Defining Sustainability

This is a great phrase that a local winemaker shared with me, and it changed the way I thought about sustainability: “To sustain the farm, you have to sustain the farmer.”

It was a long time before I even thought it (sustainability) needed a definition – the reason being that I thought its definition was self explanatory. “Is this thing good for the earth or not?” It had honestly never occurred to me that maybe it ought to encapsulate something broader and more holistic. Obviously, a business might look at it slightly differently (can this sustain the business for X number of years?), and someone concerned with social justice might be concerned with whether the rights and privileges of future generations are compromised by choices made in the present. Those all seemed simple for a long time, but access to information has illuminated shades of grey where we used to only see black and white.  

In other words, it’s a difficult question to answer in a strict “yes or no” sense, precisely because there are so many layers and they intersect in such complex ways. So that’s the purpose of today’s article. Define sustainability. I certainly don’t have a cure-all definition, but it boils down to treading more softly on the earth – including each other. Personally, I want my choices to be mutually beneficial, both sustaining me as a whole person and rewarding the providers. The goal is no longer to altruistically sacrifice for the greater good of the planet – it’s an exercise in self mastery just as much as it is a “do good” mission. My life is still filled with imperfect choices (I write this on a laptop produced overseas in conditions I would probably detest), but I certainly feel better about them than I used to. I view myself as a work in progress, and any work in progress needs a way to start measuring against past choices.

Zooming out

So back to that phrase. To sustain the farm, you have to sustain the farmer. My perception of sustainability has continued to zoom outwards because of it. In the context of that phrase, things we thought were obvious, like “organic vegetables are sustainable,” are no longer quite so. Those vegetables that were grown according to organic standards seem like a safe choice. But if their production was accomplished by exploiting low-wage workers across acres and acres of monocropped, homogenous landscape, it suddenly feels a little less sustainable. And while Michael Pollan already summarized the conundrum of “big organic” brilliantly in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’re still largely having the same conversation as consumers, with similar questions, confusions, and misconceptions. There are harsh realities aplenty when you dig into the industry that has sprung up around sustainability, organics, etc. My opinion is that there are some pretty straightforward ways to navigate it without getting too far into the weeds. These have been presented by plenty of others before, but I hope to frame them in a slightly different light and context. For the stuff that’s more complicated, I couldn’t be more excited to start digging into that material and sharing it out in future articles.

In the business space, of course, sustainable tends to have about as much meaning as “all natural.” In most industries, there aren’t any parameters to which companies need to adhere, no test they must pass before they can call their products or practices “sustainable,” precisely because the term is vague and poorly defined. Exceptions typically sprout up in the form of certification programs like LEED for building construction or Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. These are good starts, but it’s also easy to feel oversaturated with certifications, naming conventions, rating systems, etc. For example, there are all natural eggs, eggs from vegetarian fed hens, cage free eggs, organic cage free eggs, eggs from free range chickens, pastured eggs. I can keenly remember feeling like their had to be a more common sense way to make these decisions that didn’t involve a full fledged research project. When an approach is intimidating or exhausting, its value is seriously diluted to anyone who can’t afford or doesn’t want to devote their full attention to it. In other words, almost everyone.

Things certainly get more specific in academic settings, but sometimes that specificity doesn’t have much practical meaning for an average person. It also may not capture non-environmental aspects of sustainability. For example, biologists who research and manage fisheries are often interested in the sustainability of fish populations. How you measure the biological sustainability of a fishery can vary massively, and in fact we’ll dive into that in more detail in a future article because it’s incredibly interesting.

For now, one very basic way might be to call a fishery sustainable because we make sure to allow for more fish to be born than what we harvest in a given season. Within this basic definition, plenty of other questions immediately arise that complicate the issue – does the method of catch impact or harm other plants and animals that we’re not trying to catch (“bycatch”)? Does it alter the physical structure of the ocean environment, such as the ocean floor, a coral reef, etc.? Who runs the fishing boats and do they compensate their fishermen fairly? Where do the fish go – are they sold to a processing corporation to be distributed to faceless multinational companies for shipment and sale to customers all over the world? Or, by comparison, are they brought to a nearby market for direct sale to the rest of the community?

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These adorable pigs want you to keep reading.

Define Sustainability

For the purposes of A New Lens, I am most interested in a definition as it applies to daily decision making. Because we live in a consumer society, this means there’s a whole lot of what we buy, who we buy it from, and how it was made.

With that in mind, A New Lens defines sustainability as that which sustains the body, mind, environment, and community. Let’s unpack each of those: you’ll notice all of these are still symbolic terms, but they’ll provide the foundation and the scaffolding needed for future, deeper analysis.

