A microslice of sustainability


December 26, 2016

The world is always ending. The Earth remains. Every death is the end of a world. That we cannot feel the catastrophes of others makes them no less real. The despair of an Indian farmer or fear felt by a mother in Rio’s favella are not our despair and fear. An “enlightened society of health, sustainability, peace and prosperity,” as Stephen Dinan describes it, is a world, but it is not the Earth.

Worlds are patterns for understanding. The world of the day-laborer in Florida exposed to the sprayed teratogen metrabuzin because her employer tells her to return to work before the end of the prescribed restricted entry interval is not the world of the 28,258 people viewing internet pornography every second. The world that some of us want to sustain includes building on flood plains and beach fronts, spending $300 million on Hallowe’en pet costumes, deploying subdivisions, air conditioning, and water lines as reservoirs sink, urging eight year olds to tackle hard, and importing food from distant suppliers who prepare it for shipment and storage by adding harmful preservatives and taste-enhancers, using monoculture to make vegetables and fruits of standardized size and diminished quality, and processes like desiccation with glyphosate to give wheat a uniform appearance.

Others want to sustain a world of uninhibited consumption and unfettered production in which the industries of energy, financial speculation, medicine, food, media, and military contracting receive both public support and freedom from blame for any economic, environmental, or health consequences of their activities. Others, more technically minded, sustained by the idea of the world as an engineering challenge, plan using mirrors to deflect the sun’s rays, geothermal and solar energy projects , and nanoelectronics, and are confident of a Solution. Granting that “sustainability” properly refers to a world where the well-being of humans and their habitats out-ranks the idea of progress, it is not clear that we agree upon what sustainability is or upon the deeper assumptions it might require.

The world is always ending but the Earth remains. After the collapses of the Anasazi, Babylonians, and Harappans, the habitats of their civilizations were physically altered and unable to support them but were transformed by ecological succession into habitats for other organisms. The omnivorous australopithecines from whom we descend used pebble tools and lived in balance with their habitat for several million years without benefit of civilization before their world ended and our species emerged from an evolutionary bottleneck. Do we assume that permaculture, sacred economics, and LEED building codes will give us a million-year run? Do we assume that last-minute stewardship, farmers’ markets, smaller energy footprints, Berkshares, spiritual convergences, aid-concerts—or even our wearing hemp and thrift-store hair-shirts and going off the grid—will suffice to change the world for enough of the young, exponentially growing population to make a statistically significant difference before we intersect the first limit to growth? Perhaps it helps to remind ourselves that the world is not the same as the Earth.

There is no doubt that humanity is in a crucial transitional period. Skewed distribution of wealth, depletion of resources, and the alteration of climate by creating our current civilization from fossil fuels are processes which have not yet run their course, but the results are highly predictable. Our species will pass through another evolutionary bottleneck. Our website, sewage system, electrical grid, legal system, highways, stock market, malls, and consumer goods will be left behind. Humans will carry what they can in their hands and heads, as always. Perhaps they will bring a new world with them.

In that world, they will want what they have, cherish what they imagine, value learning, sustained attention and creative engagement, and yet avoid the infliction of expertise and power upon each other and their habitat. Entering that world, they will have made the transitions from ignoring nature and their own natures to understanding, from grasping to acceptance, from waste to salvage, from fatalism to action, from fear to hope, from opportunism to compassion, from exclusion to inclusion, and from partial efforts to whole-hearted soul work. I use the word “soul” in the old sense of a harmonious systemic dynamic balance requiring continual attention.

From such reconsidered assumptions, perhaps still connected to each other in a decentralized world-quilt of small blessed communities over the habitable Earth, our descendants will value anything we can send them that will be of help, even if only a microslice at a time. What is the image of Virgin and Child if not a reminder that human life and civilization begin and depend upon caring for one another?

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