When we hear the word “sustainability,” we tend to think in terms of the environment and natural resources. But sustainability principles are equally relevant to other parts of our lives, including our health, happiness, and collective well-being. For those of us seeking a more satisfying an sustainable way of life, nature’s lessons about what works — and what doesn’t — can help point the way.
Imagine a cherry tree in full bloom, its roots sunk into rich earth and its branches covered with thousands of blossoms, all emitting a lovely fragrance and containing thousands of seeds capable of producing many more cherry trees. The petals begin to fall, covering the ground in a blanket of white flowers and scattering the seeds everywhere.
Some of the seeds will take root, but the vast majority will simply break down along with the spent petals, becoming part of the soil that nourishes the tree — along with thousands of other plants and animals.
Looking at this scene, do we shake our heads at the senseless waste, mess and inefficiency? Does it look like the tree is working too hard, showing signs of strain or collapse? Of course not. But why not?
Well, for one thing, because the whole process is beautiful, abundant and pleasure producing: We enjoy seeing and smelling the trees in bloom, we’re pleased by the idea of the trees multiplying (and producing delicious cherries), and everyone for miles around seems to benefit in the process.
The entire lifecycle of the cherry tree is rewarding, and the only “waste” involved is an abundant sort of nutrient cycling that only leads to more good things. Best of all, this show of productivity and generosity seems to come quite naturally to the tree. It shows no signs of discontent or resentment — in fact, it looks like it could keep this up indefinitely with nothing but good, sustainable outcomes.
The cherry-tree scenario is one model that renowned designer and sustainable-development expert William McDonough uses to illustrate how healthy, sustainable systems are supposed to work. “Every last particle contributes in some way to the health of a thriving ecosystem,” he writes in his essay (coauthored with Michael Braungart), “The Extravagant Gesture: Nature, Design and the Transformation of Human Industry” (available at www.mcdonough.com).
Rampant production in this scenario poses no problem, McDonough explains, because the tree returns all of the resources it extracts (without deterioration or diminution), and it produces no dangerous stockpiles of garbage or residual toxins in the process. In fact, rampant production by the cherry tree only enriches everything around it.
In this system and most systems designed by nature, McDonough notes, “Waste that stays waste does not exist. Instead, waste nourishes; waste equals food.”
If only we humans could be lucky and wise enough to live this way — using our resources and energy to such good effect; making useful, beautiful, extravagant contributions; and producing nothing but nourishing “byproducts” in the process. If only our version of rampant production and consumption produced so much pleasure and value and so little exhaustion, anxiety, depletion and waste.
Well, perhaps we can learn. More to the point, if we hope to create a decent future for ourselves and succeeding generations, we must. After all, a future produced by trends of the present — in which children are increasingly treated for stress, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease, and in which our chronic health problems threaten to bankrupt our economy — is not much of a future.
We need to create something better. And for that to happen, we must begin to reconsider which parts of our lives contribute to the cherry tree’s brand of healthy vibrance and abundance, and which don’t.
In Search of Sustainability and Satisfaction
McDonough’s cherry-tree model represents several key principles of sustainability — including lifecycle awareness, no-waste nutrient cycling and a commitment to “it’s-all-connected” systems thinking. And it turns out that many of these principles can be usefully applied not just to natural resources and ecosystems, but to all systems — from frameworks for economic and industrial production to blueprints for individual and collective well-being.
For example, when we look at our lives through the lens of sustainability, we can begin to see how unwise short-term tradeoffs (fast food, skipped workouts, skimpy sleep, strictly-for-the-money jobs) produce waste (squandered energy and vitality, unfulfilled personal potential, excessive material consumption) and toxic byproducts (illness, excess weight, depression, frustration, debt).
Conversely, we can also see how healthy choices and investments in our personal well-being can produce profoundly positive results that extend to our broader circles of influence and communities at large. When we’re feeling our best and overflowing with energy and optimism, we tend to be of greater service and support to others. We’re clearer of mind, meaning we can identify opportunities to reengineer the things that aren’t working in our lives. We can also more fully appreciate and emphasize the things that are (as opposed to feeling stuck in a rut, down in the dumps, unappreciated or entitled to something we’re not getting).
When you look at it this way, it’s not hard to see why sustainability plays such an important role in creating the conditions of a true “good life”: By definition, sustainability principles discourage people from consuming or destroying resources at a greater pace than they can replenish them. They also encourage people to notice when buildups and depletions begin occurring and to correct them as quickly as possible.