Body

Sustaining the body means physical wellness. This means the obvious, like preventing or mitigating sickness and disease, but it also means engaging our own physical participation. For example, the agricultural revolution only happened 10,000 years ago, modern humans (aka Homo sapiens) go back about 200,000 years, and species of early humans go back anywhere from 3-7 million years, depending on who you ask. So, for most of our history, we were hunter-gatherers. The physical construction of our bodies supports that endeavor, even though we now use our upright posture for other purposes. Nonetheless, millions of years of ecological specialization can’t just be ‘turned off’ because we invented agriculture, which means that when we stopped hunting and gathering, we exported our movement to someone else, somewhere else.

We continue to do that to increasing extents today: someone else to make our food, sew our clothing, construct our homes, maintain our streets, assemble our iPhones, and so on. There’s no sense in pretending we’re about to go backwards and do all that ourselves, but it’s helpful to acknowledge how we got here. With that in mind, re-introducing some choices that demand functional movement can have a sustaining, nourishing effect on our bodies.

Mind

Sustaining the mind is imperative because choices need to be rewarding and enriching: that means you feel better because of the action, the process, and the outcome. That’s what makes you want to rinse and repeat. Choices are not sustainable if you make them because you feel guilty. Stress, anxiety, indecision, and confusion should not enter the equation.

We sustain behaviors that make us feel good. Enjoyment causes me to go my neighborhood farmer’s market every week. A feeling of enrichment motivates me to dig deeper into understanding human ecology. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Environment

Sustaining the environment does not always mean preserving it – keeping things the way they are. Natural systems are always in motion, shifting quietly in the background most of the time, though sometimes rapidly and dramatically at others. We want to preserve and protect the mechanisms by which ecosystems ebb and flow. Part of that definitely means not removing too much of any one species, but it also means paying more attention to the larger process by which our food, goods, etc. are harvested, processed, transported, and sold.

Choices that support the viability of natural environments are therefore less about having “no impact” and more about stepping gently where we choose to go. It means understanding relationships, rather than purely counting plants and animals. Those relationships, of course, depends greatly upon what you’re talking about. There are gentler and more severe ways of fishing, for example. There are other activities that have no ‘gentle’ setting: think fracking, strip mining, and so on, which are so impactful that we can’t meaningfully limit their negative impacts, and therefore should probably stop doing them.

Community

When we compromise too steeply on price, we tend to get what we pay for: not only a lower quality good, but also a compromise on the integrity of the process that produced it.

This is perhaps the most deserving part of the conversation, if only because it’s the most frequently neglected component of sustainability. Community is only sustained by relationships. We currently have very few of those compared to the past. A relationship is at least partially defined by a sense of responsibility; of us to them and them to us. When we complain about a Wall Street corporation screwing over the common man, it’s because we feel they operate without responsibility to us. But we also operate without much responsibility towards the businesses with whom we interact – how many times do we want the cheapest price, deal, discount, as well as expectation of free goods/services?

This means paying a fair price: one that sustains their ability to make a decent living and to make their own good, sustainable choices. We’re not just paying for the product – we’re paying for the opportunity to ask them about the things we care about, evaluate their answers, and also to provide iterative, serial feedback over time so they can cater to the interests, concerns, and priorities of the community. Inherently, this definition favors small and medium size businesses. If the size of a company outgrows its ability to stay in touch with its community at a regional scale, or to have to compromise the interests of one community to sustain the interests of another community, that company ceases to be sustainable in this regard.

Community is also important because no single solution or approach is sustainable on a planet of 7 billion people. I am much more interested in the power we wield to shape our local societies and our local ecology. In essence, to create our own reality.

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Do you know who grows your food and how they grow it?

Bringing it all together

I warned earlier that all of these things are still vague and largely symbolic. But they’re a good rubric for making some common sense, directionally correct decisions everyday. It applies to everything from food to clothing to cars to recreation to the gym or yoga studio where you work out.

Without being an expert, it’s easy to make directionally correct decisions. A little self awareness goes a long way. Do the things in your basket sustain your body and mind? Do they come from and sustain the ecology of your regional environment? Does your mode of buying send dollars into the local community? You’ll remember from the “Mind” section that none of these questions are meant to overwhelm you or cause anxiety. The idea is to do the best you can with what you have. If each of us did this even at a basic level, there would be a tidal wave of change to how our society produces and consumes its resources. 

The goal isn’t to be perfect. Evaluate the sum of your choices in batches, not as each individual choice – that gets exhausting, time consuming, and cripples you from making decisions. The idea is to be more aware and mindful of where your dollars go. Own your choices, not because they’re perfect, because you made them thoughtfully.

What we’ve now done is establish a framework to start to dig a little deeper. I don’t intend to wax philosophical forever, and soon we can start to go issue by issue and ask more probing questions about everything from the actual products we buy to the process by which we acquire them.

As we move forward, I’ll be posting once weekly to get this thing off the ground. What are the questions you want to see addressed? What issues feel the most frustrating or confusing?

Thanks for your readership, see you here next week.

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