Thursday, March 19, 2009

Top 10 Myths about Sustainability: Scientific American

Top 10 Myths about Sustainability: Scientific American

I ran across this article in Scientific American recently and it rekindled a pet-peeve of mine.

The word sustainability has taken on a rather limited definition over the past 5 years. Which has been interesting since it was in 2006 I wrote my senior thesis on developing sustainable student organizations. Back then I faced the challenge of redefining sustainability more broadly than its environmental connotations. And in light of the failing US auto companies and corrupt banking/hedge fund industry, I continue to think of how these organizations seem to be choosing short term gains at the expense of long term, sustainable growth. For some of these companies it is so bad that todays banner year is taken at the expense of their company being viable the next and corrupting the whole industry. Talk about short-sightedness!

The concept of sustainable living goes as far back as living beings. From the most basic level it is defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. Single cell organisms need to live sustainably within their micro-environment to ensure the survival of their species. And I'm sure they didn't do it just to be hip. Humans are no different. It is in our own benefit (both as individuals and as a society/species) to want to live sustainably.

Sustainable living is a concept that the American Indians have at the core of their society. They knew by living off the land that each action had a reaction and that there was no way to avoid their impact on the world. Reduce, reuse, recycle was not simply a catch phrase, it was a necessary life mantra simply because they couldn't just truck their garbage to another site. It is only now in a society where we, the human, are at the center of the universe, able to control the climate within our homes and cars, control strife and illness with a pill, and ship our waste out of sight and out of mind that we have lost our connection to the earth and can fool ourselves into thinking that our actions on this earth do not affect the earth. In many ways, it's the loss of the connection to natural consequences.

It reminds me of the wilderness programs that take troubled teens out into the woods as a means of rehabilitation. These teens often are in jail and are given this option as a final means of parole, the final chance to live a productive life in society. They could be in jail for all kinds of reasons, from burglary to drugs to violence but I would assert that most of these kids did what they did simply because they never learned, or never believed their actions had consequences. Perhaps this is analogous to our society as a whole (it certainly applies to AIG). So they take these kids out, strap packs on their backs and march them to a wilderness campsite. If a participant doesn't want to walk, they get left alone (within bounds of safety). They don't want to carry their pack, they won't have food the rest of their time. They don't set up their shelter or learn how to rig it properly, they may find themselves curled up in a wet, slimy sleeping bag, shivering throughout the night after a sudden downpour comes tearing through soaking everything they have. It is in these wilderness programs where the kids immediately, and ultimately see that their actions have direct consequences, otherwise known as natural consequences. And for some, this permeates every aspect of their lives causing them to lead a healthy, productive, and sustainable life.

And perhaps we all need a little more of that.

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