By Ryan Treves
At the end of summer, I moved out of my apartment in Monterey. Carrying a backpack, pillow, and an ancient, fraying suitcase, I hailed an Uber to the airport. My driver, Will, and I began talking about his salmon fishing experience and the runs in Alaska. When I described my desire to fight climate change and find solutions for a more sustainable future, he responded, “You know it’s not going to happen, right?” I took a breath, mentally reeling. I wanted to tell Will why I was hopeful, what sustainability meant to me, and how he could make a difference. Yet I experienced a familiar wave of agitation as I realized we had maybe half a minute to talk before parting ways forever. The opportunity to share my thinking felt at once exciting (“what an impact I could have!”), and nearly hopeless (“what impact could I have?”). I was forced to leave my vision of a sustainable future and how we could cooperate to get there with Will, half-formed and hastily described.
Later, as I moved to the TSA rhythm of laden footsteps and whirring machines, I thought about where I might have started if I hadn’t felt the pressure of time. A simple approach to defining a sustainable future is to brainstorm the characteristics of such a future: I believe decision-making in a perfectly sustainable system is conscious, collaborative and equitable; is focused on both short- and long-term goals; and leads directly to implementation of change. Decisions are informed by interdisciplinary science, minimize waste and economic inequality, and acknowledge the sustainability of land relationships and coexistences fostered by First peoples. In a sustainable future, natural areas serve two purposes: to increase the chances of survival for imperiled species and ecosystems, and to enhance the connections felt between people and their natural environment (the latter accomplished in concert with an expansion of urban ecology education and interaction initiatives). As a result, current trends of biodiversity loss, climate change, and broader injustice abate. Such a future would be marvelous.
However, this visionary approach invites criticism: does it, under the guise of ‘futurism,’ merely collect ideals too vague to foster action and too lofty to inspire reflection on our imperfect present? Perhaps a better strategy to defining a sustainable future is to list, instead, its preclusive factors all-too-real in our current system. I would argue that a sustainable future means the substantial reduction of, in no particular order: political partisanship, corporate lobbying power, and political polarization; poverty and violence; a growth-obsessed, extractive macroeconomic system; lasting wounds of past social injustice; ongoing hegemonic systems of racial and patriarchal oppression; and a codified preference for the status quo. “If academics ceased filling books and lecture halls with romantic ideas of a utopian sustainable future and focused instead on reversing these roadblocks,” an activist might say, “we might find ourselves much closer to understanding said future.” Yet this alternate approach has its drawbacks: hearing only the many protracted challenges we face in pursuing sustainability can be overwhelming. It can breed cynicism and despair, and cloud one’s view of the incredible potential humans have to collectively pursue change. Beyond personal effects, statements like “In a sustainable future, politicians would stop subsidizing the oil and coal industries” can serve more to drive people apart than to galvanize cooperation.
To further complicate things, neither of the two approaches – defining sustainability by what it could be, or defining it by the obstacles we’ve created to achieving it – will succeed if they do not address the pervasive misconceptions attached to the modern environmental movement. Three key misunderstandings, created intentionally and inadvertently in our society, prevent listeners from considering a sustainable future. First, sustainability is often misunderstood as a philosophy of spartan minimalism. While transitions toward more sustainable practices often involve cutting excess consumption, sustainability isn’t about asceticism: its proponents are not suggesting, say, eating the least amount of food possible and traveling only when absolutely necessary. Rather, they suggest swapping some foods and some modes of transportation for others. Second, sustainability is misunderstood as an approach that is unreconcilable with the goal of economic growth. This is untrue: while sustainable systems will never prioritize profits above all else (unlike current capitalist frameworks), their solutions regularly offer profound opportunities for economic growth. One has to look no further than the jobs created from a burgeoning solar power industry or the increased crop yields from agroforestry to glimpse the potential of sustainable business. In fact, examples of growth-enhancing sustainability opportunities abound: retrofitting, wind power, intercropping, biogas stoves, ecotourism, urban ‘greenification,’ and public transit have all been shown to bring economic advantage. Perhaps most pernicious, however, is the idea that pursuing a sustainable future means embracing draconian governmental regulation. Since the baseless association between communism and the environmental movement in the mid-20th century, special interests have peddled the notion that environmental regulations designed to protect the ecosystems that we rely on are really a slippery slope to totalitarianism. While this inflammatory way of thinking isn’t pervasive today, its influence persists when climate scientists endure ad-hominem attacks or an endangered species is hunted to the brink in the name of defending individual freedoms. Unless we proactively fight misunderstandings about the substance, logistics and roots of sustainability, our ideas about a sustainable future will fall largely on deaf ears.
Put together, the tasks of describing a sustainable future and ensuring your language isn’t misconstrued comprise a communication challenge. This challenge presents itself at every scale, from hallway conversations with friends to banquet hall addresses at the United Nations. It is why “What does sustainability mean to you?” is a question I answer differently every time, and a question I routinely ask others. Despite this challenge, we must grapple with the intricacy of communicating sustainability because we all need to be able to talk with others about why we care. I don’t know if Will held any misconceptions about the philosophy or potential of pursuing sustainability. I don’t know if he would have listened more to a dream-like description of a sustainable future or one mired in the issues of today – or even if he would have listened at all. What I do know is that I want to prepare for next time.
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