How to Keep Doing Sustainability in an Absurd World

A professional colleague of mine recently resigned from the sustainability movement. Seriously ill from years of overwork, and despairing of the movement’s chances for success, this person had no choice but to quit. Trying to change the world’s destructive energy technologies, protect the rights of future generations to enjoy functioning ecosystems, and/or save the world from the ravages of climate change was just too much for a body – or soul – to bear.

All I could do was empathize. On the one hand, it is easy to find reasons for optimism these days. Daily, my email inbox fills up with notices about new technology breakthroughs, new creative policy initiatives, new corporate sustainability strategies. Over the past two decades, sustainability has multiplied from a lonely cause championed by a handful of idealists into a profession involving hundreds of thousands of people, and to a multi-billion-dollar market in services. Surely that’s an indicator of amazing success!

On the other hand, my inbox also fills with ample reasons to weep. The oceans, leading scientists announced recently, are dying. Famine is once again striking East Africa. The nations around the Arctic are rapidly shifting their militarizing presence to the far north, rattling (nuclear) swords to make sure they will each get a fair share of the oil and gas that can now be extracted from under the melting ice. Every week, the nuclear disaster in Japan is revealed to be “even worse” than the government had most recently admitted. And so it goes.

Summer, especially in Sweden, is a good time to reflect on these seeming paradoxes. The pace of work here slows down to a crawl. The family is together for weeks on end. Few people call, except friends. The world around me is a green-blue wonder of life.

Believe it or not, at such times, it is helpful to me to return to my own writing. Like many people, I write in order to think, and I’ve been down this trail of thought many times before. But I tend to forget what I’ve written, or thought, almost completely – even when it involves an insight that, when I first had it years ago, really helped me to put things in perspective.

Here’s what I found, again, when paging through my book Believing Cassandra, on page 87 of the new edition:

“Based on the evidence at hand … it seemed likely that the disconnection between global imperatives and societal responses was somehow built into the structure of the World, rather than issuing from any lack of data or correctable moral lapse on the part of humanity.

The situation, I realized, was fundamentally absurd.”

Absurdity, I went on to write, was an “enormously liberating idea,” because it released one from earnestness, while retaining the seriousness. Think of the great absurdist plays, like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: they combine deadly seriousness and comedic silliness in a wonderful – and strangely familiar– mix.

Of course the work of sustainability seems terribly important, not silly. It probably is terribly important. But how will we ever know for sure? Certainly not by counting the number of corporate sustainability reports.

“We know something about what has transpired on Planet Earth over the past millennia and we can make some good guesses, with the aid of science and computer models, about what is likely to happen during the next hundred. But we have no idea what it all means. Nor can we ever know. We are stuck in not knowing. Such a situation is the precise definition of absurdity …” (Believing Cassandra, p. 97)

While on vacation I had the chance to talk to an old family friend who, by chance, is also one of the world’s foremost ocean scientists. What did he make of the recent announcement (by the International Program on the State of the Ocean, that the oceans were “dying.” He didn’t dispute it. The science around what was driving extinction threats – global warming, acidification, overfishing, etc. – was sound. But his reflections quickly turned to the very long term.

Whenever the planet has gone through one of these big extinction events, he noted, it has been followed by a massive explosion of new life and new diversity. When the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago (the fifth major extinction event – humans are causing the sixth), mammals were tiny things running around on all fours trying to eat dinosaur eggs. That great catastrophe (from a dinosaur’s perspective) created the possibility for mammals to evolve. Now, we stand up, write scientific papers, and have conversations like this one.

In other words, no extinction … no us.

In the long run, it seems, it will all work out fine for planet Earth – no matter how things end up working out for us humans in this century. With a long enough time perspective, even the absurdity of our present situation just fades away.

However, this century is my century on this planet, as well as the century of my children. So I’m going to continue doing what I can to accelerate change for sustainability, and to stop – or at least slow down – the madness I perceive in the way we humans, as a species, use up resources, create waste, and generally tend to forget that we lived on a finite, living planet, where everyone deserves a fair chance at a fulfilling life.

But thanks to these summer reflections – and thanks also to the advice of my overworked colleague (get well!) – I’ll be doing it with a lighter heart.

3 thoughts on “How to Keep Doing Sustainability in an Absurd World

  1. Hi Alan

    Thanks for this – and for the reminder to make the most of the summer slow down to reflect and think.

    But regarding burnout, I’d go further: we need not only to be serious, committed and lighthearted all at the same time, we also need to make time and space to actively connect with the real world of good people and ‘nature’ of which we are a part.

    All the best


  2. Thanks for this and some inspiring work, Alan. While reading the above post I remembered a line I read years ago

    “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent‎.”
    Mao Zedong

    Not my preferred person to quote, but the sentence remains salient.

  3. Dear Alan:
    An even more interesting example is the evolution of photosynthesis. This filled the atmosphere with Oxygen, which was extremely poisonous to the life forms of the time, but eventually paved the way for more advanced life forms, including humans.
    We personally think that you could do more for the sustainability movement through your songs than the current activities. You could be the “Pete Seeger” for sustainability. I noted that you mention children. Do you have any.
    I forwarded the email announcement to my German sustainability friend, Ernst von Weiszeaker. (I can’t put in the correct German vowel for his name.) So keep up the good work, but also try to enjoy life. As somebody who has “walked through the valley of the shadow of death” five times in the last six years, I like to hang around, and relate to my four children, and seven grandchildren.
    Peace, shalom, salaam,
    Enest B. Cohen, PE & Ph. D.

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