Contemplating Sustainability, in Its Many Contexts

Part of last summer’s fresh pea harvest. Peas are notorious for taking a fair amount of garden space and prep time for a relatively small bowl of sweet deliciousness. Are they “unsustainable?” It depends.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the many meanings of “sustainability.” After doing a little binge watching of Marie Kondo’s tidying up show on Netflix, I was forced to re-confront the sustainability of owning and maintaining everything I have. In January, I became aware of an online Zero Waste course sponsored by Eco Collective in Seattle, took the course, and pondered more about both waste and a more intentional use of resources in my life. Additionally, I have been reading about the closures of facilities at Woolrich in Pennsylvania and Jagger Brothers yarns here in Maine with sincere dismay. The word used to describe these operations by the decision makers responsible for the closures was, “unsustainable.”

Of course, there are sustainability issues in our very own microcosms, our personal and career lives. I have two assistants, one on site and one off site, because even with my tiny business the workload required to continue its growth curve was unsustainable for me alone. I recently had to announce that I’d be stepping away in 2020 from a volunteer position that’s near and dear to me because it has become, added to my other upcoming commitments, unsustainable for me. Just this week my husband and I had a heart to heart about the sustainability of my work hours vs rest and family time, because the red flags are everywhere. I attended church with the intention to keep going for the first time in years this past weekend. I have noticed that my mental and spiritual health has reached an unsustainable and yes, unstable, point without a carefully chosen faith community to help remind me that unconditional love is still very much alive in the larger world.

I owe this topic, this integration of what sustainability means in its many contexts, to a post by our friends at Dulse & Rugosa, a beautiful zero waste skin and hair care company based on Gott’s Island here in Maine. I had posted the article about the Jagger Brothers yarn mill closing and Dulse & Rugosa was able to broaden that out to the issue of sustainability in general. I had said that when I was a real estate broker and didn’t get both sides of a home sale, my father used to say, “Half loaves add up to whole loaves.” I’d said that the same held true in supporting – sustaining – the things, businesses, people, organizations, the very planet, that we love. We don’t have to give a whole loaf. We don’t even have to give half a loaf. We just need to give whatever part of the loaf we can when we can. If we can do that, we can perhaps reduce the number of sad business closures we read about on a regular basis.

Dulse & Rugosa responded by posting this image on their social media pages.

Image may contain: sky, ocean, text, nature and outdoor
Posted on Dulse & Rugosa’s Instagram account. Words may be attributable to Blue Ocean Action.

How would our decisions be different if we were planning to stay? While American culture tends to avoid explicit discussions around death, we certainly do behave as though whatever we won’t live to see doesn’t matter. This implies an awareness of our mortality, perhaps only when that awareness is convenient. But what if we lived as though we “planned to stay?” Because, you know, we do stay, long after our mortal bodies are gone. We stay in impactful ways and those ways can be positive, negative, neutral, or somewhere along a continuum of all three. How would we treat the world, which includes the earth, each other, everything in it, if we planned to stay? Maybe another way of asking is, “What would we do if we acknowledged that what we do matters?”

Sustainability is so often a concept used in the context of environmental policy, and rightly so. However, I want to suggest that we also look at sustainability by asking the following questions. I also want to make clear that I struggle with these as much as anyone else does.

  • Of the hundreds or thousands of things that I own, which ones do I want/need in a way that’s sustainable not only now, but also do not burden my loved ones after I am gone?
  • Of all the businesses I say are important to me, how many do I offer sustenance to by buying something from them on a regular basis, even if it’s just a small thing? Do I wear my “Shop Small” pin mostly to big box stores and then feel deflated when my local yarn store folds?
  • Of all the activities I give my time to, which ones create the best outcomes for myself, the people I love, and the larger world?
  • Of all the activities I give my time to, are there any that require taking time away from others? Do others ever have to bear the costs of my allocation of time?
  • When I buy something, how much packaging do I really need? Does visually engaging but ultimately land-fillable (or worse) packaging add real sustainable value or just make the product more salable for its manufacturer at the outset?
  • When I choose my DIY activities, what kind of balance can I strike between those things my knowledge and resources are well suited to and those things I can leave to others, thereby supporting their businesses? (For example, here at the Parris House, we grow vegetables, apples, keep bees, and keep hens. We make our own soaps and of course, we do fiber art. Our resources would not sustain larger livestock, but we can support our local raw dairy and meat producers by buying from them instead.)

At the top of this post I have a photo of last year’s pea harvest. I love fresh, sweet peas, but every year I grow them I think to myself, “That was a lot of time, space, tending, and shelling for such a small return.” Is it a small return, though? That’s a subjective question. How do I quantify the satisfaction inherent in the process of growing, harvesting, preparing, and then tasting those fresh peas? To borrow from Marie Kondo, they definitely “spark joy.” I suppose for me, staking out a row for peas, knowing the return is objectively modest, is worthwhile and it’s causing no harm. For someone else, the effort would simply look unsustainable. Everything we do, buy, produce, or spend time on can be subjectively evaluated in the same way unless it is simply crystal clear that whatever we’re analyzing is objectively harmful or unsustainable.

I think you get the gist of my musings. In my life there have been several crossroads at which the unsustainability of a single decision or accumulation of decisions has become so unbearable that some kind of disruptive change has been necessary to create a more tenable life situation. What I am learning now is that by looking at sustainability in a holistic, multi-contextual way, I can make better decisions that will work in the direction of ease and responsibility – to myself, to others, and to the planet – instead of accumulating in to an unsustainable morass. These decisions include what I choose to do and have and what I choose not to do and not to have.

Henry David Thoreau distilled this down to its very essence when he wrote, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Thoreau lived as though he planned to stay, conducting his life with an economy that is rarely matched in modern day America. In fact, his economy with words is one I apparently can not hope to achieve.

I’d be very interested to know your thoughts on this topic and the contexts in which sustainability has meaning for you. In a country where some of us have too much and yet others have much too little, what are the moral implications of seeking sustainability in a variety of ways as well? Feel free to join the discussion. I know I don’t have even a fraction of the answers.

Parris House Savory Dill Easter Bread. What will you choose to sustain with your metaphorical half a loaf? (For recipe, click HERE.)