As a result, sustainability-oriented approaches tend to produce not just robust, resilient individuals, but resilient and regenerative societies — the kind that manage to produce long-term benefits for a great many without undermining the resources on which those benefits depend. (For a thought-provoking exploration of how and why this has been true historically, read Jared Diamond’s excellent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [Penguin Group, 2005].)
The Good Life Gone Bad
So, what exactly is a “good life”? Clearly, not everyone shares the same definition, but most of us would prefer a life filled with experiences we find pleasing and worthwhile and that contribute to an overall sense of well-being.
We’d prefer a life that feels good in the moment, but that also lays the ground for a promising future — a life, like the cherry tree’s, that contributes something of value and that benefits and enriches the lives of others, or at least doesn’t cause them anxiety and harm.
Unfortunately, historically, our pursuit of the good life has focused on increasing our material wealth and upgrading our socioeconomic status in the short term. And, in the big picture, that approach has not turned out quite the way we might have hoped.
For too many, the current version of “the good life” involves working too-long hours and driving too-long commutes. It has us worrying and running ourselves ragged, overeating to soothe ourselves, watching TV to distract ourselves, binge-shopping to sate our desire for more, and popping prescription pills to keep troubling symptoms at bay. This version of “the good life” has given us only moments a day with the people we love, and virtually no time or inclination to participate as citizens or community members.
It has also given us anxiety attacks; obesity; depression; traffic jams; urban sprawl; crushing daycare bills; a broken healthcare system; record rates of addiction, divorce and incarceration; an imploding economy; and a planet in peril.
From an economic standpoint, we’re more productive than we’ve ever been. We’ve focused on getting more done in less time. We’ve surrounded ourselves with technologies designed to make our lives easier, more comfortable and more amusing.
Yet, instead of making us happy and healthy, all of this has left a great many of us feeling depleted, lonely, strapped, stressed and resentful. We don’t have enough time for ourselves, our loved ones, our creative aspirations or our communities. And in the wake of the bad-mortgage-meets-Wall-Street-greed crisis, much of the so-called value we’ve been busy creating has seemingly vanished before our eyes, leaving future generations of citizens to pay almost inconceivably huge bills.
Meanwhile, the quick-energy fuels we use to keep ourselves going ultimately leave us feeling sluggish, inflamed and fatigued. The conveniences we’ve embraced to save ourselves time have reduced us to an unimaginative, sedentary existence that undermines our physical fitness and mental health and reduces our ability to give our best gifts.
Our bodies and minds are showing the telltale symptoms of unsustainable systems at work — systems that put short-term rewards ahead of long-term value. We’re beginning to suspect that the costs we’re incurring could turn out to be unacceptably high if we ever stop to properly account for them, which some of us are beginning to do.
Accounting for What Matters
Defining the good life in terms of productivity, material rewards and personal accomplishment is a little like viewing the gross domestic product (GDP) as an accurate measurement of social and economic progress.
In fact, the GDP is nothing more than a gross tally of products and services bought and sold, with no distinctions between transactions that enhance well-being and transactions that diminish it, and no accounting for most of the “externalities” (like losses in vitality, beauty and satisfaction) that actually have the greatest impact on our personal health and welfare.
We’d balk if any business attempted to present a picture of financial health by simply tallying up all of its business activity — lumping income and expense, assets and liabilities, and debits and credits together in one impressive, apparently positive bottom-line number (which is, incidentally, much the way our GDP is calculated).
Yet, in many ways, we do the same kind of flawed calculus in our own lives — regarding as measures of success the gross sum of the to-dos we check off, the salaries we earn, the admiration we attract and the rungs we climb on the corporate ladder.
But not all of these activities actually net us the happiness and satisfaction we seek, and in the process of pursuing them, we can incur appalling costs to our health and happiness. We also make vast sacrifices in terms of our personal relationships and our contributions to the communities, societies and environments on which we depend.
This is the essence of unsustainability, the equivalent of a cherry tree sucking up nutrients and resources and growing nothing but bare branches, or worse — ugly, toxic, foul-smelling blooms. So what are our options?
Asking the Right Questions
In the past several years, many alternative, GDP-like indexes have emerged and attempted to more accurately account for how well (or, more often, how poorly) our economic growth is translating to quality-of-life improvements.
Measurement tools like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), developed by Redefining Progress, a nonpartisan public-policy and economic think tank, factor in well-being and quality-of-life concerns by considering both positive and negative impacts of various products and services. They also measure more impacts overall (including impacts on elements of “being” and “doing” vs. just “having”). And they evaluate whether various financial expenditures represent a net gain or net loss — not just in economic terms, but also in human, social and ecological ones (see “Sustainable Happiness,” below ).
Perhaps it’s time to consider our personal health and well-being in the same sort of broader context — distinguishing productive activities from destructive ones, and figuring the true costs and unintended consequences of our choices into the assessment of how well our lives are working.
To that end, we might begin asking questions like these:
- Where, in our rush to accomplish or enjoy “more” in the short run, are we inadvertently creating the equivalent of garbage dumps and toxic spills (stress overloads, health crises, battered relationships, debt) that will need to be cleaned up later at great (think Superfund) effort and expense?
- Where, in our impatience to garner maximum gains in personal productivity, wealth or achievement in minimum time, are we setting the stage for bailout scenarios down the road? (Consider the sacrifices endured by our families, friends and colleagues when we fall victim to a bad mood, much less a serious illness or disabling health condition.)
- Where, in an attempt to avoid uncertainty, experimentation or change, are we burning through our limited and unrenewable resource of time (staying at jobs that leave us depleted, for example), rather than striving to harness our bottomless stores of purpose-driven enthusiasm (by, say, pursuing careers or civic duties of real meaning)?
- Where are we making short-sighted choices or non-choices (about our health, for example) that sacrifice the resources we need (energy, vitality, clear focus) to make progress and contributions in other areas of our lives?
In addition to these assessments, we can also begin imagining what a better alternative would look like:
- What might be possible if we embraced a different version of the good life — the kind of good life in which the vast majority of our choices both feel good and do good?
- What if we took a systems view of our life, acknowledging how various inputs and outputs play out (for better or worse) over time? What if we fully considered how those around us are affected by our choices now and in the long term?
- What if we embraced more choices that honor our true nature, that gave us more opportunities to use our talents and enthusiasms in the service of a higher purpose?
One has to wonder how many of our health and fitness challenges would evaporate under such conditions — how many compensatory behaviors (overeating, hiding out, numbing out) would simply no longer have a draw.
How many health-sustaining behaviors would become easy and natural choices if each of us were driven by a strong and joyful purpose, and were no longer saddled with the stress and dissatisfaction inherent in the lives we live now?
Think about the cherry-tree effect implicit in such a scenario: each of us getting our needs met, fulfilling our best potential, living at full vitality, and contributing to healthy, vital, sustainable communities in the process.
If it sounds a bit idealistic, that’s probably because it describes an ideal distant enough from our current reality to provoke a certain amount of hopelessness. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely unrealistic. In fact, it’s a vision that many people are increasingly convinced is the only kind worth pursuing.
Turning the Corner
Maybe it has something to do with how many of our social, economic and ecological systems are showing signs of extreme strain. Maybe it’s how many of us are sick and tired of being sick and tired — or of living in a culture where everyone else seems sick and tired. Maybe it’s the growing realization that no matter how busy and efficient we are, if our efforts don’t feed us in a deep way, then all that output may be more than a little misguided. Whatever the reason, a lot of us are asking: If our rampant productivity doesn’t make us happy, doesn’t allow for calm and creativity, doesn’t give us an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way — then, really, what’s the point?
These days, it seems that more of us are taking a keen interest in seeking out better ways, and seeing the value of extending the lessons of sustainability beyond the natural world and into our own perspectives on what the good life is all about.
In her book MegaTrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism (Hampton Roads, 2005), futurist Patricia Aburdene describes a hopeful collection of social and economic trends shaped by a large and influential subset of the American consuming public. What these 70 million individuals have in common, she explains, are some very specific values-driven behaviors — most of which revolve around seeking a better, deeper, more meaningful and sustainable quality of life.
These “Conscious Consumers,” as Aburdene characterizes them, are more carefully weighing material and economic payoffs against moral and spiritual ones. They are balancing short-term desires and conveniences with long-term well-being — not just their own, but that of their local and larger communities, and of the planet as a whole. They are acting, says Aburdene, out of a sort of “enlightened self- interest,” one that is deeply rooted in concerns about sustainability in all its forms.
