Monday, 5 January 2015

Holding Onto Sustainability by Paula Lernelius

When I was growing up in Stockholm I had never heard of the word 'sustainability, or its Swedish equivalent 'hållbarhet' - a not entirely literal translation coming from the idea of 'hålla', to hold, to maintain. In Swedish, it's also a word that applies to objects or products meaning to last a long time, to keep, as in longevity, before a food stuff may go off. It is a practical, hygienic term in keeping with the Swedish preference for clear unambiguous communication.

Somersaulting back to English such clarity around sustainability eludes me. Indeed the very concept of sustainability I sense is in need of replacing, implying as it does the need to hold onto something, to maintain, when it is our holding on to our current lifestyles and consumption patterns that is at the root of the problem. Many people have already questioned the term, its meaning and usefulness. Robert Engelman concludes in State of the World that what he calls, sustainababble has a high cost. "Through overuse, the words sustainable and sustainability lose meaning and impact. Worse, frequent and inappropriate use lulls us into dreamy belief that all of us—and everything we do, everything we buy, everything we use—are now able to go on forever." We are holding onto what Charles Eisenstein calls, the "Story of the People, in which humanity was destined to create a perfect world through science, reason, and technology: to conquer nature, transcend our animal origins, and engineer a rational society."

In or out?

Whilst agonising about vocabulary (a common affliction for migrants who have tried to master the English language) I'm nevertheless here now with B and D to discuss sustainability, leadership and societal change as part of my Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainability Leadership at IFLAS. I'm interested in the tension between provoking change from within 'the system' - meaning the corporate world, and outside, through the actions and voices of those who have rejected participation in institutions and organisations more explicitly through what may be called 'alternative' lifestyles. There are more subtle perspectives. Bendell in his research on the corporate responsibility movement references the idea of the 'tempered radical' as an 'outsider within' able to effect change which may be at odds with corporate aims. It may be an oversimplification therefore to have selected two people representing two quite different systemic positions; one a phd student and director of a large telecommunications company; the other an artist, small business owner, community activist and home educator of her three children. Both fulfil the criteria set in my brief to choose people I consider to be 'more senior and influential' than ourselves.

In choosing my interviewees, I'm playing at the tension between such apparently disparate lifestyles and possibly viewpoints. Can we set up a temporary slack line between two previously unconnected points, test common ground, create possibilities for dialogue, galvanise action however wobbly? I had asked my participants to discuss what sustainability meant to them personally and in their roles in the community, professionally, and family. Do they consciously try to influence others and if so, does this constitute a form of leadership?
Yet in hindsight, there was a deeper question to both of them. Help me make sense of this; I don't know where or how to sustain enough anger and energy that goes with that illusory creature - the leader change agent.

In less than two hours we had covered a range of loosely associated topics. Many sources of change and examples were mentioned, from the Cafe Gratitude D had visited on holiday, to the necessity of consciously adopting what Brian Eno coined as The Long Now, to counter our addiction to novelty where everything has to be  "exciting, fast, current, and temporary".

Failure to thrive

There was disappointment in lacking access to the scale and type of multi-generational community where we can co-exist without the rules of hierarchy "I feel like I'm living life in permanent protest, part conscientious objector, part victim-martyr " said B.  How much potential to influence and lead are we missing out on through making it so damned hard to participate and have a voice, without conforming to overly controlling structures and institutions such as education? There was a sense in which provoking and participating in change towards sustainability is in itself contingent on a level of security to "thrive, not just neurotically survive" which is easier to leverage with a firm foothold inside an organisation. Freedom to reject and challenge, to thrive and participate on modest financial means is challenging even in our so called developed country, yet these are the qualities which are surely essential to deal with the now unstoppable consequences of climate change.  (Any residual scepticism about this fact can quickly be dispelled by skimming through the introduction to Naom Klein's This Changes Everything) D is more outwardly content, perhaps more economical with his change agent energy, perhaps more willing to make compromises.

Be the change

Running through our discussion was an unconsciousness ease with which sustainability and its intrinsic value to us in whatever role we operate, does not need to be justified or explained. I discovered that we are all finding means of expressing ourselves within our particular environment and context; of carving out roles and fields of activity where we can explore and innovate; B through numerous community forums and ad hoc debating societies together with her one-woman crusade on facebook for the Citizens Income initiative, D through setting up a technology Forum for young entrepreneurs to promote  sustainability and global consciousness.

'Personal leadership comes first;  be the change you want to see' they told me, by way of concluding wisdom.

In the abstract, both sustainability and leadership are terms that seem diluted to the point of meaninglessness, victims to semantic bleaching. If we can't connect emotionally with these terms, we are left with what John Berger  describes as "such dead “word-mongering” that wipes out memory and breeds a ruthless complacency." At heart, sustainability, like leadership, only becomes meaningful in the context of human exchange and interaction.  It's been comforting and hopeful to enjoy what B calls 'an outbreak of conviviality' and this, surely, is worth holding onto.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Cumbria or any other organisation.

Paula Lernelius