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Live Sustainably. It’s Hard

Recently I watched a documentary video on quantum physics. In one particular scene a middle-aged research scientist was being interviewed. He casually lent back in his seat, turned to the camera, and with a cheeky grin said: “Well, if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics!” This quote, originally attributed to the late theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, suggests that nobody understands quantum mechanics – not even the people who came up with it. Although quantum mechanics works well to explain a range of observable physical phenomena, it simply does not make sense in any sort of ordinary conventional way. To the human mind, quantum mechanics is simply unfathomable.

It struck me, all-of-a-sudden, that the same could (or rather, should) be said about sustainability. I felt like shouting: “If you think you know how to live sustainably, you don’t know how to live sustainably!” I wonder what the neighbours would have thought? Nevertheless, if you’ve ever tried talking or writing about it, you’ll know what I mean. Sustainability is a profoundly slippery topic.

Of course, there is a lot we can say about living sustainably. It means living within our means. It means living without destroying the ecosystems upon which we depend. It means adapting to environmental change, including climate change. It means reducing our dependence upon fossil fuels. It means changing how we see the environment and our place in it – from a relationship premised upon separation and exploitation, to one based upon integration, reciprocity and trust.  According to the Brundtland Commission’s foundational report, sustainable living involves meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. And if you ask me, this involves putting a lid on population growth and per capita consumption. But while growth needs to be halted, our needs must also be met. And in doing so, we must develop secure, just and equitable societies. So sustainability involves reconciling the ecological, economic, demographic, ideological and social dimensions of human life.

Clear? As mud.

Even a comparatively short excursion into the meaning of sustainability makes it painfully obvious that sustainability is an immensely difficult and complex topic. Despite the volumes that have been written about it, I would argue that nobody understands it. I would go so far as to say: nobody CAN understand it.

One problem, I would say, is with the idea that a ‘sustainable society’ exists; that we can – through some investigation – find out what it looks like; and that we can, therefore, achieve sustainability by modelling ourselves after it. The problem is that a ‘sustainable society’ almost certainly does not exist. What I mean is: there is almost certainly no way of life that, once attained, can be sustained indefinitely, for the rest of time, anywhere.

One thing we should know about the world in which we live is that change is a fundamental property of it. Industrial sources of carbon dioxide and other emissions are now potent divers of climate warming, but climate change has been a feature of the world… forever – i.e. for hundreds of millions of years. Indeed, the world never has been the same, and never will be the same. Every region of the world is different to every other region of the world. This huge temporal and spatial variation simply does not lend itself to a way of living that is likely to endure everywhere – or, indeed, anywhere – forever.

What this means is that sustainability cannot be a ‘way of life’. Sustainability might be better envisaged as a process… of trial, error, success, failure and renegotiation. What this means is there cannot be a solution, or a range of solutions, successfully rolled out around the world in the name of ‘sustainability’ either now or ever. The idea that sustainability is a ‘global problem’ requiring a ‘global response’ simply cannot be true. Sustainability is a local problem, requiring local responses. And I’m not talking about a one-time-fix. Sustainability is an ongoing process. It involves constantly renegotiating how we live our lives in the multitude of places we live them.

One area of research that has attempted to embrace the unfathomable nature of sustainability is resilience theory. Resilience refers to the ability of social-ecological systems to absorb disturbance, and to undergo change, whilst retaining a similar structure and function over time. From a resilience perspective, they key to sustainability lies in the development of social-ecological systems that are capable of adapting to the change inherent in the world, whilst continuing to provide human livelihoods. From this perspective, the key to sustainability is diversity: biological and cultural. Biological diversity is central to the resilience of the living communities – or ecosystems – we depend upon for our livelihoods. And cultural diversity is central to the resilience of the societies we live in. Not only are diverse human lifeways more likely to succeed in the diverse environments we inhabit worldwide; but also, acknowledging a range of different points of view or perspectives is more likely to deliver a diverse range of responses from which to choose.

Clearly, what I’m talking about here is not a prescription for ‘sustainable living’. Perhaps it could be called a ‘vision of sustainability’. But obviously this vision exceeds the capacity of anyone (including myself) to adequately envision, understand or articulate it. Indeed, no single individual could ever be expected to even know how to live sustainably in a single environmental setting, for a single historical moment. So the next time you’re thinking about sustainable living, try not to imagine you know what that is. Because admitting that you don’t know how to live sustainably could be vital to living sustainably.

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