Being sustainable

Sustainability, like Zen, is a frame of mind.

And that’s why, I think, it’s so hard to be sustainable.

Zen can be characterized roughly as a mental practise dissociated from specific religious texts or theoretical knowledge, and associated with personal experience gained through certain activities.  The word “zen” itself is loosely translated as “meditation.”  It is the pursuit of “self-awareness” which usually leads to what can be described as contentment.  The goals of Zen could include virtue, discipline, concentration, and wisdom.  “Balance” is another word that is often associated with Zen.  When you learn Zen, you don’t learn it directly; instead, you learn methods and practises that, if you follow them well, will let you find your own enlightenment.  You’re not given enlightenment; you’re only shown the way to discover it for yourself.

The Japanese Zen symbol, Enso, makes sense from a sustainability point of view.

The Japanese Zen symbol, Enso, makes sense from a sustainability point of view. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

A lot has been written about Zen.  You can group serious Zen writing into two categories.  First is the methodical stuff: how to perform the practises of Zen (meditation and all that).  Second is the non-operationalized description of why you should adopt Zen, what its benefits are, and how to recognize enlightenment when you finally get there.  But in neither type of writing will you find a description of the how of Zen.  There’s no 12-step program to attain enlightenment, no Zen for Dummies book, no short-cuts or weekend retreats that can fast-track you on your way.

On the other hand, when you get there – to enlightenment – you’re really there.  You get it with every fibre of your being.  It becomes are part of you, or you become a part of it, or you and it are blended in a totally isotropic, isomorphic way.

I think of it as achieving a certain frame of mind.  You don’t let enlightenment in, nor does it take you over or anything like that.  It’s more like choosing to create a new version of yourself.  And after you’re done, you can’t really imagine ever giving it up, because it would mean given up on yourself.  Once you’ve got it, it manifests in everything you do, big acts and small, thoughts and actions.  It’s the basis on which you live.

Because of all this, Zen is hard for Westerners to understand.  We are, unfortunately, far too accustomed to having everything spoon-fed to us.  We’re not used to just being “shown the way.”  We’re more used to guided tours complete with headsets, cushy chairs to rest, lots of extra time to get there, free Margaritas, and plenty of shopping along the way.  Zen is hard work in any event; to Westerners, it’s bloody murder.

And I’ve come to believe that sustainability is a lot like Zen.  Here’s why.

Once you get sustainability, it becomes built-in, ubiquitous in how you think and act, that you can’t imagine not being sustainable.  Indeed, once you get it, you don’t even realize you’re doing certain things.  For instance:

  • I take the time to sort my recycling, even though there’s not much call for it where I live.  It’s a habit I picked up in the UK, and it’s something that seemed so natural to me that I only had to read the sorting rules once.  The practise stuck at once, and indelibly.  Even now, when it doesn’t really matter if I sort my recycling, I feel uncomfortable if I don’t do it.
  • I can’t imagine littering; I will carry and empty bottle or a crumpled up paper bag for blocks till I find an appropriate way to dispose of it.  I just can’t bring myself to toss it onto the street or leave it atop a newspaper box.
  • I drive a small car primarily because it uses relatively little gas, and required relatively fewer materials in its construction.
  • When I shop, I actually consider the amount of packaging when deciding between different products.

Sustainability means different things to different people.  Some versions might be better than others, but they all have their merits and problems.  It’s not a competition or a race, so comparing different kinds of sustainability isn’t really going to help anyone much.  We don’t need to argue about who’s version is best, but rather recognize that any version is better than no version at all, and that diversity is good, because we can all learn new tricks from each other.  To some, sustainability is primarily an economic thing; to others its primarily environmental.  There’s a streak of political correctness in the sustainability community these days that says ecological, social, and economic issues must be treated equally.  I don’t buy it because in any one particular situation, only some of those issues will dominate.  The best answer in that case will be the one that best accommodates that particular case.

Externalizing what we mean by sustainability is hard.  Is paper really better than plastic?  Where does solar power work better than wind power or wave power or whatever else?  There are no fixed answers.  It depends on geography, on climate, on technology, on economy, on cultural and societal values, on education, and on political will.  The answers we do have are extremely coarse and based on global estimated averages.  Though this is better than nothing, it’s still not good enough to realize how sustainability works best in specific locations where those global averages are pretty much wrong.  Sustainability is a local phenomenon.  Not only local to a particular setting, but also local to individuals, and even to where individuals are in their lives.  You can’t show someone how to be sustainable; you can only show then how to find their own way to be sustainable.

Because of this, achieving sustainability is hard.  If everyone becomes sustainable in a different way, there’s no way to describe how to be sustainable.  We can only teach sustainability to the extent that we can teach Zen.  We can give people tools and information (ways to choose how to live) but we can’t tell them how that stuff will make them sustainable.  So anyone who wants to be sustainable will have to find their own way, which makes it a tough row to hoe.

…unless we make sustainability enter the social consciousness.  As I wrote in another post, I’m convinced that humanity is getting green, and that it’s pretty much unavoidable at this point that we’ll eventually learn how to live in a better “balance” with nature than we do now.  This is how we do an end-run around the hardness of Zen.  It’s a cheap way out, really, because we’re skipping the hard work.  The hard work is what makes it real.  Without it, it will just become the way things are, rather than how we will them to be.  Rather like how smoking has passed out of favour for no particular reason.  This means that a sustainable society will be relatively weak, and that, in time, the principles of sustainable living could become perverted or contorted.  It’s always easier to give up your principles if you never had to fight to preserve them.

Still, it’s better than nothing, and it’s a step in the right direction.  After all, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Okay, that’s a Tao thing, but it still fits.)


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