Thoughts on Sustainability and Culture

Illustration of hands holding a planet“Hands” by Georg Engeli. Courtesy of the author.

by Carmen Olaechea, IMPACT Leadership Circle member, based in Argentina

To be one of us

We: humanity, humankind, human species, human race, Homo sapiens, 7.5 billion people on Earth. We: this irresistible species that has been moving on this Planet creating consciousness, spirituality, languages, culture, art, philosophy, science, technology. What might there possibly be about us that is not worthy to be admired and loved? We: this horrible species that has been moving across this Planet spreading death, war, slavery, torture, greediness, abuse, indifference. What might there possibly be about us that doesn't deserve to be feared and hated? All and everything. To be one of us, like it or not, means accepting that we all together are the total manifestation of what our species was, is and can be.

And above all, we: this extraordinary species that has developed two abilities which constitute the backbone of our power to evolve and be transformed collectively. First, the ability to be the doers and – simultaneously – the observers of our own doing. Indeed, we are the main characters and the audience of our evolution, and from both perspectives we take part in and influence it. Second, the ability to elaborate together narratives, to create and tell stories that have the power to unite us in a shared direction with new questions, beliefs, searches, understandings and actions. Narratives that guide us in our collective evolutionary processes.

How exciting it is to be one of us at the beginning of the 21st century, a time where these two abilities are in full motion as it always happens when we are experiencing a paradigm shift. We are the ones who have to cross the time between paradigms; this time when the old – vanishing with resistance – and the new – emerging scattered and fragmented – coexist. We belong to the generation that has the chance to live through the exceptionally creative and challenging process that humans experience during our collective transformations.

We are like them – we are unique

We are not different from any other human generation that has undergone a paradigm shift and like all of them, we started by observing ourselves and the world in a different way. In our case this process has been going on for the last century and a half, and with that we have begun the transition from one paradigm to the other. From culture, spirituality, science or politics, from our pride and our shame, we have been looking for new questions and answers, and we have started walking the next step in a cultural evolution. As a result, we have been giving birth to new fields of knowledge, new powerful understandings and previously unknown viewpoints, and we have been profoundly transforming our very way of interpreting reality.

Quantum physics, psychology, sociology, ecology, semiotics, autopoiesis, the unconscious, systems thinking, the Earth seen from outside and the virtual world – just to name some – are at once the cause and the effect of our current ongoing transformation. These new understandings, by themselves and intertwined, have been transforming us by providing a new range of perspectives and possibilities that enrich our knowledge, strengthen our power of transformation, and add new challenges for the comprehensive observation of phenomena and the realization of collective actions.

And yet, we are probably a singularity in the history of paradigm shifts; indeed we are totally different from all previous human generations that have experienced one. There are many unprecedented traits that make our present collective transformation a unique one, and also an extreme and poignant one. Here are four of them:

The first is that we are now aware of the very fact that we evolve through paradigm shifts. We are the first generation that has been, for decades, consciously observing and understanding how we transform collectively. Hence we can relate with the process in a different way.

The second is that we can no longer expect science and academia to be the only legitimate source of new knowledge and understandings. In the last 30 years, the production of knowledge has escaped from any established container; it has no exclusive creators and owners; it grows doubling itself every year; it arises from immeasurable sources of varying degrees of reliability; and, although it has become totally accessible, it has also become almost impossible to capture, digest, evaluate, differentiate and intertwine. We are the first human generation that has an exponential ability to produce knowledge and, at the same time, the first one that cannot handle it and has learned to doubt the certainties offered by the knowledge at hand.

The third trait is a new sense of belonging to Life itself even bigger that the one we had before towards our species. Since the moment we looked at ourselves from outside the Earth, millions of us started feeling that our Planet is in fact one sole living organism, and that we are an interdependent part of it. This new perception has been growing and expressing itself in thousands of ways. A pivotal one is the increasing understanding that we are one of the most dangerous parts of the system.

And the last one is urgency because the degradation we have imposed on the Planet threatens two essential aspects of life: diversity and complexity, and thus we are putting at risk the existence of millions of living beings, including us. This urgency changes everything in our process of collective transformation, for it brings time into the equation: something that was never such a massive defining issue before. By now we know, in our mind, body and souls that we are in danger, that there is no "other place" to go, that we need to change, and that we are on the verge of losing the chance to do it in time.

