Sustainability Narrative Narrative

This semester I’m TAing a class in Integrated Liberal Studies called Contemporary Life Science. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. The other TA @jellencollins and I came up with a sustainability narrative assignment which our students recently completed. They had to interview four people including one professor, trying to get a diversity of perspectives. They had to ask their interviewees several tough questions including “What is sustainability? Are we sustainable now?  If not, can we transition to a sustainable society, and how? What can we as individuals do about it?”

Students were then required to analyze the responses they fielded, looking at similarities and differences and underlying themes. Then they had to write their own response to the questions. In class this week we had discussions about their interviews, and their own opinions. These were the most exciting and engaging discussions we’ve had all semester. Several major themes emerged from these discussions, so I decided to write my own meta-analysis based on their responses and our discussions along with my own response. I posted it on our course website, but decided to repost it here. Because it all comes back to that one nagging question. How do we live here?

what is sustainability? 

The most common responses revolved around perpetuating a certain way of living indefinitely. Notions of balance and equilibrium.  Not consuming more resources than the earth can generate. But when asked what are we trying to sustain, there seems to be a glaring paradox. We are mostly saying that we want to sustain our current way of life, which we all agree is unsustainable. Hmm…

One of the most often mentioned obstacles to achieving sustainability was overpopulation. There are just too many people on the planet. But the problem isn’t really that there are too many people, but that all those people are really poor and want to have our level of resource usage and material comfort. Earth just doesn’t have enough resources for everyone to enjoy our level of consumption. Sorry southern hemisphere.

So with 7 billion on the planet today, it’s obvious we can’t sustain our current standard of living. So then we must sacrifice material consumption for the benefit of human kind and the rest of the planet, right? But using concepts like “sacrifice,” simply reifies the desirability of our current way of living. But are we really happy with the way we live?  I mean, McDonalds and Wal-mart are open 24/7 selling loads of food and stuff. But does convenient and cheap equal satisfying and fulfilling? Several folks pointed out that often the most successful people, making the most money, consuming the most resources, are often the least happy. But yet we still all want to make more money, consume more stuff. What’s wrong with this picture?

Human nature, you say. We’re social animals evolved in hierarchically organized societies where the ones with the most wealth were the most successful – reproductively and socially. The caveman with the most meat gets the most cavewomen. The scientist published in Nature gets the most respect from other scientists. We’ve all experienced these instincts. We want to fit in, we want people to like us, we want more stuff. If I just get the new igadget, people will think I’m super cool and want to hang out with me. But often when we get that stuff, we realize we still aren’t happy. There’s a moment of panic. “I thought this would make me happy, but I still feel lonely and empty.” This moment is usually fleeting though, because it’s painful.  And  so we usually push it away and forget all about it. We quickly figure out the next thing that we really need to be happy. And of course, this isn’t always something material. “If only she liked me!” Usually these “if only ___” qualifiers to happiness are things/events/relationships that stroke our ego. Make us feel liked, special, and important. But it seems like our egos are pretty insatiable. Even after the temporary ego rush – getting compliments on your new clothes, making the crowd laugh with your funny joke, getting that new iphone – we still want more. More clothes, more laughs, more gadgets.  Do you see the positive feedback here?

So we gotta make money to buy more stuff, so we gotta work in jobs we probably don’t like. And we’re stressed out and overworked, and we don’t have time to think about being sustainable. Even if we want to. We gotta get to work. I don’t have time to cook breakfast today, give me that McMuffin. Why do I have a stomach ache?

Are we happy?

My definition: Sustainability is a word without a clearcut meaning. It means different things to different people. It can’t be reduced to one single meaning. And I think that is exactly why the word is so powerful. It inspires us to imagine better ways of living our lives, organizing our societies, and relating to the environment. To me, sustainability means living within your local ecosystem, coevolving with the other plants, animals, insects, fungi, and bacteria, in a way that perpetuates the functioning of the whole biotic system.

are we sustainable now?

Nope. We have no connection to our local ecosystem. Our food comes from all over the globe. We do not and can not see the social and ecological ramifications of our decisions. We can’t see the slave laborers with third-degree burns on their arms from spraying pesticides on our bananas. We don’t see the families displaced from their traditional homelands and forced into the slums, sold out by their governments to multi-national agribusiness. We don’t see the dead fish, birds, insects, in our farm fields and polluted waterways. Except in Madison, where we can smell the dead fish even if we can’t see them. The point is, that as long as people do not and can not see the social and ecological consequences of their behavior, how can we expect anyone to change?

The reason consequences are so difficult to see is that we live in such a complex, global economy. And of course there are some benefits of living in such an economy. Computers and the internet are powerful technologies that have the capacity to unite and catalyze change. So I’m not talking about going back to the stone age. But computers represent a small percentage of the stuff we consume. Top on the list, in terms of volume, is food. There is absolutely no excuse for globalized food systems. We humans are pretty clever, and have figured out how to grow most things in most places. And we absolutely should. This is the biggest step toward connecting with your local ecosystem. Eat food from it, so you know where it came from and how it was grown. Better yet, grow it yourself. Then you can be sure. But food isn’t the only thing. Clothes, furniture, jewelry. How much more would you appreciate these things if you knew not only the materials and where they came from, but also the person who crafted them. We’ve lost crafts. Makers of fine items who take pride in their work and see their craft not just as the production of stuff, but also the creation of art. We’ve sold them out, so we can get more stuff for less at Wal-mart. But at what cost?

can our society become sustainable? how?

