We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe – Christopher Alexander.
Imagine a future…
…where words like equality, equity and justice are ancient relics to describe past societies who failed to embrace one another.
…that not only ensures human survival but also promotes the survival of all species.
…where our children realize a connection to our planet and are equipped with the tools to ensure future generations also realize the same.
…where sustainability is less about pointing out what others are doing and is more about the practice of embodying it.
…where every being is valued and unconditionally loved for whom they currently are and someday may be.
Sustainability advocates agree there is much work yet to be done.
Humanity is now witness to the start of Earth’s sixth mass extinction.1 The Larsen C ice shelf recently began its journey into the Antarctic Sea.2 Another garbage patch of microscopic plastic was found in the South Pacific – only this time, it is larger than the country of Mexico.3 The United States is more politically divided than ever in its history.4 By the next century, planet Earth will have lost nearly half its roughly 7,000 languages.5 Cultures where sustainability is not a word but a way of life are being erased. Meanwhile, as these events occur, sustainability advocates and opponents struggle to agree on whether climate change exits. Painted in this light, it seems that the human species has had a lasting and, perhaps, irreversible impact on our planet and on one another. We could be doomed.
Framed differently, and in the positive spirit of the Solutions journal, however, all the scenarios above provide insight – we are experiencing opportunities to reconsider our path on a daily basis. Rather than seeing these situations as signals of our own demise, what if we treated them as gifts? Each, in its own way, is a mirror of the imbalances within our current world and within ourselves – a world humans have significantly manipulated. We can move closer toward sustainability by acknowledging our past, being aware in the present moment, and imagining a future we all want to be a part of. Sustainability, then, would not be about those who get it or don’t, those who are doing the right or wrong thing, whether we are doomed, or who gets access to a certain lifestyle. Sustainability would be about healing our current imbalances, while striving for balance, and envisioning a future of unconditional love.
I suggest that the first step of a legitimate move toward sustainability is healing, with the intent of moving closer toward balance. Sustainability scientists are continuously testing technologies and interventions that can facilitate the healing of ecological, social, economic, and cultural damage. However, we cannot realize their full potential until we begin by healing ourselves. We can then extend the same healing to those we interact with on a daily basis, those outside our daily circles, our communities, our societies, and our planet. The process is not linear in nature, but begins from within and extends to that outside our selves.
We can heal ourselves by cultivating the values that individualism has depleted: acknowledgement, gratitude, empathy, compassion, humility, and unconditional love.
– Acknowledge the suffering we have caused within others, as a reflection of the suffering we experience as individuals.
– Cultivate gratitude for our life-supporting planet Earth and all other beings – sentient and not – that make us better versions of ourselves.
– Offer empathy and compassion toward ourselves and others, realizing we each are doing the best we can with what we know and have experienced.
– Approach every situation with humility: we can only understand that which we have experienced, and, with all there is to experience in this lifetime, we know next to nothing.
– Offer ourselves and others unconditional love so that we can all be our best version.
The process of healing will be one of continuous practice that may naturally lead to the regeneration of our ecosystems. We may become more sensible, conservative, and equitable with respect to resource consumption. We might ensure opportunities for all humans to find purpose and meaning in concert with ecological sustainability. Perhaps we will begin to see the disconnection many humans experience given our modern technologies, social norms, and cultural conditioning. In response, we may choose to pursue connection, community, and social capital. We may find that we are more sustainable and resilient versions of ourselves when loved and supported by a community.
In time, we might re-direct our pursuits of happiness, largely understood as the pursuit of pleasure, away from the accumulation of material goods. Our addiction to over-consumption has led us to adopt inhumane practices and unsustainable resource use, with negative implications for our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Perhaps we will turn instead to alternative economies that promote the healing of self, local ecosystems, communities, and cultures. We might also acknowledge those cultures that are founded on healing practices so that they may lead our societies toward a sustainable future. This may entail the denouncement of our collective ignorance and missteps that have propagated the limitations and conditions placed on these cultures. Further, we may choose to redistribute resources to oppressed cultures so that they may foster and re-instill their principles into new cultures of healing.
Human and planetary wellbeing is out of balance. Around the globe, humans are striving for personal wellbeing, while fighting to preserve their culture and dignity. We know, intuitively, that humanity’s resilience depends on diversity: each voice is equal and must not be filtered. We are all seeking happiness because we know, intuitively, dominant culture is not providing meaning, purpose, or fulfillment. Further, we are beginning to realize that our normal means of pursuing personal wellbeing and happiness are increasing environmental degradation on local and global scales.
I propose that the process of becoming sustainable requires a balance between human and planetary wellbeing — such a vision can be achieved through healing practices (mentioned above). Humans can work together to define a working range (with minimum and maximum levels) of acceptable personal wellbeing and happiness that all humans should experience, while promoting local and global ecological regeneration. Such an effort will naturally require us to reconsider our individual desires, review local and global economies, rekindle or enhance social connections, and elevate cultural practices that support ecological healing.
While my vision of balance is fairly easy to write about, its practice will require earnest personal growth, as we develop and exercise the character traits described above (e.g., humility, compassion, empathy). For instance, determining an acceptable range of human wellbeing and happiness will require all perspectives to come together to learn and grow from one another. Together, people of all constructed worldviews can provide insights on practices they use to find balance in daily life. These might be collected from cultural traditions, religions, sciences or the arts and used to create an array of pathways for those seeking a sustainable future.
