Sustainability: more than just the environment
Natalie Robinson is the Program Coordinator- Sustainability Education, Algonquin College. Follow her on twitter.
It’s wonderful how people have started talking about happiness. There was even a UN happiness summit earlier this year. What’s most significant about this is the implied redefinition of prosperity.
More equal societies have higher levels of trust and security. Empirically speaking, investing in others’ wellbeing, through paying taxes and supporting local businesses, improves our own wellbeing. While 7 billion of us can’t be wealthy, we can all be prosperous; we can all work and spend in ways that bring prosperity to our communities.
To do this we must transcend dualistic thinking, like good or evil, left or right. Traditional left-leaning thinking doesn't apply because state governments aren’t taking the lead; it’s citizens and companies that are developing solutions. There are many possible futures, and to evaluate them we must ask which brings the most prosperity.
Prosperity is defined by some as basic needs being met and participating meaningfully in the life of society. The consumer society has secured its success by deterring us from altruistically creating or collaborating, and by channeling us towards endless individualistic consumption as we attempt to fulfill needs we don’t even consciously examine.
These subconscious needs are key to understand if we’re to simultaneously ensure happiness and sustainability. One of the most profound elements of non-violent communication is the idea that whenever we negatively judge ourselves, or others, it’s because our needs aren’t being met. Our emotional state and our physical circumstances are our responsibility, as many heroes and gurus have taught. Emotional literacy leads us to take responsibility for creating the reality we want. When we’re creating circumstances where harm is not done to us we can see how to avoid doing harm to others.
When we examine our needs we may find that they include relationships characterized by honesty, integrity or reciprocity. It’s our nature to be compassionate, but social, economic and political patterns have resulted in us defensively dominating each other.
What do we really need? Love and security are better cultivated than bought. In the same spirit of cultivation, through our purchasing we can support products and services being designed, created and delivered in ways that alleviate poverty, rebuild healthy communities and even protect the environment.
We’re aware that there exists great inequality, but what’s less understood is how this is an inevitable part of the globalized economic system. Our actions as consumers may be doing grave harm, but it’s so far away that we don’t see it. The real sea change comes in when we examine the amazing ways that people around the world are creating new economies that serve them, instead of the other way around.
Examples include recent grads chiefly wanting employers who support a work-life balance and commit to ethical practices. Worker-owned cooperatives are replacing hierarchical, bureaucratic business models, because coops give local communities the most benefit, socially and economically. Since #Occupy, US credit unions have been flourishing; people believe that investing in their communities provides the most security for their families.
These stories commonly have an environmental angle because they’re derived from a holistic perspective that considers long-term wellbeing. Solutions have to be holistic. It’s impossible to solve environmental and social justice issues through economic growth, because growth depends on the marginalization of these issues.
Truth? Sustainability is partially about the environment, but it’s primarily about laying foundations for cohesive communities served by benign economies. Sustainability is about choosing systems that have respect written into them, so we do no harm by default.