Yes! Theoretically, we could become vastly more sustainable in a very rapid amount of time. Unfortunately, we have built ourselves into urban and rural environments which will make the transition difficult. We don’t really know how to do much without lots of oil. And we all know that oil won’t last forever. I think we need to start large construction projects all over the world, taking the last of our oil, and using it to create infrastructure that doesn’t require it. I could go on and on about ways I’d do that, but use your imagination. We also need to start growing food all around us. And in that process, reconnect with our local ecologies. We need to be not just buying seeds to plant, but saving them and planting our own. In this way we consciously interact and coevolve with the species that we depend on. There are lots and lots of things to do, but I think you get the point.

what can we as individuals do about it?

I think the most significant thing we can do is to find ways of being genuinely happy. Ways to live materially, socially, and spiritually fulfilling lives. Thats it. Nothing to do directly with resources or population. Nothing to do with sacrifice. Actually, it’s quite the opposite of sacrifice. Living a fulfilling life is all about finding ways to create and appreciate value in the world around you. But we have to be honest with ourselves. Just buying more stuff won’t cut it. Overconsumption is a sign of a lack of happiness. Contant egostroking won’t fulfill us. We need to find fulfillment not just in our own satisfaction, but in the well-being of the whole planet. Because we’re all in this together. You and me, peasants in Afganistan, the birds, the bees, the fungus under the trees. Realizing our interconnectedness allows us to connect with our true ego; not separate from nature but integral.

To me, happiness comes from being able to appreciate the beauty and perfection of life. I can’t appreciate this beauty with a TV dinner. But watch me eat a dinner of garden veggies in homemade pesto. Or sitting and watching bumblebees pollinating rosebushes. Or engaged in a philosophical conversation with friends. These are the moments that make life worth living. And they can’t be bought. Only created and enjoyed – by us.

We need to create value in the world around us, and its up to us to define that value. And it probably won’t be defined in dollars. Unfortunately, that means that for now, it’s difficult to make a living creating real value in the world around us. I want to make a living restoring degraded ecosystems so that they are not only healthy, but provide material goods and services to people. Right now we only define value in terms of dollars, and we don’t put dollar values on ecosystem services, so I can’t make a living creating this kind of value. For now. But I’m working on it.

What do you value? Now go create it! And help bring about a world where we can all thrive by creating real value as we define it, not just in dollars. Because I don’t think dollars will be worth much for long. But that’s another story.

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Interesting article Peter. I agree quite a bit with your views, but also disagree. Sustainability can only work at small scales w/ specific things. As societies evolve and collapse, there has been or is no real sustainable society. And with the complexity of 7 billion people – it is not possible. food on a small scale would bean excellent example – but in reality urban communities cannot meet the demands of producing enough food locally to feed high populations. There will be solutions and whether we like some of them or not, we do need them. Example: Walmart. Imagine the number of people who have a full stomach because they can actually get the food they need cheaply. Also w/ respect to travel and other consumptive needs to feed the human ego – even something as simple as having an engaging conversation with your friends need more than what is sustainable – a means to coordinate the meeting (phones needing electricity), beer, information, etc. Given that most of us tend to ignore the pains of those around us – in our own communities, asking someone to think about poor farmers half way around the world to make our lives sustainable in whatever way is an ideal wish and just that.


Hey Matt. I agree completely that a “real sustainable society” is impossible. Societies rise and fall; there has never been nor will there be an infinitely perpetual society. My point was that even though sustainability may be materially impossible, the word still has value in its capacity to inspire. In terms of local food supply, I think you’re right that strictly local food cannot support large urban populations, although I think we could do a lot better. The US is a net importer of most fruits and vegetables which is absurd. Here in the Midwest, I think we could easily grow most of the food for our major cities. But other less productive regions like New England would have more trouble. You’re right about Walmart and the people that depend on them. But their cheapness is only relative to their scale and the paucity of viable alternatives. With rising energy prices, and their lack of competition, I don’t think they’ll stay cheap for long. Not sure I agree about conversations being necessarily unsustainable. At least not any more unsustainable that what it takes to make it through the day (food, water, clothes). My point wasn’t that we have to think about third world farmers in order to be sustainable. It was exactly that most of us do ignore the pains of those around us. And until we can collectively transcend our egocentric emotional states towards more planetcentric states – where we consider the well-being of all of earth’s living creatures, human and non – any strives toward “sustainability” will likely reinforce current “unsustainable” systems.


This article assumes that all local food producers are just miniature versions of their giant industrial counterparts, growing the same crops with the same techniques, just at smaller scales. Of course small local farms are going to be less efficient. That’s just the definition of economies of scale and comparative advantage. Eating local doesn’t mean eating the same foods in the same ways just locally. It means eating foods that grow in our regions, in their seasons. Does that mean that we shouldn’t eat avocados if we live in Wisconsin? Of course not. But 90% of the food we should be eating can easily be be grown, raised, processed, and prepared in our own regions.