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Why Sustainability Matters: A reaction to the first Community Discussion Series

June 7, 2010

About a week ago on May 24th, I attended The Minnesota Project’s first community discussion event.  To give a little background on the event:  initiating a community discussion was created as a way to further the organization’s mission of advancing sustainability in the state of Minnesota.  The Minnesota Project accomplishes its mission through planning and executing projects in three key areas of agriculture, energy and local food, promoting education and working to change existing policies.  Due to the organization’s regular practice of engaging people through grassroots initiatives, the Community Discussion Series event was proposed an intimate way of engaging community members in topics effecting sustainability as well as help provide a forum for education and interaction.  To kick off this first discussion, Dr. Ryan Stockwell – currently Agriculture Program Manager, Global Warming Solutions for the National Wildlife Federation and a new Wisconsin crop farmer in his spare time – was invited to speak on the topic of “Why Sustainability Matters”.    Ryan’s insight into the what, why and how of sustainability really moved my mindset beyond how I had been considering sustainability.  Better yet, the presentation evolved the reason I should care.

I am a volunteer with the organization, and pretty much the first question that people ask me when we are talking about my work there is, “So what exactly do you mean by sustainability?”  This is a fair question, because the idea of what is sustainable is not necessarily simple.  As discussed in Ryan’s presentation, sustainability means “Providing for current needs without sacrificing the ability of future generations to provide for their needs.”  The Iroquois Nation held an advanced concept of this – when making decisions, they referenced the Seventh Generation – ie – what would their current decision mean not to their generation, or even a generation they would meet, know, love but to the generation seven generations from now.  In a world where companies are worried about their next quarters’ profits, and one in which I worry about what their profits mean for my 401K, or one where I think I’m looking super long term by cutting down grocery bills (bye bye organic fruit!) in order to save a little more for a future college education that promises to be more money then I spent on my first house, thinking about how my actions affects my great, great, great, great, great grandchildren does not seem like top priority.  What would drive the idea of sustainability up to the top of that priority list?

Ryan has us consider this:  right now, we need stuff from the earth to survive.   Sustainability means this culture values the future.  Without sustainability, our culture will develop a sense of decline.  Cultures and nations will increasingly war over natural resources.  In a long term sense, failing to pursue sustainability could mean the initiation of a new dark age in which societies war, deaths overcome population growth, mass destruction occurs as societies race to extract the last remaining minerals.    By bankrupting the earth, we become a bankrupt society.  If we value sustainability, there is a sense of hope and purpose, people will live easier in the future, and face less death and less war.   For me, the key here was thinking of this problem not just as an environmental problem but as a culture problem.  It increased my sense of personal accountability and urgency to the topic. It became more than just the horrible outcomes and accidents of today’s world – the wars in the Middle East claiming lives, the worst oil spill in US history and the devastation of lives once again in the Gulf Coast, the perishing polar bears – it’s the promise of things continuing to worsen for all.  Failing to act in a sustainable way is statement about ourselves and our culture.  And it’s our legacy.   Do I want my legacy to be that I cared more about myself and my current conveniences?   I can tell you that I don’t want my grandchildren to look back at me and say that I valued my car or $20 on my grocery bill over loved ones, present or in the future.

Change is difficult.  Ryan brought up that Galileo fought for 30 years to show everyone that Copernicus was right that the universe was heliocentric, not geocentric.  He was put on house arrest by the church for heresy.  People do not easily accept that which we cannot see.  There is still debate surrounding global warming, or even if it matters much.  Doing something significant about sustainability seems very hard – sometimes nearing impossible.  First of all, it’s difficult to see connection between actions and impacts (either results will take a long time or systems needing change are extremely large – ie the food distribution system or the transportation industry).  Therefore there exists an incentive problem.  People see no direct benefit, or the focus is on ROI only, which many times is not achieved right off the bat or must be seem in a different way.  Then there is the “free rider problem” – which reduces motivation for those who are interested in sustainability.  Sustainability is difficult because it requires a new way of thinking and new systems.  It’s a big job.

So – where to start?  How can a lone individual be a change agent for sustainability?

  • Educate yourself
  • Demonstrate
  • Participate

Educating yourself on different topics is important.  Our democratic society relies on an educated population in which to optimally function.  I’ve found the education process a little horrifying – did anyone else see Food, Inc? – but the more you know, the better you can demonstrate.  And this doesn’t mean demonstrate as in protest (though I really wanted to protest when I learned more about things like GMO’s), but more like Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world”.  One participant in the discussion brought a great point to the group in that she changed how she operated, but made a conscious effort to never preach about this to anyone.  What she found was that the people close to her were curious, listened to her ideas and tactics, thought about it, and made similar changes in their consumption habits on their own terms.  Participation is also a key – because this is how the movement moves forward.

One great way to participate is to facilitate discussion that leads to action.  This was the hopeful outcome of the series held that night.  If you – or anyone you might know – would be interested in holding a similar event on sustainability or a related topic for their immediate community, please contact The Minnesota Project.  Or if you are interested in getting to know more about the organization and/ or getting involved in some of its programs, please check out their website or email

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