Saturday, January 18, 2020

Surfing and Suffering Sustainability

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One of the major themes of my new book, Environmental Sustainability in a Time of Change, is the idea that we are living in a time of two sustainabilities.

First, there is the sustainability of the west where those of us who live in relatively affluent conditions try to limit the impacts of our consumption. We recycle our waste, buy electric cars and carbon credits, and eat organic. We try to live a sustainable lifestyle in a highly unsustainable culture. We choose to make modifications in our daily lives to be green. The choices we make are options, like surfing is an option. Sustainability is not imposed on us. It becomes a hobby or a fun activity. We can walk away from sustainability at any time. For most of us, our actions toward sustainability do not fundamentally shift our overall environmental footprint. We in the west live within a culture that consumes resources at rates much higher than most other cultures on the planet and it is hard for individuals to make profound changes in the status quo. But our sustainability activities, like surfing, are cool, hip, technologically interesting, and young.

Compare this with the sustainability of the developing world where actions toward sustainability are a matter of day to day reality and sometimes life and death. Many areas of the world have clear challenges due to water, food, and security. They do not have a choice about recycling because recycling centers are nonexistent. They do not have a choice about getting clean and abundant water because water resources are limited. They do not have the ability to be activists because they live within a region of conflict. The types of sustainability that they deal with is far from the idea of sustainability in the west. Their sustainability is a suffering sustainability, not a surfing sustainability.

For whatever reason, the term sustainability has come to refer to both conditions. We talk about sustainability in the west as we advocate for community gardens and green building codes while in the developing world the conversations around sustainability may focus on trying to reduce infant mortality and advancing microcredit for small farmers. The ideas are so vastly different that it is important that we recognize the limits of the term, sustainability. While surfing sustainability and suffering sustainability are not perfect terms, they do highlight the differences in how sustainability is used in application.

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