Seeking Sustainability

Inaugural Column

March 2013 — It’s a wonderful privilege to be invited to take up the mantle of the inimitable Marcia Nehemiah and to write about sustainability for the readers of The River Reporter.  I hope to bring you useful information and to inspire you with the positive, practical and visionary work being done in Sullivan County and around the world as we address the intertwined challenges of climate change, environmental responsibility, and sustainable economic development.

I should start by attempting to define what I mean by “sustainability.”

It’s an elusive concept, dependent on context. In ecology, sustainable biological systems are those that “remain diverse and productive over time.”  The U.N.’s definition links up social, environmental and economic concerns and speaks of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Not everyone is enamored of this word.  Some proponents of organic farming see the use of the word sustainable in the 2008 Farm Bill as a dilution of the principles of organic growing, a way for big agriculture to get in on the action by merely reducing their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A truly organic standard would have prohibited them.  At the other end of the spectrum are the climate change skeptics and those who fear that sustainable living demands that we renounce all of the conveniences of modern life.

So, is sustainability just conservation on steroids?  Is it a watering down of more serious principles and standards?  Does it promote values of community and caring for future generations, or is it just a Luddite rejection of modern technology?

I am drawn to the word “sustainable” as an overarching philosophy, a principle to apply to everyday decisions, a metaphor for a healthy way of relating to people and things – in fact, a sort of Unified Theory of Life, both spiritual and pragmatic.  As a philosophy and lens for viewing my own personal choices as well as the larger trends in our culture, it links up a train of thought that includes conservation, historic preservation, ecology, food, health, environmental justice, and the economy.  Far from calling for a rejection of modern life, it prompts me to think about what I imagine modern life should be, and what kind of footprint I want to leave for future generations to build upon – or clean up after.

It’s a universal question. Even the characters of Downton Abbey are embroiled in a sustainability dilemma:  What do we have to change in order to keep what we value?  And are we willing to make those changes?

It came into focus for me this past Christmas, when I had a sort of sustainability epiphany.  My husband and I invited two other couples for our customary Christmas Eve feast and, after a happy day of cooking came that wonderful moment when we all gathered at the table.  As the serving dishes were passed around it dawned on me that this timeless tradition illustrated my own idea of sustainability in a nutshell. We do it without thinking. It’s as natural as breathing:  each guest takes a portion, instinctively measuring how much to take so as to leave plenty for the others.  Even if roasted potatoes are one guest’s favorite, he would never empty the dish and leave none for the others.  We make sure everyone is served, and there is plenty for us all.

What I want for my family and dear friends, I want for others, for the whole world.

I wouldn’t take all of the potatoes.  Neither would you.

Could it be that simple?  It’s a start.

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