The new narrative

We are not at the beginning of our paradigm shift but quite advanced into it. And that is why the transformations we are living through encompass so many aspects of -- and manifest in so many ways in -- our individual and collective lives. It is no longer possible to associate the emergence of any of our collective changes exclusively with one particular field of human thinking or acting, as often happens at the beginning of a paradigm shift. So by now what is happening to us is so large and so complex that no one single, partial approach can capture it.

Anyway, being now observers of our own collective transformation, we can connect some of the essential elements of the emerging paradigm to our new sense of belonging to life and to our urgency to protect it. These two represent the most powerful challenges to two of the strongest beliefs of the old paradigm: that human beings are superior to other forms of life, and that the Planet has no limits. This old thinking has produced and still does damage to the physical realm that impacts life on Earth in a dramatic and, in many cases, irreversible way. That is why, when we look back to get the first chapters of the new narrative, what we mostly find are references that come from the fields of biology, ecology, environmentalism, sustainable development and sustainability.

"The ‘control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth." This is how the American biologist, Rachel Carson, one of the first conscious observers of this tragedy, expressed the new comprehension. Her book, Silent Spring, written in 1962, is considered by environmentalists to be the first milestone in the making of the new narrative.

The next fundamental milestone happened in 1987; and those of us who were there watching its appearance can still remember the clarity, hope and sense of direction that came with its presentation. It was the Brundtland Report, also called Our Common Future, From One Earth to One World. This report was commissioned by the UN, and written by Gro Harlem Brundtland, at the time the prime minister of Norway. To write it she received the collaboration of thousands of people all over the world. The report was thorough in the analysis of the challenges humankind was facing then; and it positioned, in a radical and still valid way, two powerful notions. First that we needed to create a global agenda for change. The report was preparation for a global gathering to happen five years later in Brazil, designed to inspire that meeting's agenda. The report also offered the first global proposal on what would be the common north star of human efforts to change: the notion of sustainable development.

Since its first appearance, the concept of sustainable development has been adopted, transformed, challenged, replaced, questioned, complemented, revalidated, lost, recovered ... Today, for millions of people, collectives, systems and perspectives, the concept – after shifting from the adjective sustainable to the noun sustainability – has become a mantra that captures both the Gestalt born in 1987, and the specific lines of searches, learnings, failures, and achievements made in pursuit of this vision. Sustainability has earned the status of a key notion expressing the spirit of our time and with that, the emerging paradigm.

Sustainability

If today we google "sustainability" in English and Spanish, we end up with more than 600 million hits. In our day, this is an indicator to see that an idea has been taken into account and integrated everywhere. After we started talking about sustainability in 1987, we have never stopped producing new perspectives, agendas, understandings, policies and collective agreements about the concept. Countless relevant developments related with the search for sustainability occur incessantly. From the UN 2030 Agenda to the machine that removes plastic from the Pacific; from the first national constitution that recognizes rights to nature to the new "forest buildings;" from a country that has already achieved 50% renewable energy to a teenage girl who drives a global movement to raise awareness about climate change: all these are examples of the immeasurable creative push we are experiencing in relation to sustainability.

And, in all of them, we see one of the guiding principles of the emerging paradigm: the need and willingness to repair and take care of the web of life. In fact one of the most essential understandings we have reached through our self-observation along the way is that a disproportionate percentage of humans seems to have lost access to a basic biological instinct present in any species: the instinct that, in order to survive, it is crucial not to destroy your own habitat. We can see now that the old paradigm has deeply contributed to separate culture and nature inside of us -- a disruption that seems to have led us to stop knowing how to take care of our very own habitat.

