For a sustainable future, we need to understand life and our relations with other people not in terms of economy or exchange, but as gift… not in expectation of any return, without calculation of cost, but instead as a celebration of Presence with another. In that moment of Presence, the universe changes in the way all of us need it to change.
The sustainability problem reminds me of my favorite arcade game, which I will call “Whack-A-Mole.” Some indeterminate creature pops out of holes in a random pattern, requiring you to whack them with a mallet at an ever increasing rate until the end of the game.
Blessed with good hand-eye coordination, I could always count on winning some pointless prize for whoever was with me.
When it comes to sustainability, however, the whack-a-mole approach will ultimately not be successful. The game will just get harder and there is no prize at the end – because there will be no end to the creatures that pop out at us faster and faster until we are eventually overwhelmed.
The seventh lesson the Old Savage needs to learn is that skill and good tools will not be enough to solve the problems preventing a sustainable future.
It is not a question of getting better or faster at solving the problems as they emerge – perhaps with more people and more mallets. Instead, you need to change the game itself.
Ultimately, the only way to win at planetary whack-a-mole is to unplug the machine – to change the conditions of the game in some way to step outside the problem-solving loop.
The solution therefore is not to be found in science and technology, or in greater skill at problem-solving using such tools. The solution is a transformation in how we relate to each other and to the Earth.
If we change the game, people will find answers for themselves to the social, economic and environmental problems that a sustainable future requires. We need to transform the culture of unsustainability that continues to create these problems at every turn. That culture – like our technology – is in our heads, not in our hands.
In a world driven by western science and technology, it is hard to persuade people that the answer is both obvious and available. We don’t need to invent something new, but to recover a relational perspective to each other and to the planet that primitive cultures (to use the anthropological distinction) have never lost.
The Old Savage needs to remember the lessons first learned long ago in order to live in the New Civilization without destroying it, himself and the planet.
Somehow, in a world that loves to parrot the ideology of progress, this does not seem right. Yet it is the rediscovery of relation that holds the key to a sustainable future for us all. It is found in the universe of values whose importance the metrics of progress discounts
The Industrial Revolutions of the last three centuries have made metrical efficiency their hallmark. We are “swifter, higher, stronger” (as the Olympic motto says) with every generation. Yet in ethical terms, we never ask if we should be, or what a focus on these metrics says about who we are or what life itself means. The increasing dis-integration of spirit and body in western culture has meant a focus on one or the other. Values, along with religion and spirituality, are assigned to the realm of the personal, under the assumption that such perspectives contribute little to the metrics of our lives together.
For our purposes here, we need to understand that western science is a powerful tool for understanding some aspects of the universe in which we live, but not all of them. It should not be viewed as an expression of Truth in order to protects its methods and results from necessary critique.
At a popular level one could easily maintain that the scientific method is the root myth of western culture — a story that grows in the telling, held with most fervour by those who are furthest from its daily activities. Historians, philosophers and sociologists of science have long maintained, however, that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to understanding how science works.
While this kind of conversation is best carried on at length and in person, consider that western science is a product of western culture. Even though it has now spread around the world, it carries with it the values, attitudes and ideas of the culture that produced it. If we consider that science is not just knowledge but also practical knowledge, the boundary between science and technology blurs to the point there is little value in maintaining the distinction.
If I were to say that every culture has discovered and developed the practical knowledge it needed not only to survive, but to thrive, you can see where this is going: There isn’t just one way to skin the apple. Ancient cultures accomplished feats of mathematics and engineering that we would hesitate to emulate – and they did it without any of our advantages. There was something in their systems of practical knowledge – of science and technology — that was appropriate to what they needed to do. As long as they made the right choices, as individuals and as cultures, they survived. When they stopped making the right choices, they did not.
While it would take a lot more space than I have here to unfold this idea, the crucial element was not the tools themselves, nor the practical knowledge needed to use them, but the culture itself. Every culture has its blind spot, and when trouble comes from that direction, the solution may be completely obvious to everyone else except those who are in danger.
Our blind spot is the metrical universe and the tools we use to manipulate it. Whether we are measuring nature or calculating economies, the non-metrical universe is set aside as irrelevant or consigned to our private lives where it is no one else’s business.
This needs to stop. We need to change the game. We can’t calculate a right relationship with the Earth, but we can feel it. We can’t commodify and manipulate our connections with other people, but we can create relationships that reflect compassion and care.
Time and space do not define a relationship. Nor is chronological age a measure of maturity. Wisdom is a quality not a quantity. Love can trump logic and does.
All of these kinds of expressions — and many more – express a view of life and the universe that is not constrained by metrics.
Too many of us don’t feel the Earth any more than we feel our relationships with other people. Loneliness and alienation are the two main themes of an unsustainable culture – a separation from the world in which we live and from the people with whom we live.
The consequence of this is as obvious as the solution is simple: a sustainable future requires us to engage the Earth that lies all around us, and to risk a relationship with the people who cross our paths each day.
Call it a love of other people and a passion for the planet, if you like, but it changes the game. It builds community locally where it counts the most. It recognizes the relations we have with the environment and pushes us in the direction of respect instead of exploitation. It gives future generations a voice in our decisions. It guides the choices we make about what technology is appropriate, because those choices are made in relationship with, not in isolation from, their consequences for everyone and everything involved. It pushes us to find new ways to solve problems, out of care for each other and the planet, not because we feel we must.
We can find passion for many things much less trivial in the larger picture than other people and the planet. We need more passion and less “progress” when it comes to the things that matter for a sustainable future.
After all, isolation can only be countered by community. Helplessness disappears when we choose to act, even in small ways, out of what we value – and in acting, we discover that what we value is shared by other people, people with whom we then begin to share the relationships that lead to community.
In the world of serious numbers about everything from climate change, to economics, to overpopulation, all of this sounds trivial, even trite. Yet is precisely our lack of relation that leads us to destroy the environment, to place a higher value on present economic returns than future possibilities, to ignore people in favour of supposed profits.
Wherever we create relationships, we undermine the unsustainable culture that tries to render those relationships into connections, that tries to ensure that money matters more than people, that commodifies our feelings into something that can be bought, sold or traded – that even tries to place a number on happiness.
Our best economic and environmental models confront us with the linearity of impending disaster. Unless we change what we do, the outcomes are inevitable.
The numbers are serious. We must do things differently. But the inevitabilities found in these predictions are a product of the same view of life, the universe and other people that created the unsustainable culture that has created the problem. It is the culture that has to change, and that is in our heads, not in our hands.
Organic systems are not linear – never have been. People are not linear – never will be. Ecological systems involving people and the planet full of living things are not linear – never could be. All this comes from the realization that life is not mechanism, that value can’t be counted, and that in a universe of relations, more is possible than we can begin to imagine.
Other cultures than our own knew this – we have just forgotten that what the universe means is not the same as how it is measured.
At the heart of it all, the universe is Gift. Life itself is Gift. How we share our life with other people and with other living things is our own gift, creating relationships through what we give that guide the choices we make.
It’s a gift, not an exchange. Who we are cannot be counted and measured. The Old Savage needs to be reminded of his humanity, his place in community, his relations with other people, his role in the Earth story.
There will always be metrics, things that need to be counted and measured, but it is what drives those metrics that is the key to a sustainable future. It is not something able to be left in the hands of experts – and who could be more expert about knowing what we feel than ourselves?
Change the game. Experience that sense of Presence in nature, in the eyes of another person who sees you for who you are, and the universe shifts in new directions. Transform the impossible into the improbable — and then make it happen.
This isn’t wishful thinking – it’s history. It’s what people have always done. If we were to look closely at the struggles of individuals back through time to overcome the obstacles of their lives together, we would find precisely this determination. That we are here, able to be in relationship with each other and with the Earth, is evidence not just of their success, but of the values that lay at the core of what they chose to do and how they chose to live.
Sustainability is not about discovery, but about rediscovery – of who we are, where we are, and what it means to be part of the Earth story. It’s about relationships, about the place where our feet touch the universe, about the people with whom we share life, not just space.
A sustainable future is only possible if we want to live in it, if we can see the people we care about living in it, if we know our choices today can make a difference toward what that future will be.
If what we do with our lives is a gift, a blessing — something not able to be returned, only appreciated – then transaction becomes celebration, and the Universe dances with us.