The conditions for making sustainability the goal of our societies can be effectively furnished through existing networks of citizens' organizations.
The first step is to introduce the outline of sustainability around which this site is built. This is easily done with sustainability cards and other materials and by asking people to consider how this goal compares with the present goal of perpetual economic expansion - the Question of Direction.
The outline for sustainability provides a reference. By distributing it and encouraging discussion around the topics it introduces, we can nurture understanding, stimulate vision, and generate other conditions needed to resolve the crisis of our times. Change begins with a conversation.
Here is an explanation of how this process works followed by the results produced.
One is the role of words, by which we identify parts of our world so we can think and talk about them; the other is how a frame of reference enables us to organize our experience and bits of information into recognizable patterns.
The following analogies explain:
The Role of Words
To the European explorers the Americas were unknown. An expedition could spend an entire season exploring the coast. If, late in the season, they discovered a large river pouring into the ocean, they could take a reading on the stars, record where the mouth of that river was and for their records, give it a name.
The next year they could return directly to that place and spend the entire season exploring the river.
With points along the river similarly located and named, any navigator with the charts could set out and travel directly to a chosen place.
So it is with words. When objects, phenomena and ideas are identified, we mark them with words. When someone else wants to learn about the same things, they start by learning the words that identify the subject matter and go on from there.
Sustainability is one of these words. Its definition marks the territory, so anyone who learns the term can recognize the basic consideration. Having the territory symbolized by a single word makes it easier to draw attention to the particular matters we want to discuss. (With the word so thoroughly spun these days, it is cirtical to have a clear definition.)
The same can be said for the words Question of Direction. Name it and it becomes easier to identify and discuss.
[The principle of linguistic relativity.]
The other idea central to this project has to do with how recognizing a pattern can lead to understanding events and circumstances. A frame of reference is a pattern which indicates the relationship between the elements involved. If the experiences and information we come across in our lives fit within the frame of reference, the overview is reinforced. We start to understand the basic situation and recognize how a wide range of other details fit into the picture.
Frame of Reference
The value of a frame of reference struck the originator of the Sustainability Project in the incident described here:
"I'd never heard of a roller derby until someone gave me a free ticket. As I watched I was unable to make sense of what I saw. Two teams roller-skated around a heavily banked track as fast as they could. Every now and then they would all stop skating and a score would be recorded. I couldn't figure out how the points were being made.
During intermission I asked a cameraman what was happening. He explained the rules of the game. When the action started again, the formation made sense; I could identify the strategies, see when a point was coming and for whom it would be recorded.
The rules of the game provided a frame of reference which I could use the assess what I was seeing."
The sustainability challenge is a good deal more complex than a roller derby, but it is not beyond the comprehension of people with moderate interest. This outline of sustainability provides the frame of reference.
A) Nurtures Understanding
With a frame of reference for considering news items, personal experience and concerns, people can more easily see the pattern of human ecology. As the pattern becomes familiar it is easier to recognize and appreciate which choices contribute to sustainable living and which create problems.
B) Stimulates Vision
It is much more productive to work towards something positive than to expend effort avoiding negative things. As pattern recognition develops, so does the ability to project the pattern into plans for action. Each person who starts projecting sustainability into his or her hopes for the future, inclines the whole of society a little more in that direction.
C) Outlines Areas for Debate and Investigation
The outline is subject to scrutiny. People are encouraged to look at it critically and to call attention to errors or omissions. The outline provides a framework for locating the fine lines and determining where they fall between activities that deepen the environmental crisis and those that allow the Earth to heal. When activities are found to be part of the problem, the same criteria can be used to look for safer ways to accomplish similar ends.
D) Clarifies Values
As more and more people and organizations acknowledge the need for sustainability it will be increasingly recognized as a value: sustainable activities are good, non-sustainable activities are to be avoided.
Recognizing how far out on the limb we have all climbed, it would be a waste to dwell on any guilt this value generates. Nevertheless, when something is recognized as good, it influences almost everyone.
E) Builds the Political Will to Tackle the Crisis
There is enormous strength in our institutions. One need only look at war to see how massively a nation can act once a priority is set. Addressing non-sustainable habits requires a much friendlier application of strength but success will require as much determination. The environmental crisis is enormous in scope. To address it with anything less than social commitment is a gamble with the lives of all our children.
F) Manifests Courage
When the population has observed world events for a few years in the context of sustainability, the direction we should take will become obvious. Morale will improve. Knowing that others share our concern can make the difference between frustration and action. Mutual support generates strength. People are willing to take greater risks when they know the human family is behind them and that their efforts are not in vain.
Broadly distributing a reference for sustainability overcomes the constraints of what Noam Chomsky calls 'concision'. In a National Film Board of Canada video on Mr. Chomsky titled "Manufacturing Consent", he explains: He is welcome to present his views on certain unsympathetic talk shows because, in the format of concision, he is given only three or four minutes. If what one presents corresponds with the conventional wisdom, viewers already know enough about the topic that a new element can be added in a short period of time. If, however, one wants to present a new perspective, background information is necessary for the divergent view to be understood. Without time for background information, people like Mr. Chomsky can only make statements that look foolish out of context.
When the reference for sustainability has been distributed, people know what is being referred to and concise questions can be asked: