What do we mean by the word sustainable?
One of the most interesting insights I have recently about this came from Peter Senge who, during a presentation, was reflecting on how we understand the world around us and its relationship to language. Our English language is full of nouns – the names of things. We use nouns to concretise many concepts such as change, leadership and sustainable.
Have you touched one of these lately? Probably not…
So what if our language did not contain nouns? What if it only enabled us to talk and think about dynamics and processes?
Would that alter the way we thought about sustainability and being sustainable?
I think it would. Instead of focussing on a fixed end state or destination, we would focus more on the dynamic and changing process of being sustainable – or sustaining. Nurturing people and the natural environment and the relationships between them.
In the process, maybe we would also eliminate a major source of division between us which seems to occur when we are deciding on what the tangible expression of sustainable should be. Because we might come to realise that we are chasing the wrong things.
We have been trying to define a destination but what we are really seeking is a continually evolving state that will change with the dynamics within the system. Changing with variables such as the number of people in our population and rate of population change and changing demographics and the availability of water and food etc. And we will learn our way to this sustainable and sustaining way of being.
So I have used this brief example as an example of how our culture, in this case our language, influences our sustainability. Culture can be thought of as a combination of many tangible artefacts that reflect the many intangible beliefs, customs, and assumptions we have as a society.
The tangible ‘artefacts’ of culture, like the buildings we live and work in; the institutions we create: are reflections of the unconscious assumptions we hold about what is most important and how we think the world works.
The tangible artefacts emerge from the intangible beliefs and values. And that is why we must question those beliefs and reprioritise the values that we hold most dear, if we are to sustain ourselves.
We must evolve our culture from which the tangible form and structure of our buildings and cities will emerge.
For example, if we look at New York’s highrise skyline – Is it an expression of how people really want to live or an expression of a particular financial model?
And the evolving culture will evolve new rivals and customs in our communities, to reinforce those values and teach and socialise them with our children and new folk who join us.
Generate new visions and stories
One way of evolving our culture, is to co-create shared visions of how we want to experience our lives – a story of how we want our culture to be if you like. It’s quite a foreign idea to us in our current tangibly focussed culture to consider the intangible as important. But at the heart of such a story of how we want to live, or who we want to be as we live our lives, are the values that we can use to guide choices and decisions.
And here’s the very coolest thing my research has revealed over the past 10 years. When you ask a vast number of people, from all sorts of backgrounds, how they really want to experience life, they answer in an almost unanimous voice.
The values at the heart of their shared vision is one of personal wellbeing and health, connection, family and community relationships, nature to enjoy for its own intrinsic value and economic sufficiency to provide enough. These values seem inherently sustaining – and we have much more in common around this than we think we have when we focus on being sustainable as a destination.
So, how important is a sustainable or I prefer the term sustaining community or culture in generating a sustainable and sustaining city? Not just a vital component – but actually the source and pathway – for many more reasons that I have had the time to express here…