It is a universal truth that a single word of newfound popularity is in want of clarification. However little known the feelings or views of such a word may be on its first entering the common vernacular, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding corporations that it is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their marketing departments.
-Jane Austen (revised)
Sustainability, a term with deep meaning but scant understanding, has slowly made its way into nearly every aspect of modern consumption. From the grocery store bottled water aisle to the car lot, various shades of green are accompanied by a myriad of dubious claims, meeting the unsuspecting shopper conveniently at eye level. The UN defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” If we assume that future generations will require clean water, fertile and unpolluted land, breathable air, and an equitable access to resources, then current efforts towards sustainability must be viewed as a spectacular failure. Although there are countless indicators that support this assertion, perhaps the most eye-catching was the recent news that the human species soared past the 400 ppm mark of atmospheric CO2 concentration. The last time similar levels existed were 3-5 million years ago during the Pliocene era. Another might be the fact that May has been the 338th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average (that’s over 28 years). Whatever ecological disaster it is that moves you, it is a moral imperative of every conscious being to evaluate claims of sustainability as they are presented. Does something seem strange about those little hotel signs begging you to save the planet by not washing a towel, or the green leaf logo on the hybrid SUV idling behind you at the McDonald’s drive through? There is a very simple explanation for this: they can. There is little to no oversight governing the use of such terms as Sustainable, Green, Eco, or Natural. The responsibility lies entirely on the consumer to evaluate the truth of such claims.
The Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI) based in Portland, Oregon explores some of the most pressing issues of our day, and offers courses that can help one come to a deeper understanding of terms like sustainability. The group provides a means to discover new ways to “live, work, create, and consume”, and aims to close the “say-do” gap. Course books are available online and are intended for groups of 8-12 people. I am participating in the 7 part Choices for Sustainable Living course here in Nashville and have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the selected readings, as well as the structure of the class. For each 1.5 hour meetup there is a facilitator, opener, and note taker, and these roles change. Guiding questions as well as suggested group activities are available in the course book, which at $22 is the only cost for the course. Topics highlighted in this course include: Ecological Principles, Food, Community, Transportation, Consumption, and Economy.
All of the topics listed above touch on the topic of sustainability, and each relates in some way to lifestyle choices that we make every day. Material isn’t presented in a “Here’s the answer” format, but rather through relevant readings from experts in each category. As an example, consider the topic of part 1: A Call to Sustainability. The section opens with a 2009 commencement speech from the University of Portland titled “You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring”. Next comes the 2008 article “Why Bother” by Michael Pollan, which is followed by a fascinating piece by the author of Gun, Germs, and Steel called “Easter’s End”. If you ever want a glimpse into the true dangers of ignoring natural resource limits, or need some fodder for light dinner conversation, give that article a skim. The section ends with an exercise in systems thinking, where the difference between the easily observable symptom of a problem and the vastly more complex drivers is illustrated with the common iceberg analogy (the symptom is the 10% of the iceberg that is visible). Each meeting generates great discussion, and we try to nail down commitments to meet by the next meeting. An example might be, “purchase 80% of the week’s food from a farmer’s market, organic if possible” or “open windows and keep the HVAC off as long as possible”. All of the aspects of the course would lead one to recognize that no bottle of water, no matter how thin the plastic, fits any meaningful attempt at sustainable living. Or that no car, no matter how great the fuel efficiency of battery size, beats a bicycle or well-utilized mass transit.
The list of available courses offered by NWEI, along with the total number of participants to date is:
- Choices for Sustainable Living (44,502)
- Reconnecting with Earth (12,555)
- Menu for the Future (14,733)
- Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability (2,206)
- Sustainable Systems at Work (3,070)
- Voluntary Simplicity (28,891)
- Discovering a Sense of Place (11,664)
- Change by Degrees: Addressing the Climate Challenge (13,332)
- A World of Health: Connecting People, Place and Planet (2,632)
I came to hear about the Nashville NWEI course through a blast from the Transition Nashville meetup.com site. A group could easily form in the Boro – at the very least you would be sure to meet some interesting people!