Living Sustainably in a Complex World

I’ve been struck repeatedly in recent weeks by how complicated our lives in the modern world have become. Wrestling with the Taftsville solar project, following Vermont and national politics on many contentious issues, trying to make sense of the overwhelming flood of information and opinions pouring across the internet, and even trying to purchase a new health insurance policy, I’ve started to wonder whether the greatest threat to sustainability is the sheer complexity of modern life.

Because we are now plugged into so many interlocked systems—the global economy, the media, technology, governance, agriculture, health care and many more—everything we do has ripple effects far beyond the circle of our immediate daily lives. To give one fairly straightforward example, by buying many commonplace foods or products we indirectly support child labor or rainforest destruction or toxic waste dumps thousands of miles away, usually without realizing it.

Through the internet, even our words can have unintended effects across vast distances. (Think about the literal meaning of “going viral,” like the flu epidemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide in 1918-20.) There are so many competing points of view on every issue, and so much misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric, spread widely and rapidly, we don’t have time to reflect deeply, to see the bigger picture or meaningful context of things. Sound bites, tweets, and slogans promise simplistic solutions to complex and nuanced issues.

As a historian, I can’t help comparing this fast-paced, unfathomably complicated society with the world that all earlier generations inhabited. It’s amazing to consider that a group of guys living in the technologically primitive 1770s and 1780s sorted out fundamental issues of governance, liberty and power and invented a nation that has drawn immigrants from all over the world and still functions today. They did it without Facebook or even computers—or even typewriters or telephones. It took weeks to travel across their 13 states or across the ocean. Their world was immensely more simple than ours today, and yet (or, I suspect, because of that), they thought large and systemically.

I’m not arguing that the founding fathers got everything right, only that perhaps the “progress” we have made since then with our convoluted gadgets and structures and systems has not improved the quality of human thought and experience quite as much as we imagine. Perhaps this enormous complexity actually gets in the way of the “examined” life that Socrates, Buddha and other sages have insisted is our truest calling.

I agree with ecological thinkers like Henry Thoreau, Joanna Macy and Wendell Berry who see a direct connection between the practice of mindfulness and humility, and our ability and willingness to live in harmony with the natural world. Living more simply and more locally, more attuned to nature’s rhythms in one’s own place on the planet, is ultimately the only way to live sustainably.

As we move farther away from such direct contact, and increasingly inhabit a world of abstraction, instant communication, and globalization, experiencing the world through electronic devices and mass media images, we become ever less capable of living sustainably. Our lifestyle demands more energy and resources, while remotely creating more “externalities” such as carbon emissions and e-waste.

There is no easy solution to all this. We won’t suddenly abandon our technology. But I think it’s important to question our heedless rush into ever greater complexity. The sustainability movement recognizes this when it promotes “slow” food, money and living and encourages re-localization. We need to become more mindfully connected to our own communities and to the economic, agricultural and ecological realities of our own local geography.

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