“Enlightened self-interest is not altruism,” she explains. “It’s self-interest with a wider view. It asks: If I act in my own self-interest and keep doing so, what are the ramifications of my choices? Which acts — that may look fine right now — will come around and bite me and others one year from now? Ten years? Twenty-five years?”
In other words, Conscious Consumers are not merely consumers, but engaged and concerned individuals who think in terms of lifecycles, who perceive the subtleties and complexities of interconnected systems.
As John Muir famously said: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Just as the cherry tree is tethered in a complex ecosystem of relationships, so are we.
When we live in a way that diminishes us or weighs us down — whether as the result of poor physical health and fitness, excess stress and anxiety, or any compromise of our best potential — we inevitably affect countless other people and systems whose well-being relies on our own.
For example, if we don’t have the time and energy to make food for ourselves and our families, we end up eating poorly, which further diminishes our energy, and may also result in our kids having behavior or attention problems at school, undermining the quality of their experience there, and potentially creating problems for others.
If we skimp on sleep and relaxation in order to “get more done,” we court illness and depression, risking both our own and others’ productivity and happiness in the process and diminishing the creativity with which we approach challenges.
At the individual level, unsustainable choices create strain and misery. At the collective level, they do the same thing, with exponential effect. Because, when not enough of us are living like thriving cherry trees, cycles of scarcity (rather than abundance) ensue. Life gets harder for everyone. As satisfaction and well-being go down, need and consumption go up. Our sense of “enough” becomes distorted.
Taking Full Account
The basic question of sustainability is this: Can you keep doing what you’re doing indefinitely and without ill effect to yourself and the systems on which you depend — or are you (despite short-term rewards you may be enjoying now, or the “someday” relief you’re hoping for) on a likely trajectory to eventual suffering and destruction?
When it comes to the ecology of the planet, this question has become very pointed in recent years. But posed in the context of our personal lives, the question is equally instructive: Are we living like the cherry tree — part of a sustainable and regenerative cycle — or are we sucking up resources, yet still obsessed with what we don’t have? Are we continually generating new energy, vitality, generosity and personal potential, or wasting it?
The human reality, in most cases, isn’t quite as pretty as the cherry tree in full bloom. We can work just so hard and consume just so much before we begin to experience both diminishing personal returns and increasing degenerative costs. And when enough of us are in a chronically diminished state of well-being, the effect is a sort of social and moral pollution — the human equivalent of the greenhouse gasses that threaten our entire ecosystem.
Accounting for these soft costs, or even recognizing them as relevant externalities, is not something we’ve been trained to do well. But all that is changing — in part, because many of us are beginning to realize that much of what we’ve been sold in the name of “progress” is now looking like anything but. And, in part, because we’re starting to believe that not only might there be a better way, but that the principles for creating it are staring us right in the face.
By making personal choices that respect the principles of sustainability, we can interrupt the toxic cycles of overconsumption and overexertion. Ultimately, when confronted with the possibility of a better quality of life and more satisfying expression of our potential, the primary question becomes not just can we continue living the way we have been, but perhaps just as important, why would we even want to?
If the approach we’ve been taking appears likely to make us miserable (and perhaps extinct), then it makes sense to consider our options. How do we want to live for the foreseeable and sustainable future, and what are the building blocks for that future? What would it be like to live in a community where most people were overflowing with vitality and looking for ways to be of service to others?
While no one expert or index or council claims to have all the answers to that question, when it comes to discerning the fundamentals of the good life, nature conveniently provides most of the models we need. It suggests a framework by which we can better understand and apply the principles of sustainability to our own lives. Now it’s up to us to apply them.
Make It Sustainable
Here are some right-now changes you can make to enhance and sustain your personal well-being:
1. Rethink Your Eating.
Look beyond meal-to-meal concerns with weight. Aim to eat consciously and selectively in keeping with the nourishment you want to take in, the energy and personal gifts you want to contribute, and the influence you want to have on the world around you.
To that end, you might start eating less meat, or fewer packaged foods, or you might start eating regularly so that you have enough energy to exercise (and so that your low blood sugar doesn’t negatively affect your mood and everyone around you).
You also might start packing your lunch, suggests money expert Vicki Robin: Not only will you have more control over what and how you eat, but the money you’ll save over the course of a career can amount to a year’s worth of work. “Bringing your lunch saves you a year of your life,” she says.
