What Sustainability Isn't

December 27, 2017

 

News of an environmental disaster is usually followed by some version of this commentary:

 

"What a shame. Humans don't know how to live in harmony with nature."

 

"When humans are gone, nature will recover. The world would be better off without us."

 

"The problem is too many people. When will we learn?"

 

I don't agree with these opinions, which are all related to the worldview of humans outside of nature. Viewing ourselves as separate from rest of the natural world leads down a dangerous and cynical path. 

 

If we are outside of the natural world and have no connections to it, do we possess nothing that tells us how to live here? If we are alien and unnatural then by definition everything we do is not right. If what we do is inherently wrong, and it's not our fault that it is wrong, then how can we take any responsibility for our actions? If we are not meant to be here, and we are doomed to fail, why put effort into behaving properly?

 

The cynical view of humans separate from nature creates a self-fulfilling prophesy of bad behavior. These comments are strange because on the one hand, they are admitting that something is very wrong, while at the same time putting our hands up in the air and claiming that there is nothing we can do.

 

But there is something we can do. We can change how we see ourselves, our roles in the world, and our place in nature. 

 

Being cynical is easy and it doesn't force us to change our behavior. Viewing ourselves as part of nature is challenging and it keeps us honest. Being deeply connected to nature means that we do have ways of knowing how to live here. Instead of being doomed and powerless, we are presented with are a set of choices and we must take responsibility for the choices we make. When we make the wrong choice we can admit it, analyze and learn from it, and teach each other the lessons we learned. We can make the right choices and have a sense of pride and accomplishment that is much more meaningful than the empty shell of smugness that cynicism offers.

 

The cynical worldview is not sound and is easily disproved. Humans are related to all life on earth and even if we are different from other creatures it doesn't mean that we live above all else. Our actions have the same consequences as any other creatures'. And yes, nature is resilient, but that doesn't mean that we can do whatever we want.

 

Many other facets of our worldview of our role in nature need to be changed, but at the core we must see ourselves as being a part of nature, not apart from nature. If we want to stop the disasters we are causing, we have to take a hard honest look at ourselves and ask if we're taking the easy cynical path. Once that is acknowledged, there are real steps we can take towards a healthy future.

 

(Selfishness and greed are also behaviors that are not sustainable, and I will discuss those later.) 

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