Standing on Holy Ground: Learning to Understand Sustainability

Each of us lives in a particular set of circumstances in a particular part of the world. Where we live and how we live are continuously impacted by a broad spectrum of social, economic and environmental issues. While our circumstances are particular to us, in a very real sense, our existence is no different from every other human being around the world. We have needs. We exist in relationships, in communities and in societies. We have hopes, fears, dreams and expectations. We want the future to be good for our children. Yet as we each live our lives, it is easy to look at things solely from our own perspective.

If we look at our surroundings as a collection of pieces, we miss the chance to see it as an interactive whole that acts, reacts and interacts as a result of decisions about programs, policies and practices in every part of the world. When we are caught up in our own particular social, economic and environmental milieu, it can be difficult to stop, pull back and raise the questions of what is good about that milieu, what we would like to see changed, and why we would like to see that change take place. Most difficult of all is realizing that what we do and how we do it affects the lives of persons around the world.

Each of us has the challenge is to seek to understand the relationship of the social, environmental and economic aspects of our own societies and how these aspects interact with communities and societies around the world. Our challenge is to have a sense of the whole…even as we experience our own parts and pieces of that whole. That sense of the whole requires that we move from seeing only from our perspective or viewpoint, our piece of the social, environmental and economic aspects of the world and seek to understand the perspectives and viewpoints brought forth by other persons, communities and societies.

One word often encountered in the media these days is the term sustainability. We see it used as a noun, an adjective and an adverb. Most often we see it used as a descriptive term to gain acceptance for programs, policies and practices of governments, organizations, corporations and communities. It is critical that we "unpack" the term sustainability in order to understand what has been done in the past, what is being done at the present time and what needs to be done if all human beings are to have healthy societies and communities in the future.

Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian said, "The more people we include when we use the word we, the closer we are to God." Therefore in order to examine and understand sustainability, the grounding question for each of us, the question we must continually ask ourselves is: Who is our 'we'? About whom are we concerned? From whose starting point do we measure, judge, analyze? How do we expand our "we"?

While we tend to react and respond to issues, sustainability requires that we get beneath the surface of the issues and examine the systems of power and voice that construct the systems that format the issues about which we are concerned. Whether we are looking at economic issues, environmental issues or social issues, it is not enough to look at what is happening. We must begin to

look at the systems that are the underpinning of the issues and ask how things have come to be the way they are, no matter where we look in the world. And then we must learn to act, not simply to react.

We have come to understand the earth as an eco-system, a house or home that must provide for all. This earth is a closed system within which live all animals, plants, microorganisms, etc. as well as all humans. The eco-system functions through numerous cycles whose existence allows for the use and re-use of all the natural resources that the earth provides. Anything that interferes with those cycles prevents this use and re-use. Movement of resources out of their natural cycles creates imbalance. Anything that allows imbalance or accumulation within these cycles interrupts the cycles and, if allowed to continue, causes their breakdown. Within this system of cycles and balance, the human being must be recognized as the only organism that kills for sport rather than for food and/or protection. The human being is also the only organism that collects more than it needs.

The econo-system is a parallel to the eco-system. It has the same learnings and the same limitations. The econo-system is also a closed system. What we have is what can be used. When there is a concentration within the econo-system, either in terms of wealth or power, the world's econo-system is out of balance. The creation of new substances, new materials means that we need new cycles to return these new materials to the system. New cycles are needed for production, for the raw materials and for the wastes. New ways of thinking and doing are necessary for wealth and power to be cycled and re-cycled. When that is not possible, there is a resulting imbalance that affects all other aspects of the earth's systems and communities.

To understand sustainability, we must learn to ask the hard questions about this interference. What damage has been done in the past that needs to be undone wherever possible? Who has benefited from this damage and, therefore, needs to be held responsible? What should have been done differently? Who should be making the decisions? How do we learn to hear other voices of wisdom and experience even when these voices do not have power?

Interwoven with the eco-systems and the econo-systems are the world's social systems with the power that flows through them. This power exists in many forms: energy, money, resources and voice are but some. As we seek a sustainable future, these too must be more evenly distributed. As we have learned from the econo-systems and the eco-systems, when anything accumulates, the system is out of balance.

As we seek to understand the concept of sustainability and its applications throughout the world, where we seek wisdom and experience will be critical. It is not only the powerful who know truth. It is not only our experiences that matter. It is not our starting point alone that should be used to understand and seek answers. Key to sustainability is the sense of the whole, the understanding that all live and work and walk on holy ground.

As our "we" expands to include and encompass the whole of the earth and its inhabitants, our ability to create and construct sustainable societies and a sustainable world will become more possible.