In 1999, associated with the concept of sustainable development, UNESCO asked the philosopher Edgar Morin to reflect on how education should be conceived for a sustainable future. Morin suggested that education should resolve this very disconnection between culture and nature. He also presented an explanation for the phenomenon. It was the result of the rupture between the anthropo-social and the biological sphere of our species; a rupture upon which we started to conceive human beings outside the Cosmos. In the report he gave to UNESCO, Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future, he explained it this way: Questioning our human condition begins with questioning our situation in the world. An influx of knowledge at the end of the twentieth century shed new light on the situation of human beings in the universe. Parallel progress in cosmology, earth sciences, ecology, biology and prehistory in the 1960s and 1970s have modified our ideas about the universe, the earth, life and humanity itself. But these contributions remain disjointed. That which is human is cut up into pieces of a puzzle that cannot form an image. This raises an epistemological problem: it is impossible to conceptualize the complex unity of the human byway of disjunctive thought – which gives an insular conception of our humanity, outside the cosmos in which we live, without the physical and spiritual matter of which we are made – or reductive thought, that reduces human unity to a purely bio-anatomical substrate.

Deepening the understanding of how this disruption has come to occur is essential, much in the same way that it is to understand that reconnecting nature and culture is fundamental to promotion of a new way of being in the web of life. Both understandings, in turn, are part of a much larger and more complex fabric of understandings associated with the emerging paradigm.

Culture

Culture is the sphere where all human changes take form, and the fabric into which all the adventures of our spirit are integrated. Culture is where, what we can be is born, and where that which we have become is expressed; thus it is an essential element in all paradigm shifts and all creations of new narratives. In fact, a paradigm shift is finished and a new paradigm is established when culture is totally embedded with the new collective way of being.

Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science who developed the theory of paradigm shifts as an explanation for our collective transformations put culture at the end of the process. For him the beginning of the shift was always a conceptual revolution within the scientific community. These conceptual revolutions were the reason for starting a shift from the old paradigm to the new one and it always happened first in the field of science. From there, he explained, the new understandings slowly embedded culture until they became the "common sense" of the era. But for us, in the 21st century, two aspects of his theory are lived in a radically different way.

First, the challenges to the old thinking are coming from everywhere, since knowledge is being generated everywhere. Each discipline, field, sector, ideology, perspective is participating in the revolution and finding resistance and support between and within their own universes. That means that the revolution that is challenging the old paradigm is not only conceptual but emotional, spiritual, relational, plus, it is also massive, scattered, unstoppable. Second, our emerging paradigm, although not yet established as the common sense of the era, is already embedding itself into culture and being expressed in myriad forms through it.

Because we are now aware of how we change and we are observing ourselves doing it, many have been thinking about how to contribute to deepening and accelerating the emergence of the new paradigm through our most powerful vehicle of connection: culture. Thus, in the last 15 years, culture has increasingly entered the conversations on sustainability, and has been the object of intense positioning, discussions and conceptual productions. All the many ways in which the role of culture has been represented show the wide spectrum we have been exploring regarding the relationship between culture and sustainability. They also manifest the difficulties we are facing in agreeing on the relation between them. Notwithstanding the ongoing quest, those working in relation to sustainability acknowledge the decisive role that the culture-sustainability relation plays in the process of transitioning from one paradigm to the other.

In 2015, a commission of the European Cooperation in Science and Technology published a report explaining the three representations that they have developed of culture in relation to sustainability. In their introduction they say: It should be obvious that culture matters to sustainable development. Yet almost 30 years after the Brundtland report 'Our Common Future' the incorporation of culture into sustainability debates seems to remain a great challenge, both scientifically and politically. The first representation is culture in sustainability where culture becomes the fourth pillar of sustainability, together with the social, economic and ecological pillars. The second is culture for sustainability where culture has a mediating role to achieve economic, social, and ecological sustainability. The third representation is culture as sustainability, where culture is a necessary foundation for meeting the overall aims of sustainability. This representation encloses the other pillars of sustainability and becomes an overarching dimension of sustainability. In other words, sustainability becomes embedded in culture and leads to an eco-cultural civilization.

I was there in 1987 when the concept of sustainable development emerged as a collective north star and I knew something important had happened for all of us. Since 2000, I feel the preamble of the Earth Charter as a collective pledge: We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

I think of culture as sustainability, and I believe that it could very well be that we are the generation that will face the greatest challenges ever since our species came to life. How exciting it is to be one of us during this extraordinary time, and how difficult. But the creative exuberance which marks this collective transformation, combined with the unprecedented challenges of our time, has been shaping our culture in infinite ways for decades. Our generation is called to expand the consciousness, to make transcendent commitments to life, and to seek radically innovative solutions to face our challenges. And, above all, we are called to become us, in relation to our species and our life system. Us the Earth.