Sustainable living is the current eco-mantra. English, always welcoming, expands its lexicon to accommodate sustainable housing, sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry and every other sustainable state imaginable. In cynical moments, I suspect we use this adjective to feel better. Behind this lexical screen we console ourselves by making small changes — devoid of hardship — while vigorously maintaining the structures of our comfortable existence. Switching to energy efficient light bulbs, turning down the ducted heating and installing solar panels may assuage our collective guilt, but these actions are incapable of halting the ecological devastation facing our species.
Psychologists call an internal conflict cognitive dissonance and it’s what we’re grappling with now. We want to change (I think) and yet our behavior suggests otherwise. When faced with such human neurosis, I find it helpful to examine the insights of humanity’s more lucid members. Please consider this from Dr Einstein:
“You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”
Einstein identifies the crux of our problem. Like many geniuses, he also points toward a solution, and it has huge implications for the sustainability movement. This is because, no matter how devoted to sustainability we are, it is betrayed by the dire state of our collective consciousness. Turn on the news tonight and you will find direct evidence of the degree to which our species is still consumed by greed, restlessness and a hunger for more of everything.
“And so it goes,” said Kurt Vonnegut. And indeed it does. With seven billion people wanting so much, sustainability is impossible and calling ourselves “consumers” only magnifies the problem: how can we move towards a simpler life when our sense of self is tied to notions of depletion, greed and squander?
Here is the reality: the current human mindset is unable to rescue us. It can’t because it is the problem. We need to “see the world anew” and become internally sustainable before the external world follows. Then, from this renewed foundation, we may be able to refresh the planet for its human and non-human inhabitants. We need to become, first and foremost, a sustainable human being. A sustainable human thinks less, moves less, eats less and wants less. A sustainable human is elegantly simple.
You may be relieved to hear there is a practical and simple way to embody this state and it requires no fancy gadgets or expensive clothes. It’s also a powerful means of supporting mental health as well as being a priceless gift from the people of a long-gone era.
As part of my yoga teacher training, we were required to sit for an hour every day in meditation. I have committed to this practice and it’s become part of my daily routine with the overriding benefit of making me a more sustainable person.
This is not as ludicrous as it sounds. Sitting still and quieting the mind for an hour a day means I’m consuming only space and air. If it’s really cold I have the heater on, otherwise I sit with a warm blanket or shawl around my body. I’m not using the computer, burning fossil fuels in my car or demanding anybody’s time and energy. I’m not shopping, eating or playing with gadgets. My mind is still and my body is relaxed so I am less stressed and thus less prone to anxiety and illness. Moreover, rather than dulling my mind it’s as if giving it a break during the day makes it sharper and more creative. I find I use it more effectively and efficiently and I have never had so many useful and creative ideas.
Sitting alone in my meditation space may make me a more sustainable woman, but what of the rest of us? Imagine if seven billion humans spent a short while sitting still every day. In the stillness we may find a new way to relate to the world and to each other. As we change internally, we may also witness profound external changes. By first becoming sustainable within, we may at last see a truly sustainable world without.
We can also turn the heating down.