The Sustainable Spirit

Finding Balance as Part of the Whole

Dawn is just cresting the mountain ridge as you hike silently up to your favorite spot, a perch where you can see – unseen by other hikers. Here, you position yourself to meditate. The golden rays paint the rocks, and trees glisten with their own energy. You reach out to embrace the view. Suddenly, it feels as if your spirit leaves your body and becomes a part of all around you. Then, just as suddenly, you are back inside your own skin wondering what just happened.

You had a transcendental experience, leaving this “mortal coil” to join with all that is the universe, to become one with creation. It is an awe-inspiring experience that may last for only an instant but leave its impact for a lifetime.

If you are lucky enough to have had an experience similar to this, you have had a vision of the world as it truly is…where everything is connected to everything else. As Martin Luther King said, “we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…” This is the core tenet of sustainability, understanding that we humans are not the masters of the Earth. We are part of and connected to everything that exists. When we understand this most basic concept, all that we do to pursue sustainability becomes almost self-evident.

The Need for Thinking Sustainably

Why do we, at this time in history, need to be concerned with sustainability? For many scientists, economists, and sociologists, there is mounting evidence that humans have been sowing the seeds of their own extinction. Many believe that, unless immediate corrective actions are taken, civilizations and humanity itself are headed for global catastrophes.

According to the World Resources Institute, at least 3.5 billion people, more than half of the world’s current population, are expected to experience water shortages by 2025. As the population continues to soar, the world’s fisheries and agricultural productivity are in decline. Global heating is threatening to raise sea levels and dry up water resources all over the world. Meanwhile, the warming atmosphere spawns highly variable weather with devastating storms, snows in the South, heat waves in the North and the paradoxical possibility of a new Ice Age.

Economic disparity is also growing worldwide. Today, a few hundred billionaires control more wealth than all the people in the 45 poorest countries. Political upheaval, religious fanaticism and ongoing conflicts destroy the environment, lives and communities. While these are not new phenomena, technology has made them global in their impacts.

As the Chinese curse states, we now live in interesting times. And that is why there is a renewed interest in sustainability spreading across the planet.

To Be or Not To Be…Sustainable

Apparently, there seems to be some controversy and misunderstanding about the term, sustainability. It is becoming politicized, primarily by those who either do not understand what it means or who feel threatened by its concepts.

Simply put, sustainability means the ability to last, to continue existing in one’s chosen state. To be sustainable, you must appreciate the conditions in which you live and limit the demands your chosen life makes on those conditions. To be sustainable, we must take only what we need and preserve the resources and capabilities needed so future generations can thrive.

We must work together to create strong economies, healthy communities and a preserved natural environment. Are we living within the carrying capacity of the Earth? Are we taking only what the Earth can continually provide? Are we contributing positively to our communities and the natural environment? The answer to those questions will determine what kind of future we are leaving to those who follow us.

There are lessons in sustainability to be learned every day…if one pays attention to the natural world around us.

Learn from Nature

All life as we know it on Earth lives within a “closed system.” Nothing enters Earth’s system in any measurable quantity except sunlight. The seeds for all new life come from existing life. All plants, animals, insects and humans gather their food and water from what exists on Earth. At the end of each life, everything must cycle back to the Earth to sustain the future. That is the Cycle of Life, and it is bound by physical laws that cannot be broken.

The Cycle of Life links all living things together. We depend on each other, on all living things, for our survival. Yet, knowing that we need a healthy natural environment and an ongoing Cycle of Life, we humans are the only species that actively works to break the Cycle of Life.

To build our modern societies, we take resources out of the natural environment, use them and then dispose of them as wastes. During the course of that linear process, we generate all sorts of pollution. The result is that, unlike other species in nature, we deplete natural resources, destroy natural habitats and, consequently, threaten our own existence.

Seeking Balance: Economy, Community, Environment

In Nature, organisms strive for balance or homeostasis within their ecosystems. Take the time to sit and observe a tree, a stream or any small natural area. You’ll find it rich with life, even in desert areas. Within a small ecosystem, you can see the interdependency of life in action. Plants grow together helping each gain water and minerals from the soil. Insects, birds and animals find food and shelter among the plants. You’ll notice there is no waste. Everything serves as food for everything else.

Everywhere you look there is a natural balance that continues until some external forces upset it. Then, each system, together with its living components, works to regain that balance. To become sustainable, we must think holistically and work collectively to find balance within ourselves, our families, our economy, our communities and the natural environment.

Let’s start with economy. Notice that it has the same root word, ECO, from the Greek for home or where we live. Economy means managing where we live. It means thoughtful use of resources to sustain life. In today’s society, we consider economy in terms of the flow of dollars. That is not our economy. It is only one inaccurate way to measure our economy.

Genuine Progress Indicators measure how well we are doing. To learn more, visit Redefining Progress at

So to begin to gain balance with our economy, we need to think about it differently and measure progress differently. How do we know when our economy is improving? Certainly, it is not by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that only tracks the flow of dollars. We know it by measurable improvements in our quality of life.

Are children healthy and doing well in school? Does every child have access to a good education? Are people who work earning livable wages? Is good housing affordable for all? Is the air clean and healthy to breathe? Are the elderly and infirm well provided for? Is the water abundant and safe to drink? Are communities healthy and safe from crime and war? Are more people working using less energy and materials to create more value to society? In each of these questions lie fabulous economic opportunities. When the answer to these questions is “Yes,” then we are beginning to produce a healthy, balanced economy.

Connecting, Engaging, Supporting

Strengthening communities begins with understanding our connections to each other. We are all more alike than we are different. Knowing this allows us to celebrate our differences in ways that enrich all our lives. Knowing that we all share a “single garment of destiny” can lead us to overcome old antagonisms and work for the common good. Together, as good neighbors, we can conceive a collective vision and develop the will to achieve it.

Creating healthy, balanced communities requires engagement. We need to be involved with others at different levels in our society, depending upon our interests and our talents. Some of us may be great at arranging neighborhood gatherings. Others may feel the need to volunteer at the local school or with a civic group. There are the natural politicians among us who can represent us at the town council. All of us can become informed and vote.

Restoring and preserving our natural environment is fundamental to sustainability. Learning the lessons of nature, we can more closely integrate ourselves into the Cycle of Life where everything contributes to the whole and nothing is wasted. We can all do simple things.

Eat lower down on the food chain. Locally produced fruits, vegetables and grains take less from the Earth than processed foods. Take shorter showers. Get out of your car and walk or bike. Form carpools and use public transportation when you can. Become knowledgeable about ways to conserve and lead simpler, more rewarding lives.

Stay in Contact

Our modern lives have disengaged us from our communities and the natural world. We have the opportunity and the need to re-engage for our own well-being and that of everyone on the planet. Connected, each one of us can do our part, and as we do, the whole becomes stronger and more vibrant.

So take the time. Make meaningful contact with those around you. Support those in need. Share your feelings about the issues of today and your dreams for tomorrow. Contribute your talents and good works to the true economy that benefits all.

Go to Nature. Learn from her. Find that special place for yourself where you can reach out to become one with everything around you. There you can awaken within yourself the power of your sustainable spirit.

(c) 2008 John Neville