If I asked you to describe the sustainability movement, the following would probably come to mind:
While these initiatives are definitely important, the reality is the sustainability movement hasn’t created the kind of transformational change needed to become truly sustainable. The movement has given us some great things we can do, but hasn't really taught us how to be sustainable. These individual initiatives and actions are often taken as a “free pass” for behavior that is in itself unsustainable.
Don’t get me wrong, the fact that there is a market for sustainability is a good thing. People want to do better, and, in many cases, are willing to sacrifice extra time and money to be more sustainable. However, I can't help but wonder if the commodification of the movement undermines its more transformative potential. Profits-driven sustainability has had some real successes and should continue to be pursued. But, we can't rely on this model alone, because levels of consumption continue to rise, while we pat ourselves on the back for getting the products (we didn’t need in the first place) from a "greener” source. I am not trying to berate anyone here. I am just as guilty as the next person. But, if there’s not a deeper, more fundamental shift in the way we view what is actually sustainable, the movement may never reach its full potential.
As with all movements, there are key biases and assumptions that have to be challenged before transformative change can take place. First, consider what it really means to be sustainable. To be sustainable, long-term viability must be achieved. In our current context, this would require a dramatic shift in our levels of consumption, a total re-imagining of our economy, and a high level of cooperation on a mass scale. But, instead, we see a movement that is mimicking the system it is trying to correct. There is not much of a unifying force, or clear sustainability ethos, that differentiates the movement from any other fad or trend being marketed to consumers. As a result, it’s often seen as an optional retrofit to a system that is fundamentally unsustainable at its foundation. So, how do we find a more effective (and sustainable) way forward?
If I asked you to think about the last time our society experienced a fundamental shift in culture and ideology, there's a good chance the 1960’s would come to mind. From civil rights to anti-war demonstrations to free love hippies, the movements of this era represented a definitive break with the way things had been done before, and because of that, society would forever change. If the sustainability movement wants to achieve the goal of actually creating a sustainable society, then it, too, must represent a clear and definitive break with how things are currently done. It must leave the trendy, consumer-friendly realm, and become truly revolutionary.
Here’s what the sustainability movement could do to transcend its current limitations:
Unleash the Imagination - The movement must give itself the room to reimagine its potential. This includes the willingness to question the existing narratives that are holding it back, both within the movement and within society at large. It cannot afford to hold onto ideas and practices that are antithetical to true sustainability. This might seem scary, maybe even dangerous at first, but ultimately it creates the space for an alternative narrative to emerge in which greater possibilities are discovered and a more inspiring vision is realized.
Create a Unifying Ethos - The movement has remained fragmented for so long because it lacks a bold and aspirational vision for how it should manifest in the world. In order to create a fundamental shift in how people relate to their environment, there must be a clear articulation of what that new relationship looks like. This new relationship must be deeply embedded within the culture of the movement, so the transformational shift it represents can be experienced both within the community and by those on the outside looking in. The more fully realized and compelling this vision is, the more people will be unable to imagine a world without it (in the same way people became unable to imagine a world without civil rights).
Acknowledge the Larger Context - This movement is trying to reach real people with real problems, who don’t believe they have the luxury to change for potential long term environmental reasons. The movement must learn to operate in greater awareness of the larger social context and uncover how the transformational shift it seeks will impact more than just the environment. The outlook and vision of the movement must become more holistic, transcending a narrow environmental focus, to explore its potential impact on social and economic issues. If the movement fails to address the needs of average people in its vision for the future, it will remain a pastime of the privileged (who have even less incentive to change the status quo).
Establish a More Inclusive Mandate - Going forward inclusivity is going to become even more crucial than it already is. The danger that occurs once a group establishes a unifying ethos is the potential to create “in” and “out” groups, limiting a movement’s reach and impact. The movement must stay inviting and inclusive, meeting people where they are at, remaining responsive to their actual needs, and drawing them into the greater vision. It must be clear that, when it comes to the future of our planet, there are no “out” groups. We all have a stake in a viable future and must join together to make it happen. Right now, sustainability is a luxury for those who can afford it. Going forward, it must be seen as the right of every person, present and future.
Some of these ideas can already be seen at work within the movement. And, I have great respect and admiration for the many visionaries who work hard everyday in this field. My hope is that the movement can be further mobilized by promoting a more unifying and transformative vision of change, one that not just asks, but actually seeks to empower, more people to take ownership of the future.