Making the Good Life Last

Four Keys to Sustainable Living

Michael Schuler (Author)

Publication date: 05/08/2009

Making the Good Life Last

This book presents sustainability as a coherent frame of reference that can ground us spiritually, heal us internally, and deepen our relationships. The spiritual life is the good life.

Shows that sustainability, a concept usually associated exclusively with environmentalism, is the key to a truly fulfilling personal life

Filled with practical advice as well as thoughtful reflections

Illustrated with stories of Schuler’s own efforts—not always successful—to live a sustainable life, as well as insights from science, literature, and a range of spiritual traditions

So many of us are beset by anxiety, depression, loneliness, and spiritual malaise, tense and unhappy despite our gadgets and goodies. Michael Schuler, leader of the nation’s largest Unitarian Universalist congregation, says it’s because, urged on by an aggressively materialist culture, we too often opt for short-term gratification and long-term denial. In this thoughtful and deeply honest book, he helps us find a life path that leads to treasures of perennial value: a beautiful and healthy earth home, enduring relationships, strong communities, work that contributes to the common good, and play that restores our bodies and lifts our souls.

Deconstructing the assumption that consumption, stimulation, and constant motion comprise the good life, Schuler urges the wholesale embrace of sustainability as both an operational principle and a life-sustaining core value. His book presents sustainability as a coherent frame of reference that can ground us spiritually, heal us internally, and deepen our relationships. Schuler identifies four behavioral principles for living sustainably—Pay Attention, Stay Put, Exercise Patience, and Practice Prudence—and shows how to apply them in our daily lives. He uses stories from his own life to illuminate the rewards and challenges of sustainable living and shares insights from environmentalists, social commentators, writers, poets, businesspeople, and spiritual leaders.

Sustainability means more than mere survival—for individuals, just as for natural and social systems, it’s the key to thriving rather than burning out. For those seeking a more profoundly satisfying way of life, Schuler’s heartfelt explorations offer a counter intuitive answer: the sustainable life is the good life.

Shows that sustainability, a concept usually associated exclusively with environmentalism, is the key to a truly fulfilling personal life

Filled with practical advice as well as thoughtful reflections

Illustrated with stories of Schuler's own efforts not always successful to live a sustainable life, as well as insights from science, literature, and a range of spiritual traditions

So many of us are beset by anxiety, depression, loneliness, and spiritual malaise, tense and unhappy despite our gadgets and goodies. Michael Schuler, leader of the nation's largest Unitarian Universalist congregation, says it's because, urged on by an aggressively materialist culture, we too often opt for short-term gratification and long-term denial. In this thoughtful and deeply honest book, he helps us find a life path that leads to treasures of perennial value: a beautiful and healthy earth home, enduring relationships, strong communities, work that contributes to the common good, and play that restores our bodies and lifts our souls.

Deconstructing the assumption that consumption, stimulation, and constant motion comprise the good life, Schuler urges the wholesale embrace of sustainability as both an operational principle and a life-sustaining core value. His book presents sustainability as a coherent frame of reference that can ground us spiritually, heal us internally, and deepen our relationships. Schuler identifies four behavioral principles for living sustainably Pay Attention, Stay Put, Exercise Patience, and Practice Prudence and shows how to apply them in our daily lives. He uses stories from his own life to illuminate the rewards and challenges of sustainable living and shares insights from environmentalists, social commentators, writers, poets, businesspeople, and spiritual leaders.

Sustainability means more than mere survival for individuals, just as for natural and social systems, it's the key to thriving rather than burning out. For those seeking a more profoundly satisfying way of life, Schuler's heartfelt explorations offer a counter intuitive answer: the sustainable life is the good life.

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Overview

This book presents sustainability as a coherent frame of reference that can ground us spiritually, heal us internally, and deepen our relationships. The spiritual life is the good life.

Shows that sustainability, a concept usually associated exclusively with environmentalism, is the key to a truly fulfilling personal life

Filled with practical advice as well as thoughtful reflections

Illustrated with stories of Schuler’s own efforts—not always successful—to live a sustainable life, as well as insights from science, literature, and a range of spiritual traditions

So many of us are beset by anxiety, depression, loneliness, and spiritual malaise, tense and unhappy despite our gadgets and goodies. Michael Schuler, leader of the nation’s largest Unitarian Universalist congregation, says it’s because, urged on by an aggressively materialist culture, we too often opt for short-term gratification and long-term denial. In this thoughtful and deeply honest book, he helps us find a life path that leads to treasures of perennial value: a beautiful and healthy earth home, enduring relationships, strong communities, work that contributes to the common good, and play that restores our bodies and lifts our souls.

Deconstructing the assumption that consumption, stimulation, and constant motion comprise the good life, Schuler urges the wholesale embrace of sustainability as both an operational principle and a life-sustaining core value. His book presents sustainability as a coherent frame of reference that can ground us spiritually, heal us internally, and deepen our relationships. Schuler identifies four behavioral principles for living sustainably—Pay Attention, Stay Put, Exercise Patience, and Practice Prudence—and shows how to apply them in our daily lives. He uses stories from his own life to illuminate the rewards and challenges of sustainable living and shares insights from environmentalists, social commentators, writers, poets, businesspeople, and spiritual leaders.

