General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Four Keys to a Sustainable Future

General Assembly 2009 Event 4010

Most Unitarian Universalists (UUs) can tell you, chapter and verse, about all the things that are going wrong with the world:

  • We spend a lot of time commiserating about environmental problems: excessive resource use, frivolous levels of waste, dehumanizing urban sprawl, overshoot and collapse.
  • We decry the way our economic system runs on greed and instant gratification, and the ways in which the long-term good of the many is sacrificed for the short-term good of a few.
  • We're looking for alternatives to non-nutritious convenience foods, ways to get more exercise, and solutions to the epidemic of obesity and metabolic disorders.
  • We yearn for more time to form deep relationships with relatives and friends, instead of having scores of acquaintances we're only scantly committed to.
  • We try to make peace with careers that were chosen for economic reasons, rather than because they led us in the direction of our passions.

Rev. Michael A. Schuler, minister at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI, and the author of Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to a Sustainable Future, argues that all these diverse problems are connected, and spring from the same source. At the root, he says, they all came about because we have a deeply misguided sense of what constitutes "the good life." And solving them, he says, begins with re-defining that notion.

Schuler noted that a Google image search of the phrase "good life" turns up lots of pictures of big houses, fabulous vacation destinations, fast cars and piles of money. A very few show homespun scenes of people enjoying each other's company. None of them call into question the American assumption that "the good life" is predicated on our ability to move up socially and economically over the course of our lives, in an endless "escalator effect" that has us constantly keeping up with the Joneses.

But dozens of studies have shown that happiness, on a worldwide basis, is only marginally related to wealth. It increases greatly as people move from up from the level of bare subsistence to greater security; but once they hit a level approximating the American lower-middle class, it levels off. After that, more money does not equal more happiness—and may actually equal less.

According to these cross-cultural comparisons, human happiness depends on eight basic factors:

  • Security—having enough of the resources you need for physical well-being. Basic shelter, food, housing, clothing are no longer a worry.
  • Intimacy—enjoying long-term intellectual intimacy, emotional attachments, and physical connectedness with people who share your values.
  • Vocation—pursuing meaningful work, especially when you're able to do it in the context of a team who values your contribution as much as you value theirs.
  • Health—feeling physical vitality, vibrancy, and competence.
  • A Sense of Place —having a sense of rootedness and belonging, and a deep understanding of the history and landscape of a place. Even nomadic people follow predictable routes, and live in places they know well.
  • Service—altruistic connections that make your life as much about others as it is about you.
  • Creativity—mastering a craft that allows you to express your inner talents.
  • Education—being presented with frequent opportunities to acquire new knowledge and wisdom.

How much emphasis does our culture place on these values? Schuler asked. Of course, the answer is "not much." And what do they all have in common? Every one of them is rooted in the idea of sustainability.

Schuler admitted that "sustainability" is a slippery word, and that not even the people who are working full-time in the field agree on what it means. Paul Hawken calls it "restorative"—the idea that you don't take more out of the system than you're able to replace. Matthew Fox said, "What is sustainable is just. What is unsustainable is unjust." Bill McKibben said that we may not know what it means; but we do know that "it does not mean fast, it does not mean cheap, and it does not mean easy."

Sustainability hasn't been a major Western value until now because, in most of the world for most of history, there has been enough to go around. Sustainability was just assumed. There was so much abundance we didn't have to worry about limits. While there are places in the globe where it's been a local problem for a long time, it's only been recently that it's become a problem for everyone.

Restoring sustainability—and thus addressing all the problems and dissatisfactions noted above—begins with re-adopting four overarching precepts, which are discussed at length in Schuler's book. These precepts include:

  • Paying Attention—Attention is at the heart of any in-depth activity. Schuler has talked to teachers who've noticed their students text-messaging each other during class. Some of these kids actually feel anxiety, isolation, and loneliness if they can't stay connected with their peers for 15 minutes, let alone an entire class period. And the teachers have noticed a direct correlation between the kids who are more distracted this way, and an inability to learn the material being presented in class.
    Schuler quoted a Chinese proverb: "Distraction is the equivalent of killing life." When we are distracted, we can't savor the things that are around us. We even stop paying attention to the needs of our own bodies, and may fail to recognize the signs of illness or injury. As a result, we're very often completely unaware when things around us are falling out of balance, and may respond inappropriately or not at all.
  • Staying Put—Schuler invoked Wallace Stegner, who divided people into two camps: "boomers" and "stickers." Boomers (not the post-war baby kind) are people who spend their lives drifting from one boom town to another, following the money and their own fickle natures. Stickers have the constancy and perseverance to stay put in one place for decades, forming deep relationships to the history, landscape and people. According to Schuler, you need stickers to create liveable communities. People who know and treasure a place are more likely to take good care of it—and they're also more likely to have a deep understanding of what's required to do that well.
  • Practicing Patience—Anyone who drives in rush hour traffic knows that impatience is antithetical to safety and civility. The Dalai Lama says that patience is a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise. But ours is an impatient culture: even in our health care system, we opt for efficiency over healing in processes where there is no substitute for time. Likewise, Americans expect each other to "get over it" very quickly when a family member dies, allowing each other no time to truly process and move through the grief. If you want to enjoy more serenity and better relationships, says Schuler, patience belongs at the heart of any spiritual discipline.
  • Being Prudent—Our culture encourages improvidence and impetuousness. We're bombarded with slogans like "Just do it" and "Grab the gusto." This emphasis on hasty action is a huge impediment to thoughtfully planning for a sustainable future.

Schuler noted that Thomas Hobbes believed that this lack of foresight was the fatal flaw that would ultimately bring down the human species. Our unwillingness to even consider the consequences of any endeavor we initiate dooms us to make easily avoidable blunders. All we need to do is adopt the precautionary principle, which tells us that we shouldn't proceed with any endeavor until we've done a solid scan of the horizon, and have a clear sense of what the hazards will be.

Schuler wrapped up his talk by outlining the four ideological barriers to change—cultural assumptions that must be challenged in order to move toward a more sustainable culture. These include:

  • Christianity—The Christian Genesis story teaches that man is a fallen race, and that we're living in a world that is essentially corrupted with sin and not worth trying to salvage. At the other end, its end-times story demotivates people to even try to take care of something that's just going to be destroyed anyway. And in the meantime, it considers humanity as a special creation apart from nature, but endowed with a God-given license to dominate and subdue that nature.
  • Humanism—The humanists don't get off the hook, either. Schuler notes that scientists and technicians often operate out of a sense of anthropocentrism that says, "We can do anything. We can control anything. And this is always a good thing." Humanism also promotes a sense of inevitable progress: it doesn't matter what problems we create, because anything today's technology can get us into, later inventions can also get us out of. Finally, this worldview can exhibit a dangerous lack of respect for the past, and foster the widespread assumption that newer is always better.
  • Free-enterprise Capitalism—Managerial capitalism teaches us to accept as normal the idea that it's OK to give short-term benefits to the few at a long-term cost to the many. Schuler offered the example of the country's failing newspapers, which were sustainable as long as they were locally-owned, usually family-run businesses that were intimately tied into the life of a community. When they became part of large media conglomerates, Wall Street started demanding far larger profits than the newspaper business model could sustain—and then squeezed their budgets in order to meet those numbers, which in turn drained the life out of the papers.
    Another piece of this is America's overweening emphasis on individual property rights: the assumption that "I own it, and I can do whatever I want with it." Too often, individual property owners seeking their own profit do so at tremendous cost to the sustainability of the commons.
  • Technological Hubris—Schuler quoted Buddhist teacher Robert Aiken: "Without advanced technology, many of the other barriers to sustainability would be much less of a factor. The bulldozer, not the atom bomb, may turn out to be the most destructive invention of the 20th century."
    Schuler pointed out that many of these new technologies contribute directly to our sense of displacement and distraction, often by introducing an element of speed that we find stressful. Industrial farming, carbon-based transportation, and new information technologies have destabilized the ecological and economic balance. Our entertainments erode community and stifle the imagination, and affirm only consumerist values.

Getting to sustainability will require us to address our future on all four fronts, always looking for ways to re-affirm the eight criteria that lead to true human happiness. The ways and means of this are discussed at greater length in his new book Making the Good Life Last, which is available from the UUA Bookstore.

Reported by Sara Robinson; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.