Sustainability starts in your own life

By Joern Fischer

Just a few days ago I spoke to a colleague from the UK about the challenges of working in modern academia: “Why is it that these days, an average professor appears to be doing about two people’s jobs?” – His response: “I did the calculation for my own job. I came up with three full-time jobs equivalent.”

So, are we just whinging, or is there something to this? Of course we were whinging. But I also think there’s more. All over the place, it appears that people’s lives have more things packed into them than in the past. When we’re not working, we’re travelling, or planning to travel, or renovating our houses, or who knows what else. We’re constantly wired, on the phone, the internet, or reading some stupid blog that really isn’t very interesting. (Uh-oh, should you keep reading at this point?)

I think it’s a fact that most people in the Western world are busier than they used to be. Are they happier? Of course I don’t know, but I suspect not. But definitely busier.

Academia seems to take the lead in the general trend for busy-ness, often reaching insane levels. We’re assessed by our output, or should we call it throughput? – Of papers, students, grants. Nobody really asks whether we did well. Not in an honest sense anyway. The question rather is whether we did a lot. If you do a lot, it’s implied that this means you’re doing well.

The result of this is that people get involved in more projects than they can reasonably manage. They supervise more students than they can fully pay attention to. They teach more classes than they can be thoroughly prepared for. They write more emails than they can remember.

To anyone who has watched academics over the last decade or so, this trend is obvious. It’s not equally obvious in different places, and much depends on the leadership of particular departments or institutes. But what does this trend mean for those of us working in sustainability science?

Well, frankly, it shows that we are not doing terribly well at practicing what we preach. Sustainability is meant to involve ecological, economic and social considerations. Well, environmentally, our busy-ness tends to translate into millions of meetings, including many which we fly around for. Flying means carbon, which means global warming, which doesn’t mean sustainability. (Yes, over-simplified, but if you want the less simplistic version, you should read journals and not a blog …) On the social stuff it’s even clearer. How can you work three jobs and still maintain meaningful relationships with your family or friends outside work? In the past, and still in the not so wealthy countries, people worked long hours because their livelihood depended on it. Now we work long hours because … because why exactly? Because everyone does. Because it’s part of our culture to always be busy. And academia is leading the way.

Call me a fundamentalist, but I think one of the challenges we have to face is that, indeed, sustainability needs to start at home. Those of us advocating for a more sustainable society need to try to practice what we preach. If our own lives are in working (sustainable) order, surely our thinking will be more balanced – and instead of just contributing more quantity to sustainability science, we might contribute a kind of more nuanced quality, too. And it’s quality that we need, from both head and heart: not just more stuff.


9 thoughts on “Sustainability starts in your own life

  1. Interesting post. Indeed, it seems that people become more and more busy and impatient. I can see this in Sighisoara as well. And the busy-ness does`nt seem to make them richer or happier, overall. It can be an interesting question to find out why people become so busy, impatient and blinded. Why they were so patient in the past (at least what I see around here it was like that) and why they loose this patience today, and why the community cohesion almost disappeared. Can be the busy-ness related to the increasing dependency on technology and money, and increasing pressure on (e.g. academic) jobs in the western countries? Or can be this related to the sharp release from communism and lack of change management toward democratic life in Romania?

    One of my favorite thinkers, Hamvas Béla characterized the society like this: people permanently “move, do, take up, put down, take in, take away, pick off, expose, put in. Some people see in these enthusiasm, some others see morality, while other call this real life. No irony”.

    This permanent and meaningless movement. And no reflection, no thinking. And in this increased blindness and rush (toward dead – we dont look too healthy by the way: stress caused hearth problems, cancer, all sorts of diseases are common…and it seems that we drive to death not only ourselves but our landscapes and many other organisms) we forget to listen a frog, to see the beauty of a butterfly, to enjoy the taste of a good wine with friends and play with our children. One can wonder what is worth doing – given that those few decades available for living in this beautiful planet could be spent in very different way. And I am serious!

    And in this context, is the increase and diversification of conservation and climate change meetings the way to resolve problems? Not talking about the thousands of conservation science papers, with those fancy models and exact calculations and predictions – which effectively do nothing in the real life…What is the problem here? Is there any problem or I am in a bad mood today morning? I do to drink my coffee:)

  2. ps (I finished my coffee:D) no blame on researchers (I myself publish a lot…). I sometimes just feel that the society as a whole (or the leaders, governors of the society) dont really need those results what we conservation researchers produce… Although most of research is funded from public money, so it is a bit contradiction.