Sustainability means more than mere survival—for individuals, just as for natural and social systems, it’s the key to thriving rather than burning out. For those seeking a more profoundly satisfying way of life, Schuler’s heartfelt explorations offer a counter intuitive answer: the sustainable life is the good life.

Shows that sustainability, a concept usually associated exclusively with environmentalism, is the key to a truly fulfilling personal life

Filled with practical advice as well as thoughtful reflections

Illustrated with stories of Schuler's own efforts not always successful to live a sustainable life, as well as insights from science, literature, and a range of spiritual traditions

So many of us are beset by anxiety, depression, loneliness, and spiritual malaise, tense and unhappy despite our gadgets and goodies. Michael Schuler, leader of the nation's largest Unitarian Universalist congregation, says it's because, urged on by an aggressively materialist culture, we too often opt for short-term gratification and long-term denial. In this thoughtful and deeply honest book, he helps us find a life path that leads to treasures of perennial value: a beautiful and healthy earth home, enduring relationships, strong communities, work that contributes to the common good, and play that restores our bodies and lifts our souls.

Deconstructing the assumption that consumption, stimulation, and constant motion comprise the good life, Schuler urges the wholesale embrace of sustainability as both an operational principle and a life-sustaining core value. His book presents sustainability as a coherent frame of reference that can ground us spiritually, heal us internally, and deepen our relationships. Schuler identifies four behavioral principles for living sustainably Pay Attention, Stay Put, Exercise Patience, and Practice Prudence and shows how to apply them in our daily lives. He uses stories from his own life to illuminate the rewards and challenges of sustainable living and shares insights from environmentalists, social commentators, writers, poets, businesspeople, and spiritual leaders.

Sustainability means more than mere survival for individuals, just as for natural and social systems, it's the key to thriving rather than burning out. For those seeking a more profoundly satisfying way of life, Schuler's heartfelt explorations offer a counter intuitive answer: the sustainable life is the good life.

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Michael Schuler

The Reverend Dr. Michael A. Schuler serves as the parish minister of the First Unitarian Society of Madison. During his twenty-one year tenure, the society has grown rapidly to over 1,500 adult members, 500 children, and approximately 200 active affiliates.

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Table of Contents



Foreword by Scott Russell Sanders

Preface

Introduction: Sustaining Ourselves

Part One: Reimagining the Good Life
Chapter 1: Embracing New Rules of Conduct
Chapter 2: Releasing Old Habits of Thought and Belief

Part Two: The Four Keys

Chapter 3: Pay Attention
Chapter 4: Stay Put
Chapter 5: Exercise Patience
Chapter 6: Practice Prudence

Conclusion: A Sustainable Code of the Soul

Notes
Acknowledgments
Index
About the Author

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Excerpt

Making the Good Life Last

Introduction
Sustaining Ourselves

A Personal Awakening

A four-month sabbatical in late 2005 lent both substance and a sense of urgency to a question that had been nagging at me for quite some time: what would it take, and what would it mean, to move toward a more sustainable way of living?

My wife, Trina, and I were fortunate to have been offered the use of a lovely home in northwest Tucson for this period of writing and reflection. Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona and reputedly the most progressive metropolis in the desert Southwest. Its neighborhoods literally fill the cavity between four rugged mountain ranges. Fast-moving traffic hums along the wide thoroughfares that crisscross the desert, connecting the urban area’s growing population to a plethora of strip malls, office complexes, and recreational facilities. New residential and commercial developments continue to spring up at the peripheries, scaling the Santa Catalina foothills and fingering north through the Sonora Desert toward Phoenix.

Over 700,000 human beings now live in the Tucson area, and for Pima County as a whole the numbers climb to almost a million. Historically, the inhospitable climate of southern Arizona made it unattractive to all but the hardiest of indigenous peoples, the Tohono O’odham. Even the Spanish found little in the area to recommend permanent settlement, at least not on the scale of an El Paso or a Santa Fe.

Tucson is, therefore, a fairly young city by southwestern standards. A settlement of little consequence until the 1880s, it has existed as a viable center of human habitation for less than a century and a quarter. But with the presence of a major university and a nearby military installation, and with a steady influx of legions of sun lovers from the continent’s colder regions, Tucson has grown rapidly and somewhat randomly since World War II.

The community’s popularity has produced its share of negative results. Gazing south from the Catalina foothills during morning rush hour, one often has difficulty locating the downtown through a low-lying bank of unhealthy-looking yellow smog, a phenomenon created almost exclusively by a flood of auto commuters. The standard of living in Tucson is woefully unbalanced; as a result, crimes against property are climbing, and in their wake, the number of economically segregated, gated communities is growing. Residents express worry about such developments, as well as the steady deterioration of Tucson’s unique southwestern ambience and its overall quality of life. Still, any effort to control growth or intelligently manage further development inevitably falters before the irrefutable claims of the free market and the individual citizen’s presumed right to personal gain. Prior to the 2008–09 recession, officials estimated that Greater Tucson would gain another half million residents in the next thirty to forty years—a prospect that had local construction and real estate interests licking their lips in anticipatory delight.

However, for a Sun Belt community Tucson does seem relatively enlightened. While Greater Phoenix appears to be determined to repudiate its native desert environment, Tucson has chosen to accept and even to embrace it. Houses in Tucson almost without exception eschew green turf and feature natural, desert plantings. Drip irrigation systems are the rule, and per capita water consumption is significantly lower than in comparable southwestern cities.1

Furthermore, while its public transportation system is unexceptional, Tucson has established and continues to expand an admirable network of bike routes (of which many citizens take full advantage). The city is reasonably clean, its public parks attractive, and the populace generally friendly and conscientious.

Perhaps because I lived there only temporarily and have no personal stake in Tucson, it was easier for me to size up the situation and ponder the question that too few of the city’s residents seem to be asking: Is this community truly sustainable?

Tucsonans could not possibly, in their current numbers, live off the land. The environment itself is capable of sustaining only a very few human beings. The community ultimately and absolutely depends upon imported power and commodities and, most crucially, the wholesale extraction of what in the Southwest is essentially a nonrenewable resource: fresh water. Like that of its southwestern counterparts, Tucson’s success has been achieved not by embracing but by defiantly opposing the harsh laws of the local ecosystem. For this community to remain viable, it must receive huge daily transfusions of lifeblood from elsewhere. This explains how it has managed to grow to such staggering proportions and to create an immense oasis of comfort and prosperity in the bleakest of environments.

These facts receive only occasional and cursory mention in the local media, and generally they are rebutted by politicians, entrepreneurs, and journalists extolling the desirability—nay, the necessity—of further growth (the lead editorial in the November 14, 2005, edition of the Arizona Daily Star cordially invited Californians fleeing that state and its high home prices to relocate in affordable southern Arizona). Nevertheless, I have the impression that people in Tucson do sense the precariousness of their situation and realize how little it would take for the prickly pear and saguaro to reclaim their ancient dominion. But as long as faucets are flowing and the air conditioners are keeping the blazing desert sun at bay, it remains possible to bracket such fears and go blithely about one’s daily business, and even invite more business.


A Day of Reckoning?

Who can say when the systems of artificial life-support upon which Tucson and a half-dozen other overzealous and overbuilt southwestern communities depend will begin to fail? I am certainly no authority on such matters, but simple common sense tells me that the day of reckoning is not too distant. The populations have grown too large and are far too profligate for the status quo to be maintained, much less improved upon.

Nor are the peoples of arid Arizona the only ones who need to ask this question. Florida has become an environmental basket case. In few places has growth occurred so rapidly and in such haphazard fashion. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, of 3,400 applications for a permit to destroy a Florida wetland submitted in 2003, the Corps of Engineers denied only one. A developer’s paradise, Florida has sacrificed so much of its natural heritage and become so crowded and congested that someone like me, who came of age on its southwest coast just three decades ago, barely recognizes his old haunts. Ironically, further development may soon be stymied in Florida and throughout the drought-stricken Southeast by a dearth of fresh water.


Problems in the Heartland

Unfortunately, it is by no means necessary to travel to Cactus Country or to the Sunshine State to appreciate the scope and depth of this problem. My family’s home for the past twenty years has been Madison, Wisconsin—a relatively small, stable, and compact city by comparison with sprawling Tucson or Orlando. Nevertheless, the Greater Madison area has grown significantly during my time here, with land-hungry suburbs and exurbs gobbling up prime farmland and air quality advisories becoming increasingly common on sultry summer days. Frankly, I never thought I’d see the day when Madison residents would be urged to curtail outdoor exercise because of high ozone readings.

Equally unsettling has been the deterioration of the local watershed. Historically, Madison has been known and frequently lauded as the “City of the Lakes.” Even today, it isn’t uncommon for an angler to hook a good-sized game fish within sight of the gleaming State Capitol. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Groundwater is being pumped so aggressively that aquifers beneath the city are falling rapidly, which has led surface streams in the area to dry up, caused wells to fail, and compromised the quality of lakes already degraded by nonpoint source pollution. By comparison with most other states, Wisconsin is considered “water rich,” but both Madison and Waukesha County to the east now anticipate future water shortages and are scrambling to develop contingency plans. One has to wonder whether Greater Madison, a community less than half the size of Tucson, adjacent to several large bodies of water, and situated in the nation’s breadbasket, is itself sustainable. The answer is no if current practices remain unaltered. (Note: The federal government projects that at least thirty-six states will face water shortages of varying severity before 2012.)2


Sustainability: A Concept Whose Time Has Come

It has become increasingly clear that the wholesale development of sprawling, resource-hungry urban complexes is both ecologically unsound and socially problematic. Even the sanguine Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has come to realize that the future depends on humanity’s willingness and ability to husband the planet’s resources. Depletion of natural capital is an “enormously powerful threat,” Friedman writes in his book The World Is Flat. “Be afraid. I certainly am.”3

However, I am convinced that this well-documented trend represents but one thread in a broader pattern of unhealthy, shortsighted human behavior. Although this book contains numerous environmental allusions and analogies, the overarching purpose of these chapters is to deepen and broaden our understanding of sustainability in terms of our attitudes, values, and decision making and to demonstrate the relevance of sustainability in resolving personal as well as planetary problems. The basic premise is that substantial improvement in the quality of our lives and livelihoods would be possible if we better understand this fundamental principle and a short list of reinforcing behaviors.


Expanded Applications

Until fairly recently, discussions of sustainability remained largely within the province of certain professions. Ecologists and conservationists have focused on sustainable farming methods and the wise use of natural resources. Architects and engineers have worked to develop protocols for constructing “green” buildings. Concern over persistent poverty in developing nations has led to innovative proposals for the “sustainable development” of stagnant economies— a movement inspired by E. F Schumacher’s now-classic work, Small Is Beautiful. Interest in sustainability gradually has spread, moving beyond professional and academic circles into the general population. The term has entered the popular lexicon, and increasing numbers of people now have at least a rudimentary notion of its meaning and significance.

Even so, sustainability today remains a somewhat marginal and, in some quarters, even a subversive idea. Despite growing mainstream acceptance, it is cynically dismissed by some as a manifestation of political correctness or environmental faddism—an impediment to economic growth and a barrier to the optimal performance of the free market.

For example, in a recent opinion piece by Bill Berry, Milwaukeean Patrick McIlheren offered this caustic definition of sustainable: “Doing things in a wildly expensive, pointlessly ineffective way for political reasons. Implies an extra $5 a pound.”4

For some, sustainability may appear more threatening than promising, which is why sustainable products (e.g., green buildings, natural foods, recycled products) still represent a relatively small share of the total market and are, in some cases, prohibitively expensive. Although experts generally agree that prevailing production methods and consumption patterns are untenable, as a culture we are still a long way from hitting the tipping point where conventional thinking about development and the economy gives way and people everywhere begin routinely to factor sustainable principles into their thinking and planning.

A case in point: Until the 2008 Summer Olympic Games caused the world to give the booming Chinese economy a second, closer look, that country received near-constant commendation for its accomplishments from Western economists. It is now becoming apparent that China’s rapid and unprecedented industrial expansion has been purchased at a staggering cost to the environment and to the health of its own citizens. Regrettably, sustainable development remains the exception rather than the rule for many of the most “robust” economies of the developing world.


Common Assumptions and Uncommon Associations

Sustainability arose during the environmental movement and has remained closely identified with it. The term is most often used to describe a resource utilization strategy that preserves or even replenishes the earth’s natural capital. Care must be taken to keep the ledger in balance, which means planning for renewal and restoration, as well as expropriation and extraction. Sound practices such as reuse, recycling, and the tapping of renewable, nonpolluting sources of energy like the sun, wind, biomass, and geothermal are frequently mentioned components of environmental sustainability. These and similar measures are meant to keep human civilization and the biotic systems that support it viable far into the future.

Because of its frequent invocation by environmentalists, some, like Milwaukee’s columnist Patrick McIlheren, associate sustainability with liberal thinking and politics. At a practical level, though, the idea tilts in a decidedly conservative direction. Among primary synonyms of sustain found in Webster’s are these: “to maintain,” “to prolong,” “to preserve,” “to protect or keep safe.” There’s nothing particularly “liberal” about any of those terms, and no less a figure than Russell Kirk—founder of The National Review and patron saint of modern American conservatism—identified “social continuity” as one of the conservative movement’s core objectives.5 A conservative, in other words, has an obligation to protect those assets that ensure the long-term health and dynamism of a culture or community.

Moreover, one of sustainability’s earliest champions—the noted conservationist Aldo Leopol—tried hard to convince parties across the political spectrum of the concept’s merits. Leopold’s supporters included many prominent Republicans, and his own attitude toward the “liberal” conservation policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was ambivalent at best (he distrusted government-mandated programs because they did little to create the broad cultural consensus he believed was necessary for a conservation ethic to take hold). Leopold’s was truly a nonpartisan position, and his goal was to build a case for environmental stewardship that both Democrats and Republicans could embrace. As his biographer Curt Meine observes:

Conservation, in Leopold’s view, was not bound to any particular philosophy. From his earliest days as a forester, he was (simply) concerned with keeping ends and means balanced.6


Becoming Restorative

As a result of Aldo Leopold’s work, recent decades have witnessed growing sophistication in the field of restoration biology. In keeping with the first principle of Leopold’s “Land Ethic”—a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community—the intent of environmental restoration work is to reverse the deterioration of so many of the planet’s critical life-supporting systems and thus make the land and water healthy and productive again.7 Here modern technical knowledge is being used literally to turn back the clock.

Writer and entrepreneur Paul Hawken also uses the term restoration to describe a new way of doing business. “The Golden Rule of a restorative economy,” Hawken writes, “is to leave the world better than you found it; take no more than you need; try not to harm life or the environment; make amends if you do.”8

By extension, one can easily see how this same “restorative” idea might be usefully enlisted to resolve some of the serious social and familial problems that have arisen in recent decades. The stresses that the typical modern nuclear family faces have clearly been exacerbated by the sundering of the generations in the late twentieth century. But what if grandparents were encouraged and given incentives to live with or near their adult children and growing grandchildren? How much more livable would our major cities be if greater efforts were made to restore old, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods so that people would be less prone to settle in anonymous, automobile-dependent suburbs? Cities ought to be attractive for the quality of life they afford, not just because rising gasoline costs give them an economic advantage. The shift away from extended families and livable cities has largely taken place within my own lifetime, but there is no reason it cannot be reversed. In fact, in certain quarters that’s already happening.

The principle of sustainability is truly conservative, then, in that it seeks to protect and preserve those key elements that keep a system healthy and in balance. But that could suggest a steady state in which any new or novel elements are unwelcome. Clearly, insulating a system from outside influences that might produce change isn’t always, if ever, advisable. If the “good life” is our goal, something more must be added to our definition of sustainability.


To Support and to Nourish

We have considered one possible meaning of the term sustainable: to preserve, protect, and keep safe. But for our purposes, one of the secondary definitions is more appropriate. To sustain, Webster’s dictionary continues, means “to nourish or support.” Support is a more far-reaching term than preserve and is more in keeping with the fact that it is in the nature of people, social systems, and ecologies to grow, adapt, and evolve. Change is inevitable, and correctly understood, the principle of sustainability accommodates change and invites the human imagination to participate in and intelligently contribute to the overall process.

A sustainable ecology, economy, community, or family system isn’t cast in concrete. Balance, not stasis, is the true objective, as Aldo Leopold reminds us. Carefully considered and cautiously implemented change is, he believed, perfectly consistent with sound conservation principles. It’s important that we understand sustainability as a dynamic principle. The ultimate objective is to improve life, but with the accompanying awareness that not every change represents an improvement. To disrupt, destroy, or substantially alter anything that retains significant practical or aesthetic value subverts sustainability’s intent.

A case in point: In some parts of the world the notion of “sustainable tourism” has lately come into vogue. Its purpose is to ensure that the unique characteristics of perennially popular destinations—the coral reefs of the Caribbean, the wildlife of the Galapagos, the waterfronts of Charleston and Savannah, the lighthouses and orchards of Wisconsin’s Door County, and the architecture of Victoria, British Columbia—are made a community priority and maintained in their integrity. Too often, tourist hot spots allow their most notable features to deteriorate or are overrun by the kind of cookie-cutter dining, shopping, and entertainment venues that can be found in Everytown, U.S.A. “Sustainable tourism,” Myles Dannhausen writes,

Is based on the idea of pinpointing the difference between simply attracting visitors at all costs and attracting visitors who won’t cost you who you are….To get there you need to do an inventory of the cultural, natural and human assets that set you apart.9

What sustainability eschews, then, are those quick fixes (economic or otherwise) whose long-term consequences have been insufficiently anticipated and for which contingency plans have not been made. It is a principle that challenges the juggernaut of rapid, unreflective growth and development that now poses a bona fide threat to the well-being of the planet and most of its people. It seeks to control the pace at which civilization barrels ahead, refusing to enter into devil’s bargains that make the “bottom line” look better at the expense of justice, beauty, and equity.

The intelligent practice of sustainable principles attempts to take the past, present, and future equally into consideration. It is not about clinging stubbornly to an unsatisfactory status quo, but it also refuses to accept the undiscerning assumption that “new is always improved.” In fact, a sustainable solution may involve a return to the status quo ante to restore health and balance to a system.

The Joie de Vivre chain of boutique hotels in California affords a fine example. Founded by Chip Conley in 1987, the company generates several hundred million dollars of revenue a year. Conley offers his guests the kind of old-fashioned, individually tailored service that other hotel chains dispensed with years ago. As a result, JdV generates more return business than its rivals and has fared better during tough economic times. Its traditional orientation has helped Conley’s enterprises prosper in the present.

But this perceptive entrepreneur also has an eye to the future. The average hotel experiences a sixty percent turnover of personnel every year. As a result, extra resources must be devoted to training, and employees never develop sufficient loyalty to do their best work. JdV’s turnover rate is just twenty-five percent because management works hard to ensure that everyone on staff—even those who spend their days scrubbing down toilets and shower stalls—feels appreciated, challenged, and valued as part of a meaningful community effort. Conley runs a sustainable operation that “invests in long-term growth based on a strategy of integrity and creativity that aligns with the interests of all stakeholders.”10


Reassessing Our Priorities

By now it is becoming clear that sustainability offers a useful handle for reorienting our thinking and adjusting our behavior in just about every significant area of human endeavor. It is, in fact, one of those guiding principles that thoughtful people ought to take into account in making any important lifestyle, relational, or ethical choice. When we set goals, establish objectives, or contemplate a new course of action, we would be wise to consider not only the profitability or practical utility of those measures, but also their sustainability. In a world dominated by short-term strategic planning, we need to develop coherent strategies for anticipating adverse reactions and making sure that what we do ensures long-term viability.

It has become something of a cliché to criticize ours as a culture of immediate gratification and momentary impulse, but that doesn’t belie the basic accuracy of the complaint. The fact is, even most grocery store purchases are spur-of-the-moment rather than planned. Whether we are choosing a breakfast cereal, a profession, or an intimate partner, a community, a spiritual practice, or a fitness regimen, whether we are investing in a retirement plan or volunteering our services, the horizons of our thinking remain in the near distance. We shake our heads in dismay over the lack of cohesion in our neighborhoods, the fragility of our relationships, the poor condition of our bodies, and the despondency of our spirits; yet we don’t do what’s required to create a healthier and more stable lifestyle.

Among the many books and articles I’ve consulted and the numerous conversations I’ve had on matters of healthy, happy, and virtuous living, the principle of sustainability has received scant attention. Why are we so oblivious to a concept that would seem absolutely central to our long-term best interests? Is the idea so simple and self-evident that most people take for granted that cities will persist, careers continue, and marriages last “until death do us part”? But the fact that sustainability has been an uncommon rather than a common occurrence in recorded history would seem to indicate that, self-evident or not, it has seldom attracted much of a following. So perhaps a clearer explication of the idea and a few suggestions for useful application will help move us in the right direction.


Sustainability: A Means, Not an End

To begin with, sustainability must be understood as an instrumental rather than a terminal value; that is to say, it is a means and not an end. We embrace sustainable principles and adopt sustainable practices because they help produce something else that we deem important. Compassion, justice, peace, beauty, and happiness are generally regarded as ends in themselves whose individual or collective realization defines a good life. Sustainability belongs in another category, for it always invites the further question: sustainable for what?

Geof Syphers works as a sustainability officer for Codding Enterprises, a development firm in Northern California that specializes in environmentally responsible design, and he understands this perfectly. The goal of Sonoma Mountain Village, one of Codding’s more notable projects, was to create the conditions for residents to enjoy a healthy, environmentally sound lifestyle. “Sustainability isn’t a goal,” Syphers insists. “It is a process.”11

Today’s world does not suffer from a dearth of sound, terminal values. Human beings still yearn for beauty, happiness, intimacy, and an honorable legacy, just as our forebears did. However, deeper wisdom and more deliberate effort are needed if we are to gain and maintain the ends we seek.


The Futility of the Hungry Ghost

Buddhist teachings describe perpetually dissatisfied, grasping, overanxious people as “hungry ghosts.” As much as they long for happiness and the experience of true contentment, these sad individuals are unenlightened about how an abiding sense of well-being might be secured. Moreover, they haven’t acquired the tools or the self-discipline to tap into these wellsprings of nourishment. The “hungry ghost” subsists, therefore, on the deceptively thin fare its culture provides—easily appropriated pleasures that dull the cravings but do not satisfy them. The habit of happiness, beauty that is more than skin-deep, and trustworthy relationships all lie beyond the ghost’s reach and are usually beyond its ken.

In the Chinese language, the two words pin and tan look very similar on the printed page. The first means “greed,” and the other stands for “poverty.” This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of the hungry ghost: greedy for experiences and possessions to fill its emptiness; yet for all the effort the ghost expends, it still feels impoverished. The hungry ghost may compensate for its emptiness through the compulsive quest for pleasure and prestige, but it is unlikely to find in such pursuits any antidote for its chronic discontent. This Buddhist metaphor is compelling; it graphically describes a condition that afflicts many Americans.

The promising road maps offered by our hard-won consumerist culture have too often led us down blind alleys and into cul-de-sacs. Novelty, excitement, sensory stimulation, and satiation are supplied in abundance, but in terms of what human beings truly want and need, the systems we have devised have proved less than salutary. For example, at one time a house was truly a domicile, a place of familial interaction and neighborly connection. But in recent years many people have been persuaded to treat houses as investments, places to be occupied only until they can be “flipped” for a healthy profit (though the bursting of the housing bubble has caused most people to reconsider this strategy). Such behavior may or may not make sound economic sense, but it undermines all attempts to establish a sustainable community life. Too many of us have lost our connection to a sustainable life path that leads to treasures of perennial value: a beautiful and healthy earth home, human communities where all are well served and feel secure, work that makes a genuine contribution to the common good, play that restores one’s body and lifts one’s spirits, to mention only a few estimable goals. “To live lightly on the earth with simple, joyful elegance” is how one writer characterized the overarching purpose of sustainability.12


Timeless Elements of the Good Life

From a historical standpoint, our contemporary, consumer-oriented culture’s conception of the good life is probably the exception rather than the rule. As cultural geographer Yi Fu Tuan’s studies indicate, physical comfort “is without doubt a component of the good life,” but by itself is hardly sufficient. Moreover, only a modicum of comfort is required for human beings to experience a sense of physical well-being. Yi Fu Tuan cites the example of a traditional Mongolian family, the day’s chores accomplished, enjoying the evening meal together in the snug confines of their yurt. They play music, sing, tell stories, and are grateful for protection from the outside elements. By contrast, many of the royal and very rich have learned to their dismay that “comfort and splendor are incompatible.”13

Cultural conceptions of the good life do vary, but certain features remain fairly consistent. Robust good health and vitality—even physical exuberance—are an unalloyed blessing. Intimacy—physical, emotional, or intellectual—makes a big difference. Remember the last time you had a deep and meaningful conversation with someone and how satisfying that felt? “A meeting of minds can be as … intoxicating as a meeting of bodies,” Yi Fu Tuan writes.14 Rendering service, enhancing the well-being of others, also contributes to our sense of life’s goodness. In this respect, self-aggrandizing behavior may actually prove counterproductive, compromising rather than complementing our happiness. Yi Fu Tuan quotes a repairman who contrasts the experience of fixing a television for a house full of appreciative children with other jobs where fee-for-service is his only reward. “Knowing that I made a family happy” magnified the repairman’s sense of accomplishment.15

Yi Fu Tuan also mentions “having a home base”—an attachment not just to people but to place—as something most humans associate with the good life. Even nomadic peoples and wanderers acquire a deep knowledge of the wider regions through which they move, and thus they feel closely connected to their environment. Engaging in productive labor that serves a valid purpose can be deeply satisfying—particularly when performed in the company of others who are also invested in the enterprise.16 These and other aspects of “good living” will be treated in greater detail in the pages that follow.

Certainly not all human aspirations and endeavors are worth sustaining. Those who created and successfully maintained a brutal culture of apartheid in South Africa may well have found the concept useful. Likewise, the Fascist tyrants who boasted of establishing a “thousand-year Reich.”

As an instrumental value, sustainability can certainly be applied to any number of projects, not all of them life-affirming. My purpose, however, is to align this principle with positive outcomes that serve to support, enhance, and dignify life. As such, it can operate as a counterweight to maladaptive public and private policies that support short-term private interests to the detriment of the long-term welfare of both the person and the planet.

Therefore, rather than remain a regretful afterthought, sustainability needs to move to the forefront of our thinking. This is how we will create lives that work not just for ourselves but, more critically, for the many generations that succeed our own whose interests we have inexcusably betrayed. David Brower, former executive director of the Sierra Club, once said that conservation should be a matter of conscience, and thus a consideration in everything we do and in every field of endeavor.17 Similarly, it should be our aim to place sustainable precepts (or keys) and protocols at the forefront of our thinking and to apply them as consistently as possible.


What Do We Have to Lose?

For more than a few people, the word sustainability suggests the need for sacrifice and the likelihood that at least some of the amenities to which we have been accustomed will have to be reduced, if not given up altogether. That possibility makes the principle less palatable to some and raises the hackles of others. Because of its historic connection with environmentalism, sustainability may also be faulted with placing nonhuman interests above legitimate human needs. Such perceptions create a major problem, for if people worry that sustainability will lead to deprivation rather than to a noticeable enhancement of human life, they are likely to balk.

There is no use denying that some moderation of expectations, some deferral of gratification, some cultivation of new interests, and some consideration of healthier alternatives will need to occur if the serious problems confronting us are to be successfully resolved. For a new door to open, an old door will need to close. The prospects, however, are exciting provided we take the time to explore the concept thoroughly and thereby come to realize how preferable a secure, sustainable future would be to the “anxious age” with which we are presently trying to cope.

The whole purpose behind sustainability is to spare humankind the experience of scarcity and the need for major sacrifices. It is the sturdy thread which, when woven daily into the relational, vocational, and spiritual fabric of our lives, ensures that future generations will enjoy a quality of life superior to our own.


New Relevance for an Ancient Story

Aesop’s venerable fable of the grasshopper and the ant is worth reviewing here. The grasshopper, you may recall, spent his summer days in leisurely fashion and couldn’t be bothered to put away provisions for the winter ahead. Moreover, he laughed at his industrious neighbor the ant, who took the necessary precautions. To put it bluntly, ours has become a nation overpopulated with grasshoppers—impetuous adults who have been so conditioned and are so eager to “grab the gusto while they can” that many now lack sufficient restraint to establish a college fund for their children or to make adequate provision for medical emergencies or for their own retirement. Like the grasshopper, we are determined not to miss out on the good life (defined almost exclusively in terms of material possessions and physical pleasure) and are perfectly willing to let the future take care of itself. Deceptive lending practices aside, the lingering home mortgage crisis and burgeoning credit card balances reveal just how incautious many Americans have become. To be sure, through no fault of their own, single working parents and low wage earners may have found themselves in a bind. But when the savings-to-debt ratio for the average family falls into the negative range, it is hard not to conclude that many otherwise intelligent men and women have lost touch with economic reality. Whether we describe it as irrational exuberance or cockeyed optimism, it hardly reflects a sustainable sensibility.

Aesop’s ant was neither a puritan nor a drudge, but I would hazard that in remembering this cautionary tale, most Americans would describe that wee creature as uninspiring—risk averse and not much fun to be with. The logic of the ant colony runs counter to much that we have been taught and are encouraged to do. Indebtedness is a privilege, not a problem; and without the grasshopper’s uninhibited quest for instant gratification, the whole world economy would collapse. No matter what those finger-wagging ants might say, “the American standard of living is simply not negotiable,” as former President George H. W. Bush famously put it.

My own bias is toward the ant, and not just because I see the wisdom of making prudent provision for the cold winter ahead. I’ve learned that despite the modifications it requires, a sustainable life really is the good life. When a person manages to get it right—that is, when it becomes more or less second nature to use this principle as a touchstone in one’s daily endeavors—the quality of mental, emotional, and moral satisfaction that’s achieved more than compensates for any perceived sacrifice of short-term stimulation or pleasure.

