have latched onto it, too, weighing the word down with partisan baggage, fresh meat for the red vs. blue forces to argue over.
Moreover, how often has something been labeled as sustainable, until all of a sudden, it isn’t anymore? Free range chickens were great until along came pastured chickens. My Prius has lower emissions, but what about all those toxic metals in the battery? Fluorescent light bulbs are nature’s best friend, except for the mercury, and so on. I’ve lost count of how many friends and colleagues are simply too exhausted by this revolving door of choices that all end up feeling like double-edged swords.
It’s a confusing mess of white noise, but it doesn’t have to be. So what does all the confusion stem from?
I’d like to push some of that noise to the fringe, but it’s important to understand why it happens so we can avoid those pitfalls in the future. The kinds of outcomes that sustainability signifies seem pretty obvious (a clean planet, productive fisheries, dolphins jumping through rainbows, and so on), but it’s harder to define those outcomes in real world terms. The fact is, we simply don’t all agree on exactly what a healthy planet is, what a productive fishery looks like, and whether those dolphins are jumping through single or double rainbows.
The adjectives mean something different to each of us in common language, and even in scientific and academic communities, there is heated disagreement over the “right” way to measure these concepts. A precise meaning is hard to pin down. This means that the outcome of sustainable behaviors and products is symbolically clear, but ambiguous in a real world context. Without agreeing on the actual definition, it’s awfully hard to connect behaviors and outcomes. Absent that connection, I can’t blame anyone for their decisions.
Simplicity means defining concepts and then creating step-by-step approaches to honor those definitions.
We’re going to start by digging into the most common, relevant, and confusing topics in sustainability, and then shed some light on them. Given all the noise and confusion we discussed earlier, it’s no surprise that people who care about this stuff feel overwhelmed by their options. It’s also obvious enough why people who don’t care take one look at this dumpster fire of a conversation and simply can’t be bothered. A New Lens is equally for both of those readers.
Which topics are gnawing at your conscience? Leave a comment and let me know.
Because the focal point of A New Lens will be to decode, unwrap, and simplify sustainability, I’ll be applying my own background in conservation science and in the sustainable food and energy communities to provide a mix of original and outside content. I’m a generalist by nature, and so I love talking to experts – I look forward to making their voices a regular presence as time goes on – but, let’s be clear that you need not be an expert on this stuff to feel informed. There are numerous frameworks that allow you to operate easily as a generalist, and we’ll cover one of those approaches very soon.
There’s no need to agree on the actions.
Rather than squabbling over the minutiae of everyday actions, I’d rather give you a mindful process for deciding what actions to take. In fact, let’s take a minute to make one thing very clear: this project is not and never will be about convincing you to adopt one, homogenous viewpoint – mine or anybody else’s. We’re here to start a conversation, not a fight. This is critically important and it will underpin the entire mission of A New Lens: this project serves the purpose of simplifying a complex conversation, with the belief that people deserve access to clear information, transparency, compelling examples and narratives, and an absolutely minimal amount of technical jargon. I say that because my belief is that if you’re reading this, you’re a sovereign adult who should be empowered and trusted to make their own informed, educated decisions. You are both welcome and invited to own and defend your choices. We’re here to give you better information and context for doing so.
To understand the framework of making choices, first we need to define sustainability. There isn’t one definition, nor does there need to be, but we need to acknowledge which one we’re using and why. That’s where we’ll travel in our first article, which you can read here.
Welcome to A New Lens and thanks for reading.