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Seeking Sustainability

March 27, 2013

It’s a wonderful privilege to be invited to take up the mantle of the inimitable Marcia Nehemiah and to write about sustainability for the readers of The River Reporter. I hope to bring you useful information and to inspire you with the positive, practical and visionary work being done in Sullivan County and around the world as we address the intertwined challenges of climate change, environmental responsibility and sustainable economic development.

I should start by attempting to define what I mean by “sustainability.” It’s an elusive concept, dependent on context. In ecology, sustainable biological systems are those that “remain diverse and productive over time.” The U.N.’s definition links social, environmental and economic concerns and speaks of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Not everyone loves this word. Some proponents of organic farming see its use in the 2008 Farm Bill as diluting the principles of organic growing, a way for big agriculture to get in on the action by merely reducing their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A truly organic standard would have prohibited them. At the other end of the spectrum are the climate change skeptics and those who fear that sustainable living demands that we renounce all of the conveniences of modern life.

I am drawn to the word “sustainable” as an overarching philosophy, a principle to apply to everyday decisions, a metaphor for how we relate to people and things, a sort of Unified Theory of Life both spiritual and pragmatic. As a philosophy for viewing my personal choices as well as larger cultural trends, it links conservation, historic preservation, ecology, food, health, environmental justice and the economy. Far from calling for a rejection of modern life, it prompts me to consider what I imagine modern life should be, and what kind of footprint I want to leave for future generations to build upon—or to clean up after.

It’s a universal question. Even the characters of Downton Abbey are embroiled in a sustainability dilemma: What do we have to change in order to keep what we value? And are we willing to make those changes?