Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Monadnock Earth Journal for March

What words come to mind when you think of sustainability?

One of the rules to mind when speaking about an issue as dynamic and multifaceted as sustainability is to never assume everyone has the same idea of what that word means. I have a different understanding of it now than I did three years ago, and by Friday I will understand it differently still. Since I am interested in how people form ideas about the environment in ways that are unique to their own experiences, I took the chance during a ride home from community supper this week to ask my son’s two teenage friends to give me the first words that come to mind when I say, “sustainability.” Their answers were interesting. The first friend said, “Vegetables?” The second friend answered, “intelligence.” Now, let’s look at these two word associations.
Friend One’s answer might reflect things he’s learned in school, at home, or from the Internet about the environmental impacts of food, such as the fact that the typical American meat-based diet demands many times more soil, water, and fuel and creates much more waste in its production, processing, packaging, transportation, storage, marketing and consumption than a plant-based diet does. It might reflect his awareness of the local food movement, which is not entirely new (and definitely is not easy) but is thankfully getting more attention in the media and in our region, where small family and community farms are valued. Or, it might be that grocery chains and food companies have simply been doing a great job of making the values connection for consumers who want to be good planetary citizens and view eating vegetables and eating organically as a way to do that. Maybe a combination of all three and more. The response is interesting because it’s a piece of tangible (actually, edible) evidence that sustainability is possible, and it opens an opportunity for people to engage in it. Younger people should be involved because their ability to nourish themselves and their families in future rests on choices we make about food systems today. Older people should be involved because many have skills related to growing and preparing fresh foods that are not so common today. They also have perspectives about how the landscape of local farms and communities has changed over the years, perspectives that are valuable in making those choices about food systems now.
Friend Two’s answer, as I learned when I asked for more explanation, has to do with thinking ahead, carefully considering all the consequences of our actions, trying as a society not to shoot ourselves in the foot. A pretty mature perspective for a 14-year-old, and not something even adults do well most days. Intelligence is indeed related to sustainability, although I would suggest that it’s not just about science, economics, or even problem-solving in general. We need all kinds of intelligences to make a sustainable world. Artistic and imaginative intelligence (something these friends have in common); compassionate and heart-centered intelligence; the intelligence that comes with spending time with the natural landscape and getting to know its cycles; the collective intelligence of whole communities. We just have to look around us to find it, and when we do, we can find hope. Temple Grandin has a lot to say on this topic, and there’s hardly a better example of what amazing things can happen when intelligence and will combine.
Thanks to our friends, you now have proof that (a) teenagers actually do think about deep subjects, and (b) sustainability isn’t just a far-fetched goal but a lively, down-to-earth, worthwhile challenge where we all have something to give – and receive.