2. Set a Regular Bedtime
Having a target bedtime can help you get the sleep you need to be positive and productive, and to avoid becoming depleted and depressed. Research confirms that adequate sleep is essential to clear thinking, balanced mood, healthy metabolism, strong immunity, optimal vitality and strong professional performance.
Research also shows that going to bed earlier provides a higher quality of rest than sleeping in, so get your hours at the start of the night. By taking care of yourself in this simple way, you lay the groundwork for all kinds of regenerative (vs. depleting) cycles.
3. Own Your Outcomes
If there are parts of your life you don’t like — parts that feel toxic, frustrating or wasteful to you — be willing to trace the outcomes back to their origins, including your choices around self-care, seeking help, balancing priorities and sticking to your core values.
Also examine the full range of outputs and impacts: What waste or damage is occurring as a result of this area of unresolved challenge? Who else and what else in your life might be paying too-high a price for the scenario in question? If you’re unsure about whether or not a choice or an activity you’re involved in is sustainable, ask yourself the following questions:
- Given the option, would I do or choose this again? Would I do it indefinitely?
- How long can I keep this up, and at what cost — not just to me, but to the other people and systems I care about?
- What have I sacrificed to get here; what will it take for me to continue? Are the rewards worth it, even if the other areas of my life suffer?
Not all growth and productivity represent progress, particularly if you consider happiness and well-being as part of the equation. The growing gap between our gross domestic product and Genuine Progress Indicator (as represented below) suggests we could be investing our resources with far happier results.
Data source: Redefining Progress, rprogress.org. Chart graphic courtesy of Yes! magazine.
Learn more about the most reliable, sustainable sources of happiness and well-being in the Winter 2009 issue of Yes! magazine, available at www.yesmagazine.org.
Learning From Nature
What can we learn from ecological sustainability about the best ways to balance and sustain our own lives? Here are a few key lessons:
- Everything is in relationship with everything else. So overdrawing or overproducing in one area tends to negatively affect other areas. An excessive focus on work can undermine your relationship with your partner or kids. Diminished physical vitality or low mood can affect the quality of your work and service to others.
- What comes around goes around. Trying to “cheat” or “skimp” or “get away with something” in the short term generally doesn’t work because the true costs of cheating eventually become painfully obvious. And very often the “cleanup” costs more and takes longer than it would have to simply do the right thing in the first place.
- Waste not, want not. Unpleasant accumulations or unsustainable drains represent opportunities for improvement and reinvention. Nature’s models of nutrient cycling show us that what looks like waste can become food for a process we simply haven’t engaged yet: Anxiety may be nervous energy that needs to be burned off, or a nudge to do relaxation and self-inquiry exercises that will churn up new insights and ideas. Excess fat may be fuel for enjoyable activities we’ve resisted doing or haven’t yet discovered — or a clue that we’re hungry for something other than food. The clutter in our homes may represent resources that we haven’t gotten around to sharing. Look for ways to put waste and excess to work, and you may discover all kinds of “nutrients” just looking for attention.
The Sustainable Self
Connie Grauds, RPh, is a pharmacist who combines her Western medical training with shamanic teachings, and in her view, we get caught in wearying patterns primarily because of fear. “Energy-depleting thoughts and feelings underlie energy-depleting habits,” Grauds writes in her book The Energy Prescription (Bantam Dell, 2005), cowritten with Doug Childers. She says that we often burn ourselves out because we’re unconsciously afraid of what will happen if we don’t. Grauds uses the shamanic term “susto” to describe our anxious response to external situations we can’t control — the traffic jam, the work deadline, the pressure to buy stuff we don’t really need. “Susto” triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which encourages short-term, unconscious reactions to stress. When we shift to a more internal focus, tuning in to our body’s physical and emotional signals more reflectively, we act from what Grauds calls our “sustainable self.” She says the sustainable self can be accessed anytime with a simple four-step process:
- Take a deep breath;
- Feel your body;
- Notice your thoughts, and then;
- Recognize that you are connected to a larger network of energy.
“A sustainable self recognizes and embraces its interdependent relationship to life,” she says, explaining that when we get our energy from controlling external circumstances we’re bound to collapse eventually, but when we’re connected to our internal reserves, we can be much more effective. “By consistently doing things that replenish us and not doing things that needlessly deplete us,” Grauds writes, “we access and conduct the energy we need to make and sustain positive changes and function at peak levels.” Find The Energy Prescription and other recommended books in our Amazon bookstore.