It seems that science and religion are already beginning to converge as complementary worldviews that promote the betterment of humanity, rather than barriers to each other’s progress. Science is exploring the impacts of prayer, yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices on the human body, state of mind, and general wellbeing. Religion is striving to ground humans in reflection, contemplation, and consideration of things larger than ourselves. We can build on these efforts by finding common language across all systems of belief to allow for balance.
No matter our past, our present, or our predicted future, none of us are more special than the others. Even though we have different sets of beliefs, principles, constructed hierarchies and prescribed consequences, none of us are more special than the others. Although we humans have significantly manipulated our environment to ensure our thriving population (which we should take time to admire), we are not more special than any other being, sentient and not. We must strive to embody such a mindset and overcome our egos in order to find and offer connection with all beings. Doing so, and expecting no connection in return, is what I suggest to be the practice of unconditional love. The effort will require the consistent personal development of supporting characteristic traits including, but not limited to: compassion, empathy, humility, vulnerability, authenticity, kindness, and patience.
At some point in humanity’s existence, we may just realize that every being on our planet, the planet itself, and the universe that surrounds us are all made of the same matter. We are of the soil, the trees, the oceans, the moon, sun, and universe – we may someday consider this to be as straightforward as the sky is blue. Striving for unconditional love just may open up the potential to realize such connection. From there, the practice will transition to a natural state of being – open to the dynamic energy of life and be adaptable enough to consistently nurture a sustainable state for the human race and all other beings.
An integrated approach
“Arizona State University is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes, and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.” – ASU Charter
A heart-centered vision requires more than writing a piece in the Solutions journal – it requires putting the vision into practice. Arizona State University’s innovative approach to education and research provides space for such a vision – particularly with its charter and design aspirations. The Sustainability and Happiness Research Laboratory (Happy Lab) at Arizona State University is organizing, conducting, and documenting applied on-the-ground research on campus and in neighborhoods both local and global. The Happy Lab is working to heal our disconnected society, while striving for balance, and envisioning a future of unconditional love through its members’ collective research, applied projects, service, teaching and learning. The Happy Lab’s efforts are part of a larger vision for domestic and international partnerships between universities focused on an applied heart-centered vision for sustainability.
Universities can propagate heart-centered visions by coordinating the collaborative efforts of their students, diverse departments and schools, surrounding neighborhoods, city officials, local businesses, and non-profit organizations. Campuses can serve as test beds/safe spaces for the practice of the vision and invite various populations and outside communities to take part. As best practices are learned, efforts can then be expanded to local neighborhoods upon their request. Specifically, as universities develop the skills to help their own community heal, find balance and strive for unconditional love, the same can be integrated into nearby neighborhoods in accordance with the vision of the residents. A network of universities striving for a heart-centered vision can collaborate to share insights and practices learned from one another’s efforts in other locations, cultures, and systems of beliefs and values.
Sustainability requires all fields to be present. It is a field that requires new ways of thinking, new ways of experiencing the world, and a reconnection with all beings. Sustainability advocates must first try ourselves to be what it is we are calling on the rest of the world to be. It requires our own personal healing toward a space where we can recognize the seemingly impossible chance for unconditional love. We must facilitate our own personal growth, while supporting the growth of others in a similar way – the effort is a reciprocal learning process. We must also enable the paths for others to take their perspectives into the future as tools for change. Finally, the pace at which we move is not what matters. What matters is only the limits we place on ourselves and on others. If anyone is satisfied with the life they have, then there they can stay until the next transition comes – it is not for us to decide how or when others transform. Until then, a heart-centered vision can be used to continuously offer ourselves and others opportunities to grow just beyond where we currently are – to transcend.
Ultimately, balance, as a standalone word, is sustainability but requires continuous practice given the dynamic nature of our planetary systems. Healing is a process of regenerating the environment and the mental, physical, social, and spiritual wellbeing of ourselves and others. Unconditional love, considered to be the offering of shared connection toward any being without an expected connection in return, is the destination, the journey, and the arrival to a sustainable future. In short, balance, supported by a process of continuous healing toward a vision of unconditional love, is sustainability in practice. In this light, sustainability advocates and practitioners must strive to be communicators, connectors, healers, and learners open to new ways of thinking and being – deeply humble, open-minded, and open-hearted.
I would like to thank Beth Ann Morrison for her insight, feedback, and editing prowess on this piece. I also want to thank Hanna Breetz and Mira Word for their edits, thoughtful questions, and endless support. Lastly, I thank my family, my wife, Kari, and my children, Ethan and Isak, for providing insight on what is important in life – you are my teachers.
1. Ceballos, G, Ehrlich, PR, & Dirzo R. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. [online] 114(30), E6089-E6096 (2017) (doi:10.1073/pnas.1704949114)
2. Patel, J.K. An Iceberg the Size of Delaware Just Broke Off a Major Antarctic Ice Shelf. The New York Times (July 2017).
3. Montanari, S. Plastic Garbage Patch Bigger Than Mexico Found in Pacific. National Geographic (July 2017).
4. Unruh, B. Pew: Divide in America Deeper Than Ever Before. World Net Daily (January 2017).
5. Rymer, R. Vanishing Languages. National Geographic (July 2012).