There is a good argument that we need to establish sustainable community before we will be able to achieve sustainability in anything else – and there are two facets of the argument to consider. One is that we need to establish a culture of cooperation rather than competition in order to fully address the issues at hand. The other is that we need each other to support our efforts to break our addiction to comfort and convenience. I think both considerations hold considerable weight.
Studies on sustainability, which basically means the ability to endure, have evolved out of the growing concern of our impact on the planet. We face possibilities of peak oil production and peak water availability, along with climate change and other environmental concerns based on our lack of care for the planet that sustains us. These studies affirm the same three aspects that permaculture has been looking at for 30 years – sustainability involves social, economic, and environmental concerns, along with their relationship to each other.
Our sense of community – our relationships and connection to the whole – is vital as we consider this. An early 90’s Gallop poll indicated that “sense of community” was one of the top 10 felt needs in our western culture. As technology advanced and suburbia developed in the mid 20th century, it had a major impact on how we relate to our neighbors. I remember growing up in the 50’s and 60’s in a neighborhood of German immigrants in Milwaukee – everybody knew each other. In contrast, I lived in a neighborhood in Florida in 2005 that was developed in the 60’s – two older women that lived a couple houses apart for over 25 years, now alone and lonely, never had taken the opportunity to even talk to each other.
Each generation since mid 20th century has been moved farther along the continuum away from that sense of community. On the up side things are changing – at least in many people’s desire for change as they pursue that need. Younger people, especially, are using technology to create collaborative environments online and off. Boomers nearing retirement are looking past “gated” communities for a more connected and meaningful stage of life. Co-housing and other collaborative living environments have been on the rise for the past 20 years. Worker cooperatives and other collaborative working environments have also been on the rise.
There are many human issues that keep us separated – emotional wounds, power struggles, communication deficits, etc. We have been surrounded and indoctrinated by a culture that has cultivated denial in shallow relationships, valued competition above cooperation, taught the pursuit of personal gain and neglected interpersonal skills, honored war and entertained with violence… But again, on the upside there is research and tools that continue to be developed to move us toward sustainable community.
A foundational aspect of sustainability is to think holistically. It seems, even for those of us who try to think that way, the human tendency is to compartmentalize life. We tend to separate and focus on either the physical, emotional, or spiritual dimension of life and neglect the others. Even among health practitioners that acknowledge body, mind, and spirit one mode of healing is often focused on without integration of others. It seems we are in a constant struggle for balance and, perhaps, it is balance that really is the solution to sustainability.
To be sustainable means the ability to endure. It is our capacity to continue day to day, month to month, year to year, generation to generation. It involves the needs of the individual, the family, the local community, and the the world as a whole. And it requires the balance of environmental, economic, and social concerns.
For the past forty years environmental sustainability has come more and more into focus. There is a growing concern about the sustainability of our energy sources and water supplies, our consumption of natural resources, the ability to process our waste, and other issues concerning our impact on the planet that sustains us.
Peak oil suggests that we are near the earths capacity for daily oil production – not to mention our dependency on foreign sources and the relations that involves. Along with peak oil, there is reasonable concern for our diminishing aquifers and the earths capacity for replenishing our water supply. Our consumption of resources has threatened ecosystems and species of life around the world, and our landfills are exhausted by the waste we produce.
Economic sustainability, also a growing concern for some time, has come into focus the past several years as personal investments have been lost and financial stability across the globe has been threatened. The concern of increased debt on a personal, corporate, and governmental level along with decreased employment and monetary value has suddenly shifted into awareness as the bubble we produced had suddenly burst. More and more people are considering their relationship with money – the debt they maintain, the business they support, and the luxury of enough.
Social sustainability, probably the key to sustainability in general, is the third leg to balance the sustainability stool. We are in vital need of support and collaboration with one another to find the solutions. We live in a time that demands that we once again learn to know our neighbors – this time in a deeper way that enables us to join hands in building a sustainable future for all.
I also want to add spirituality to the mix for pursuit of holistic sustainability. We must cultivate a worldview that sees our connection to all people and the environment we share. It is time to transcend our egos to embrace diverse opinions and perspectives. It is time to cultivate the understanding, wisdom, and compassion we need for balance and endurance.
See more on our holistic approach to Sustainable Community at: