Reintroducing Sustainability to the Environmental Movement
By Gloria Flora

This paper examines the gap between environmentalism and sustainability. How did two such complimentary concepts separate and how do we stitch them back together? This article first appeared at

A funny thing happened on the way to saving the planet. In making environmentalism a household word, sustainability faded from view. Decades ago, water and electricity 'magically' showed up at our houses. Now, we can't identify the sources. Likewise, now that environmental quality is a common concept, we've lost track of its roots, the requisite conditions to optimize life. Perhaps that is why the quality of our environment continues its unnerving decline when the majority of us claim to be environmentalists.

Environmentalism has its roots in the goal of sustaining all living things and the earth's productive platforms. Environmentalists deserve high praise for the awareness and drive to make conditions better in our ecosphere. But the urgent business of packaging, marketing and distributing environmental campaigns messages against immediate threats mask the distant warning thunder of long-term unsustainable practices.

We who work for environmental quality have become more sophisticated in our approaches, more effective in our actions and more politically powerful. But it's time to check our perspective. We cannot lose track of source of our motivation. The object isn't to win battles; it's to change the apparent profitability of planetary self-destruction.

Self Limiting Action
Mimicking big business, we further our goals through lobbying, legislation, courts and executive orders. Campaign contributions, media hype, charismatic spokespeople and attractive advertising; we draw from the same arsenal as big business to achieve different ends. Intelligent use of existing tools works but is inherently limiting. These tools are designed to work within the current advertising paradigm, which is spatially and temporally limited to the here and now. We have necessarily shifted to a contest between public relations teams rather than a debate on substance.

Shedding those confines by thinking in long-term, broad-based system approaches would serve us well. What might happen if the public were treated as thoughtful, reflective individuals: where conflicts and concerns are described in personally meaningful terms, where the effects on their health and that of their grandchildren become inherently clear. Along with saving parts-and-pieces in the here and now, the true costs of industrial practices need to be clearly revealed: hugely expensive, ineffective clean-up attempts, disease, and lost opportunities. The arguments win themselves; we just have to change the approach.

Supporters of the economic status quo would like us all to forget that everything is connected. It benefits industry to keep environmentalists focused on specific issues in specific places because it is harder to make an argument for suppressing the incremental. Myriad organizations and campaigns draw our attention to hundreds of pressing issues, each defined by specie or space, activity or geography. They stir desire, but the target is limited. And it keeps each 'Save the ?' group floating independently. Once again, we fall into the trap of reacting in foreshortened time and space.

Environmentalists respond to unacceptable modification just as corporations feed their innate need to consume resources and collect money. We dramatize, market, cajole, and nurture minute attention spans, substituting sound bite platitudes and hype for knowledge and reflection. Do we really believe that long-term perspectives are too confusing for the average citizen?

We can't limit ourselves to the same playing field, and the same tools and techniques as those who choose unsustainable exploitation for monetary gain. Time and the deck are stacked against us. Destruction of the productive surfaces of the planet is outstripping our best efforts to plug the holes in the dike. Worse, the domino effect of unbalanced life systems goes far beyond our borders and to a certain extent, our comprehension. The scale is massive, without templates for comparison.

If we're smart, as environmentalists, we will go back to basics: basic science, basic sustainability. Why aren't we there now? What's happened along our path of moderate success in stopping the most blatant, visible desecration that has overshadowed our overriding concern, sustainability, from view?

Distracted by Detail
First, sustainability is hard to see from our backyard. It doesn't have the same immediate impact as a rust-colored stream with dying fish belly-up. Environmentalism targets the responsible party and the lack of law enforcement that allows that stream to be compromised. Fixing that one stream is an honorable act, but still just a bandage on the symptom. Beyond that specific stream, we have thousands of other streams in the same condition or heading there.

Sustainability focuses on the larger systems. Sustainability suggests we attack the root of the problem. Using the Natural Step Framework, we get some clues on where to begin. For one, stop the introduction of harmful compounds from the earth's crust into the environment at a rate faster than nature is capable of reusing, reabsorbing or rendering harmless. Yikes. That's big stuff. But that is a key part to the ultimate solution.

Environmentalism allows us to attack the black-hats who perpetrate wrongs on the environment. That motivates the darkly chapeau-ed to find another way around the obstacle to get the same reward – money from conversion of 'cheap' natural resources into 'expensive' stuff. We force incremental improvements, but we fail to break the cycle. Focusing on sustainability moves the target to the reward system.

Lifestyle Choices
Another theory suggests that environmentalism, removed from sustainability, allows us to live the kind of lifestyles to which we have become indoctrinated. But if we volunteer our time or give money to conservation causes, we believe we're exemplary citizens. In part, we are. Volunteerism and heartfelt donations are the lifeblood of environmental success and have accomplished wonders. However, aligning our lifestyles with sustainability asks for a different response. (If you're driving your 15 miles-to-the-gallon sport utility vehicle, three miles from your house – 3,200 square feet of resplendent comfort – to the Sierra Club meeting, we need to talk.)

