• glitch in thyme

Wandering through my mind about sustainability (I know, what does that even mean)

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

When people ask me what I do, I tend to hesitate because my brain goes into overdrive trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance (everyone who is critical about what sustainability means will recognise themselves in this situation) I do work in R&D management in environmental technology. I am engaged with the community of Young Sustainable Impact Southeast Asia as a knowledge sharer. And I create art that communicate (to varying degrees) the relationship between our society and the natural world. Everything that I do is predicated on very simple values: does it create joy for myself and others? Does it contribute to a healthier living environment? Does it educate people? Does it help connect people?


Part of what I do with YSI SEA is creating educational resources on sustainable food systems. I struggle to describe in brief what I do in this capacity, eventually staying with sustainability education. The difficulty for me in labeling what I do comes from believing that education should already be aligned with sustainability values. There's no reason to have a separate category for sustainability. Sustainability is one of those terms that can mean everything, and nothing. (Sustainability just means the ability to continue something in the long term without compromising the system, so we don't actually want everything to be sustainable. Not unhealthy relationships between us and our natural environment nor the people who are linked to our lives through the goods we consume).


Unfortunately "sustainability" is often used as a catchall for just "business as usual but we're recycling paper". To really have a sustainable business, the foundations of that business, its core mission, have to be working towards regenerating real social and ecological value for the Earth. The decision makers have to come from a place of deep understanding, rather than see sustainability as a marketing tool or a compromise on profitability.


The reality is that even within "sustainability", there tends to be lots of sub-categories of knowledge. Obviously the most marketable of all are sustainability management, which very often focus on sustainability in business (another oxymoron sometimes, as I do not think all businesses can be sustainable, no matter how many labels and certifications you slap on it) and sustainability reporting, and where you come across terms like "triple bottom line". It's not to say this isn't important, but I think that a business that really examines the value it is creating and is critical of its role in a complex socio-economical system, is more important than another business that reports on its tokenistic sustainability measures.


Another area of knowledge that I have also explored a bit in the last couple of years is sustainable finance. Now, I do not believe money is evil. To me, money is neutral, it's a measure of value. If we didn't use money as a unit of measure, we would use something else, and Black Mirror has given us an idea of how using social influence as a unit of measure for value can be. So if money is neutral, then we should be looking at the use of it, and the sustainable finance movement's ultimate aim is to make all finance sustainable. I can't argue with that. Right now, it's mostly about mainstreaming sustainability values into existing finance products, creating products like green loans and green bonds. While I believe that this is a great trend, again I don't think this is the silver bullet.


The point is, in creating a socio-environmentally just world, there is no one solution. To deal with a complex problem, we need complex solutions that are both specific and systemic. Specificity arises when we understand our specific role, and that can only happen if we are living consciously, and understand the impact of our actions on others. Ignorance is definitely not bliss, it's escapism. Sometimes we will face difficult truths, such as how we unwittingly contribute to more systemic problems, or how we enable the status quo to continue justifying itself. Similarly, if we don't have a good enough understanding of our interconnectedness, impatient adoption of what seems to be solutions may just create more problems.


My mind is now jumping to how we can raise kids to be have more critical thinking skills. This sounds like the advertisement of an enrichment centre, which is annoying me. But it's true, we need kids to grow up retaining that natural curiosity about their effect on the environment around them. We're all born with the instinct to wonder about, say, what happens if we scream. Mummy comes running. And if she looks distracted, we scream more loudly. We respond if she hugs us. This connectedness is the basis for joining the dots between our actions and their effects later on in life, even if the effects are only immediately visible 10,000 miles away. The natural curiosity, if it has not been stamped out by an internalised capitalism, would drive us to try and understand that butterfly effect, and how it will come back and affect our environment (physical and mental).


And that brings me to how I feel theatre helps to keep that curiosity alive (or reignite the fire that may have died down to embers). In theatre, you are confronted with questions we typically push aside in daily life, in the pursuit of efficiency. Questions like, what is your (character's) intention, what do they do to solve the problem? What is the obstacle, and how does that differ from another character's obstacle? How do they find common ground and resolve the obstacle? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves in complex global problems, but frequently, we abandon an initial search for common ground if it "takes too long", and is inefficient. We get off that shared path, unink our arms and start to walk our own road. It is sometimes necessary if we space to formulate our own approach, but solutions always need more than one person, when the problem involves more than one person. And in improvisation, we learn to really listen, to be truly curious about what's going to happen next and how we can respond to that, that doesn't shut the story down. That is the meaning of "yes, and". What we do a lot more in life is "yes, but". I am guilty of that sometimes.


I could go on forever, I think. My mind's free association tendency drives me nuts sometimes. So I'll stop here for now.


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