  3. The problems you raise, Joern, are very important to consider and apparently not easy to resolve. You ask for the reason why people are working so hard and whether they were more happy back in time. Though we cannot know about people’s minds in the past (without reading heaps of books and diaries) I suppose that one of the fundamental problems lies in our ‚denaturalization’, meaning our growing alienation from our biosphere and life support system. By investing in ever new high technologies, genetically modified plants etc. we think we can ‚domesticate’ and dominate nature. We created a parallel world, another matrix, with people increasingly living separated from what actually sustains us. Instead of aiming at preserving our livelihood basis, we opt for superlatives such as higher, quicker, better. This mindset seems to dominate politics, the economy, the financial markets, and increasingly infiltrate households. People seem to compete on who spends more hours in the office, who responds to more emails, who earns most and has the most fancy car. Moral values tend to be forgotten, ‚environmentalists’ are laughed down.
    When you talk about academia, I have the impression that many universities prefer quantity (of publications, topics covered) over quality. As in economics, many academic results are produced past the ‚market’ or actual necessities. Even worse, we still have a sectoral approach towards education, politics, and project management, i.e. problems are not being tackled in a more holistic, systemic way. The big question then is: What can we do? Living with nature, instead of at its expense, and conveying this mindset to our families and friends is surely the most feasible step. Going back to ‚slowness’ yet another one. This means that everybody should try hard to find a good work-life balance, to enjoy being without ‚smart phone’ for some time, to prepare own dishes instead of gulping down fast food. In research there is a promising trend that more and more programs are inter-disciplinary. This approach should be much more promoted. Systematically planned projects such as this one can lead the way. Ideally, politics would start to reconcile all pillars of sustainability- which would probably not lead to a government’s removal from power, but at the contrary to its retention.
    As regards publications in conservation biology/ science- I would wish for more comparative databases following the example of adaptive forest governance established by Ostrom/ Agrawal. Overall our aim should be to reduce complexity, increase accessibility to the non-academic world, and support a more systemic thinking. Burying our heads in the sand is certainly not an option!

  4. Frieda – to reduce complexity I think we should understand those factors which created them. Because the world was not so complex always. If – say hypothetically – exponentially growing human population makes life harder (i.e. more complex) then how to reduce complexity? My grandparents have four classes in school. They learned to write and how to calculate 1+1. That was enough for them . They picked up that knowledge needed for subsistence farming ‘on the way’ and had family and household at age of 17. And that knowledge was enough for them for their whole life.

    Our world is now very much different. With all the good and bad aspects!

  5. Very important post, since sustainability is not only about the outside world, but also about our inner world. In fact, I think it’s obvious that a lot of (political, financial, etc.) instruments aiming to achieve long-term sustainability will be ineffective – no matter how sophisticated they are – as long as we are stuck in our deeper patterns of thinking and ways to treat (and jugde) ourselves and our fellow men. Hence – call me an esoteric, but – I belive that sustainability also embraces spiritual issues and requires a cultural-spritual (r)evolution (also in order to develop the necessary respect for nature, as highlighted by Jacqueline’s post). The big question of course is: how can this be governed or achieved except than ‘spiritual education’…?

    Concerning the question, why we are so busy nowadays, Harald Welzer’s essay “Mentale Infrastrukturen. Wie das Wachstum in die Welt und in die Seelen kam”, unfortunately only in German, available at: provides highly interesting insights. Welzer describes how the structures, principles and mechanisms of our overall political and economic system are linked to our “mental infrastructures”, that is, our individual ways of thinking and behaving. I especially recommend chapter 2 and 3 for this question. Based on the theories of Norbert Elias, Max Weber, Joseph Vogel etc., he points out that Western societies are characterised by a low level of direct power/authority, but an associated high level of self-constraints. And these self-contraints include, for instance, the permanent compulsion to make something out of one’s life, to use one’s life in an efficient way. Welzer (sorry about the German quote!): “War vormodern der Lebensweg eine weitgehend variationslose Zeitspanne vor dem Tod, nach dem immerhin die erfreuliche Perspektive auf ein jenseitiges Glück wartete, ergab sich mit der Freiheit der Gestaltung des eigenen Lebenswegs eben auch der Zwang, «ein Lebenswerk auf Erden» vorweisen zu müssen. […] Die faktische und gefühlte Notwendigkeit, «in sich selbst soviel Welt als möglich zu ergreifen», wie es Wilhelm von Humboldt formulierte, erzeugt einen wachsenden Druck, ökonomisch auch mit sich selbst und seinem Leben umzugehen. Nunmehr kann auch dies mehr oder weniger erfolgreich «geführt» werden, und solche Lebensführung erfordert Kontrolle, Maß und Beobachtung, kurz: ein hohes Selbstzwangniveau. […] «So viel Welt als möglich» – in dieser emphatischen Formulierung scheint der bürgerlich-kapitalistische Wertehorizont des unendlichen «besser, weiter, mehr» nach innen gewendet auf: Auch das Selbst wird zu einer kontinuierlichen
    Entwicklungsaufgabe mit festgelegten Stufen und Zielen.”
    Moreover, Welzer claims that the meaning of work itself is transforming, resulting in a system in which not the products are the end (and work the means to produce it), but where work has become the end, so that people are incessantly working, striving for generating an added value.

    This brings me to the idea that the mentioned busy-ness we suffer from is mainly caused by the dominating imperative for economic growth (or, at least it plays a key role). By that rationale, the raised question affects far more than just our personal lifestyles and habits… So, do we need a different economic-political system at the end of the day in order to be really able to quit this trend of busy-ness, to live our personal lifes more sustainably?

    btw: interesting blog!

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  8. People complain about the state of the world, but it is a perfect reflection of our collective consciousness. How can unsustainable people create a sustainable world? They can’t, of course! Green people can only teach green, shop green, produce green, talk green, etc. Their output is a default of their nature. Mean people can’t raise kind children. Brown people can’t create a green world. Just because it isn’t pretty doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

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