Sustainability is a concept that can sometimes be hard to pin down. One definition I like, which is derived from one of the United Nation's definitions, is:
Sustainability is the ability of the current generation to meet its needs without compromising the needs of future generations.
I think sustainability is crucial to the purpose of life. I could say that working towards sustainability is one of my most important goals in life, but it would be more accurate to say that I accept sustainability as a fundamental value or guiding principle, and interpret all goals of my life within the context of sustainability.
Culture and Sustainability:
In the United States, the current dialogue about sustainability focuses on environmental problems, and technological and political solutions to these problems. While I think these issues are important to study and discuss, I think that there is another facet to sustainability which is too often neglected: culture.
Environmental impacts exist within the context of culture. Resource management is also a central concept in sustainability, and resource management is to a large degree a cultural issue, as different cultures have different philosophies and norms about resource management. My personal belief is that culture is the key to achieving sustainability, and that no approach that considers technology and politics alone without considering culture will ever succeed at achieving or creating a sustainable society.
What would a sustainable culture look like?A sustainable culture would be...
- ...resilient, and in a sense, conservative, in the sense that it would resist threats and destructive changes to its core values, including threats from economic, technological, military, and terrorist sources, as well as threats from internal cultural factors and internal cultural changes.
- ...adaptable, in the sense of being able to persist and retain its sustainability, as the world around it changes and as the culture itself changes.
- ...open, in the sense of continually taking in new ideas and new elements from other cultures.
These three concepts are very general. I have more specific ideas about how they would play out, and more concrete ideas of what sorts of values, beliefs, and practices would characterize such a culture.
One key aspect of a sustainable culture that I see is a slower pace of life, with lots of empty space. This ties in closely with my beliefs on sustainable resource management. A culture in which every person and business is employed to full capacity is in a sense rigid--unable to adapt to changing circumstances. A sustainable society must thus have extra resources or reserves, which would be manifested in many different ways:
- People would value and practice saving and financial responsibility, both in personal finances, and in their leadership in various organizations, and their influence of the political system. These values would thus carry forth into how businesses and governments were run.
- Most people in society would have short work weeks. This would give them more time to spend with family, and in community involvement, including volunteering for charities, or becoming involved in civic or political matters. This "extra space" would also help businesses adapt to changing conditions; in a temporary crunch time, workers would be well-rested and would be glad to come in for a few extra hours during a busy week or month.
- Children would be raised in an environment that gave them frequent, unstructured play time, from a young age, so that they would learn both to be content and to use unstructured time in constructive ways. The educational system would have shorter school days, allowing children to engage in extracurricular activities, do moderate amounts of homework, and still have a lot of unstructured time and time to spend with family.
I also have envisioned ways in which a culture could be sustainable with respect to business practices:
- Centralization of power, whether in the hands of individuals, businesses, or organizations would be viewed with skepticism. The culture would have a strong tendency to desire small, minimal government. People would favor smaller businesses with direct ties to their local community, and the decisions of individuals would lead to a business climate which favored a complex market with many different players rather than sectors dominated by an oligopoly of a few large corporations. Although the laws would be designed to discourage or prevent centralization of power, much of this prevention would not be done by regulation or legal force, but rather, by strong cultural consensus.
- Business ethics would evoke strong reactions in people, which would drive spending behavior and choices. Monopolistic practices by any business, large or small, would be met with fierce resistance and immediate boycotts, without much need for active organization. Decisions exploiting or damaging common resources (such as pollution of the environment or using up of any public good) would also elicit the same reactions. This aspect of the culture would punish unethical and environmentally destructive business behavior without the need for complex legal regulation, lawsuits, or government intervention.
How would the culture be maintained?
- Stories would be told, both in formal (teaching of history, describing events in formal contexts) and informal ways (conversations, fictions, a sort of "cultural mythology" so to speak) emphasizing and illustrating the need for each of the aspects of the culture.
- The media would play a key role in maintaining the core values and integrity of the culture. The media would be decentralized, and would contain a greater volunteer component than in modern American society, which would be made possible by the culture of shorter work weeks and saving, giving individuals greater freedom to contribute to the media on a volunteer basis. The media would be held in check by people's independent decisions: media outlets promoting or glorifying value systems threatening to the culture (such as consumerism) would face boycotts of readers/listeners/subscribers as well as loss of advertisers.
- People would frequently travel outside of the culture, so as to gain a sense of perspective both of the need for certain key aspects that hold the culture together, and potential threats to it. This travel would also facilitate the adaptability of the culture, as it would expose people to new ideas and practices, providing ways the culture could be enhanced or could adapt to changing circumstances.
- Tea and Sustainability - A page I maintain on RateTea.
- Wikipedia's Page on Sustainability - I think this page could be greatly improved, and has its biases, but it does have a lot of valuable information and links to related topics.
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