Rethinking Sustainability

The Earth is full of systems that continually increase the possibilities for life. Yet we humans in the environmental movement hold up sustainability as a primary goal. A friend recently said, "What would you think if someone described their marriage as ‘sustainable?’" We might respond, "Is that all?" Our goal may be to try to return to balances that we imagine existed, but such efforts fail to understand how the planet continually shifts its balances to new arrangements where more life is possible. An educator named Paul Krafel made a DVD called The Upward Spiral that illustrates many forms of life creating life.

Consider a rock that grows lichen, which then allows moss to grow. The moss will turn to biomass and dirt that allows plants to grow. These make more dirt that provides "surface area" for insects, larger plants, and animals. Life transforms a bald, rocky planet into one that has vastly more options, niches, and ecosystems. There can be no foreknowledge of what new life forms will emerge when more surface area is created, but we can be sure that these new forms will in turn provide space for even more! I see many parallels in meeting for worship where one message provides the foundation and possibility for further messages. But the initial speaker may have no sense of where messages could lead.

Interestingly, the field of biology usually teaches succession and competition—one species fighting for the place and resources of another. I now much prefer the wider (and more Quakerly?) view that succession is not about competition, but rather it is about a universe where the urge to make more room for new species and greater diversity is predominant. It is not a fight for limited resources, but rather the creation of more resources. Of course this movement appreciates balances, but rather than focus on the specific balance existing at one moment in time (sustainability), we would do well to understand that there is such a thing as shifting, moving, and changing balance.

Our role is to embed energy. In our nascent Quaker Intentional Village, we have been talking quite a bit about ways and means of putting energy and life force into this land on which we are gathering. There are many visions of how this can happen and has happened in other parts of the world. Think about images of mountainside rice paddies in Asia. Generations of villagers have built and maintained the walls and structures that hold the water, which allows the new generations the possibility of using their energy for other things. Here in our area, rock walls along fields are a similar example in which the embedded energy of one generation helps increase the energy available to future generations using those fields or tending animals. We want to make land more fertile and create buildings that have multiple purposes and make more energy—physical and psychic—than they take to maintain. (I think this is only possible if local materials and technologies are used, and much of modern building, no matter how LEEDS-certified, will never meet this standard.)

Embedding energy also happens at a cultural and relationship level. We want to create governance structures that empower and enthuse. The effort placed into practicing the art of Quaker meeting for business, for instance, creates a structure that has lasting positive impact. In these ways, too, can we look towards giving back more to the planet than we take from it?

The current language of sustainability has value. For instance, in it the concept of "waste" is altered—nothing leaves the system, so one species’ discard is another’s nourishment and all "byproducts," of necessity, are taken into account. This is a concept of stasis; what comes out goes back in. But, in another sense, this language of sustainability is inadequate. What if we aspire to the moving balances of flows, of cycles, of waves—the dances of nature where creative energy generates a planet of abundance? In another example, we talk of wealth and too often take the limited language of a money system for granted. New language would help us internalize that money wealth is only one version of wealth, and a paltry one at that. We know other more important forms of wealth and well-being, but we don’t usually think of them as part of being wealthy, "rich," or "upper-class." Good health, stimulating and nurturing family life, plenty of free time, a sense of being needed, an ability to create beauty, and a spiritual connection to our Creator—these are all elements of true wealth that money can’t buy. For right living on the Earth, we need new language; once words are internalized so are the ideas contained in them.

The more clearly we verbalize the fallacy that wealth is only financial well-being, the more we lift up those many things unobtainable with money that are most important to the human experience. There is true wealth, and there is mere money. This is an old lesson contained in all world religions, but we need to speak new life into this knowledge. Money and wealth can work together, but money is no guarantee of true wealth, and the evidence of its corruptive influence suggests money has little role, if any, in "saving the planet." Let our language reflect this truth.

Community is integral to creating "surface area," as described by Krafel, which in turn provides space for abundant wealth. In community, paths cross, meeting places form, experience widens, and relationships have a chance to flourish at levels of great depth and in multiple contexts. This kind of wealth does not merely solve problems; it transforms them into a positive force. What was "waste" becomes nutrition for another life form. Yet, the "American way" increasingly seems to try to use technology, innovation, individual inspiration, and money to "solve" our problems. "If only we could get every individual to recycle, turn off lights, eat local foods, drive less . . ."—I doubt that these efforts are sufficient to solve any of our problems, environmental or social. Where sustainability might say "we have waste, let’s solve the problem by making less of it or finding a use for it," transformational living redefines the fundamentals of what is being produced.