Thinking sustainably requires a different way of viewing our role as humans, to respect the creation we are inextricably dependent upon. Environmentalism as practiced today simply asks for modifications in traditional resource extraction and manufacture, not scrutiny of why we extract those resources in the first place. Environmentalism asks for even less change in individual lifestyle. True sustainability is an entirely different ballgame where every aspect of your life can change... not for the worse, but change indeed. Much of what we consider essential to 'the good life' ends up in the atmosphere or a landfill? we believe it is thrown 'away,' however it has just been relocated.

The lack of readily available alternatives encourages us to continue making unsustainable choices. Using agriculture as an example, sustainability suggests that we eat organic foods. Organic foods are not widely available, and can be expensive for the average person. Likewise with alternative energy manufacture and use. Unfortunately, for now, to keep an identical lifestyle and the same volume of stuff in our lives, living sustainably requires more money.

But living sustainably is more about reducing, reusing and recycling. Reducing our impact on the planet by reducing our consumption, reusing and repairing products instead of throwing them 'away,' and buying recycled products and recycling them again. Living sustainably is also about using services and products from within our community. Helping
our neighbor thrive helps us thrive. And we save money!

Regardless, of our income, we can vote with our dollars every day. Withholding support for unsustainably created products, and increasing consumer demand for sustainable produce and products will help everyone. Congruency between our values and the choices that we make in the open market are key to sustaining natural systems and our species.

Subjective and Soft?
We understand cause-specific environmental action; we are far less comfortable with our understanding of the concept of sustainability. When fighting to save a species, we believe that only hard science wins the day. Hard science is part but not all of the argument.

Unfortunately, sustainability is viewed much like aesthetics were 20 years ago. Voicing aesthetic concerns made you sound soft and subjective. If you were concerned about aesthetics, you sought relief through surrogate topics. So goes sustainability. Many folks still don't view sustainability as a hard science that can be used to modify actions or policies. The misconception that it is too broad, unspecific, and value-laden to be effective, keeps people from fully embracing and discussing this fundamental requirement of all species.

Even within public land management agencies, managers don't really understand sustainability. It's frequently dismissed from discussion (and environmental analyses) because it 'lacks specifics,' 'isn't achievable' or is 'too subjective.' The retreat from addressing sustainability leads with the insistence that 'we need more data before we can make any assumptions.' That's a great way to facilitate business as usual, but an ineffective route to true stewardship.

Assessing sustainability from a systems approach requires no more knowledge than already exists. And sustainability is founded on basic irrefutable scientific principles and conditions that we know must exist for sustaining life. The very fact that we breathe and require water underscores the importance of the oxygen cycle and the hydrologic cycle. Impairment of the cycles means impairment in either our ability to breathe and drink, or in the quality of what we inhale or ingest. Compromise the quality and quantity of system components and those dependent upon them suffer.

Spatial and Temporal Effects
Environmentalism puts us in the role of hero, fighting the bad guys and saving baby harp seals. It feels better than recognizing that because you prefer soft, white tissues to wipe your nose, and a thick grassy lawn for your neighbors' envy, you're contributing to more chlorine and dioxin in the atmosphere which eventually will not only kill off the harp seal but also the rest of the associated food chain. Think big; look downstream. In this case, follow the toxin.

Sustainability requires a change in how we analyze the effects of our collective actions, spatially and temporally. Generally, people don't like to think in broad terms about the real long-term and widespread effects of our actions. We avoid thoroughly evaluating our demands on nature, primarily because many of the effects are so disconcerting - throughout natural systems and extending to humans. Developing nations pay in abject poverty and disease so we can live in comparative luxury. And significantly, we don't like to be confronted with the extent to which the effects of our actions and consumption patterns are so incongruous with the values we profess.

Our efficacy as environmentalists would be much enhanced by examining and re-emphasizing our life-centric perspective. Indeed, environmentalism has its roots in the concept of sustainability, reacting first to the visible, then to the understood consequences of a lack of respect for natural systems. Sustaining species, habitats and the ability of natural systems to provide the basic requirements of life support, for the long haul, lie at the heart of our collective concern.

I believe we can attract and invigorate more people to act like they care for their grandchildren's future as much as their own with the positive message of sustainability. Every message about saving a part or a piece of our local environment can be tied to the larger picture of what it looks and feels like to live sustainably. Let's invigorate our messages with an understanding of sustainability. Let's re-shape our lives to ensure this dynamic life-support system called earth thrives for another 1000 years. Let's re-forge the paradigm that returns us to our roots...

For more information, check out:
Collaborative Spunk: The Feisty Guide For Reviving People and Our Planet, by A.Gayle Hudgens, SOS Press: Helena. ISBN and The Natural Step:

© Gloria Flora, January 2001