Aggregations of individuals certainly have impact in their actions; we can make less pollution as a nation of people who drive less. But will driving less end pollution as a problem? I feel the solutions to problems come from communities, which are organisms in and of themselves. Cells can function as individuals, but when configured as a liver or heart, they have many more possibilities; a group of organs is amazing when configured as a body. It is in the recognition of being part of a larger organism that the fully functional independent component becomes something more than itself and capable of much greater things. This recognition goes against the individualism of which people in the United States are so proud, but I think a failure to grasp it is a large part of why we are destroying the planet.

In community the lenses through which we observe each other, our families, and the holiness of creation are prismatic and full of colors. These are not the lenses of only one context (work, children’s soccer, school, business relationship), but the joined experience of many. When problems arise, not only are there multiple wisdoms available for finding solutions, but the structure encourages full-perspective solutions. I have often lamented how some modern products are practical, but ugly; others are beautiful but ungainly or too expensive; still others strong, but energy-inefficient. Too many modern products and concepts offer one-sided solutions. For example, we have suburbia where people live but don’t work or shop or go to school; inefficient modes of transportation; a technically proficient but expensive healthcare system; a democracy that counts votes but does not respond to the people; and cheap, widely available, but unhealthy food. In contrast, small-scale but deep community is a powerful step toward integrating quality, health, beauty, affordability, spirituality, and other measures of true wealth.

Things are changing fast. We tend to look to what we know, but the rising cost of gas will not allow life as we know it to continue. Nor will climate change. The solution is not to go back to perceived balances of the past. And I doubt that technology will provide new balances for the future. The historical evidence shows that pretty much every new technology of the last 200 years has created unforeseen and undesirable consequences in addition to what the machines were designed to do.

Sustainability tends to look for technologies that allow stasis. We need to stop looking for a machine or technology that will solve our problems and look instead to behavioral and non-mechanical technologies (in this sense, Quaker meeting for business can be seen as a technology) that demand a skill and experience level developed through time. This approach does not attempt to solve the problems with the same thinking that created them, but rather, looks to open up creative new alternatives that increase the abundance of life while transforming the root causes of the problems. We need to begin asking a whole different set of questions; for example, the question posed by the Iroquois, "What might a representative from seven generations in the future say to us?" We are at a time in history where radical changes on their way are now visible. Only if we enter a worldview where wealth is abundant, where our lives create new and more surface areas, where our tools—such as community and Quakerism—are transformational, will we alter the course of our relationships in ways that are truly beautiful and lasting.

The Quaker Intentional Village Project

The Quaker Intentional Village Project is a venture of Quakers and others who are interested in creating and living in a new kind of community. QIVP is a non-profit organization, but the member communities are separate entities and do not share that nonprofit status.

The first QIVP member community is in Canaan, New York, between Albany and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. We are currently embedding energy into our 135 acres of land and its buildings, working on the organizational and legal structure we’ll need to make the community happen, and hoping to connect with like-minded people (Quaker and otherwise) who are interested in joining us as either eventual residents (members) or friends and supporters.

Originally we had hoped to build a cohousing-style community, keeping our houses close together and preserving the vast majority of our land as open space. Because this is not allowed in our local zoning regulations, in 2005 we submitted a request for a five-lot subdivision to our town Planning Board, which was approved. Within the constraints of this subdivision, each of the families currently involved in QIV-C can build energy- and resource-efficient homes while still keeping much of the land open.

In the summer of 2003 we cut and raised the timber frame for the farmhouse we are rebuilding as a common space. The main roof went on before winter. In the fall of 2004, with the help of many friends and neighbors, we completed the clay and woodchip walls. In 2005 we plastered the walls, finished the lower roofs, and began work on the interior, which has taken us a long time. As of mid-2008, the building is finished except for a few details.

We believe community can be a means to advance the following five objectives:

  1. To increase the mindfulness, spiritual focus, and God-centeredness of our lives by finding and living near others who share these goals and thus will reinforce, on a daily basis, our desire to live in worship.
  2. To strengthen our family life by creating a "village" setting in which to raise children and care for elders. This includes an emphasis on leaving behind cultural obstacles that interfere with providing the time and energy that a healthy family life requires.
  3. To examine carefully our participation in the national/international consumer economy and begin to build the critical mass necessary for viable business networks and sources of goods and services more appropriate to our Quaker testimonies.
  4. To focus on a lifestyle that is environmentally sound and that attempts to give back to our planet as much as is taken from it.
  5. To include a good measure of joy, fun, outreach, and service in our lives as we strive to meet the first four objectives.

We believe that our communities’ success in achieving these five objectives will be aided by memberships diverse in race, age, ethnicity, sexual preference, and economic situations, and therefore it is our aim to gather communities whose members are diverse in these ways as well as others.

For more information (including photographs) go to /QIVC/moreaboutqivc.html. Questions about QIV-C can be sent to qiv-c@ q

Jens Braun

Jens Braun is a member of Old Chatham (N.Y.) Meeting. Currently, he spends his time farming and slow-building his family's house in the Quaker Intentional Village in Canaan, N.Y.