Environmental writer Bill McKibben admits that, for him, “sustainability is a vexed term” because even its advocates can’t agree on what it means. But having said as much, he offers this ant-like assessment:

But we know, instinctively, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean fast, and it doesn’t mean cheap, and it doesn’t mean easy. Those are the hallmarks of our economy at the moment, the things we hold up as our highest goals. … We want a planet that is deeply rooted and patient and solid, a world that we can count on, and an economy that’s mature.18


Sustainability at Work

There is hardly any area of human endeavor to which we cannot usefully apply sustainability, but let’s look for a moment at work—an enterprise to which most people, of necessity, devote considerable time and energy for upwards of 50 years. Having pursued the same line of work—parish ministry—for a third of a century, I often feel like something of an oddball. Yes … people in professional fields like mine probably enjoy greater vocational longevity than some others. And yes … the vagaries of a volatile job market do make it more difficult for many workers to stay in place. Still, planning for and pursuing a career is by no means as commonplace as it was even a few decades ago. Job-hopping and retraining are becoming the rule rather than the exception both because economic changes require it and because people are reporting lower levels of intrinsic satisfaction from the work they do and are thus eager to move on. Even the ministry—historically a remarkably stable profession—is seeing fewer and fewer “lifers.” Only a handful of those who prepared with me for parish service have remained committed to their calling.

Bouncing from one workplace to the other may be advantageous in some respects, but it can reduce the individual’s opportunity for making career advancements, for mastering a particular set of skills, for acquiring good health and retirement benefits, and for establishing a stable home life. Careful and thorough consideration of potential drawbacks is always in order before accepting a new opportunity.

Maintaining a career is by no means easy and has undoubtedly become more difficult in an uncertain, global economy. But all things being equal, it does make sense to choose and stick with work that will provide not only financial security but, in the long run, a real sense of accomplishment. I happen to think that a sustainable career is one of life’s great blessings, and recent research suggests that it also contributes significantly to good mental health.19 Following the four keys of sustainability—Pay Attention, Stay Put, Exercise Patience, and Practice Prudence—may allow that to happen.


Sustainable Relationships

An analysis performed recently by the Institute for American Values indicates that for the first time since World War II, women and men who married in the late 1970s had a less than even chance of still being married twenty-five years later.20 From my own observation, it appears that civil unions between same-sex couples fare no better than heterosexual marriages.

My wife, Trina, and I have been partners for considerably more years than I’ve served as a minister, and we feel fortunate to have shared so much of our lives together. We met as juniors in high school and began “going steady” after only a few months. We attended different colleges but tied the nuptial knot following four years of lengthy weekend commutes. (We were lucky that gas was dirt cheap in those days.) In 2005, joined by family and a few close friends, Trina and I celebrated thirty-two years of marriage and eighteen years of successful parenting with a sunrise renewal-of-vows ceremony on a bluff overlooking Lake Mendota.

How do you make love stay? That straightforward question also happens to be the title of a song composed by a friend of mine for his fiancée. I had the honor of presiding at their marriage, and as far as I know, John and Katie’s relationship—like ours—is still going strong. But in an era where relationships topple like ninepins and “serial monogamy” has gained universal social acceptance (how many people today are really concerned about the number of spouses a candidate for president has had?), one does have to ask: what keys can help us enjoy a relationship that is stable, supportive, and mutually fulfilling?

I am not, by the way, either an idealist or an absolutist when it comes to marital commitment. I do believe the bond is sacred, but experience has certainly convinced me that marriage is too great a blessing for incompatible partners to remain shackled to each other for superstitious or unsound reasons. I’ve conducted hundreds of happy weddings, but also counseled scores of conflicted couples and tried to help fractured families pick up the pieces of their broken lives. While not a certified expert on relational issues, I have seen enough couples through tough times and have faced enough complications in my own relationship to be sensitive to the issues involved.

Nevertheless, having reached my late fifties, with a well-adjusted son tucked safely away at college and a modicum of financial security, I appreciate more than ever the reliable presence of a partner whom I know intimately, love deeply, and trust unreservedly. Maintaining a healthy intimate relationship is hard work, and Trina and I have probably faced and overcome as many obstacles as any other couple. In addition to the daily pressures of ministry, we’ve coped with life-threatening illness, troubles with our families of origin, money worries, work pressures, parenting problems—the kind of stuff that can send an unstable marriage into a tailspin. At midlife, however, we have learned gracefully to let go of those immature longings for an unblemished partner and an unruffled love life which we harbored in our younger years. Today we gratefully accept each other’s full-but-frail humanity and cherish our ability to be present for each other.

Bo Lozoff, founder of the Human Kindness Foundation, said something that accurately reflects Trina’s and my own experience and provides further insight into the true character of a sustainable partnership. The traditional wedding vow includes the phrases “for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer” and ends with that powerful affirmation “until death do us part.” If a couple considers this vow closely and takes it seriously, the partners realize that marriage will expose them to the ugliest and pettiest as well as the most admirable parts of their respective personalities. “Strong wedding vows are meant to help us stick around long enough to come out the other side,” Lozoff says. It gives a couple the opportunity to strip away every illusion and see each other whole. In this sense “marriage becomes a tool in the service of the spiritual journey, a way of combining forces and helping each other become enlightened.”21

Our rich and varied experience has convinced Trina and me that families, communities, and individuals all benefit from strong, healthy primary partnerships. Sustain a marriage, same-sex union, or close friendship, and you are in a better position to sustain both the person and the planet.


Sustainability and Personal Well-Being

Speaking of the person, sustainability is also pertinent to the project of maintaining mental, emotional, and physical fitness. Too many people today are frustrated by their seeming inability to develop healthy patterns of exercise, stress reduction, eating, and spiritual deepening. If the good life is to be our goal, this is an excellent place to begin.

In a study of thirty-one different long-term diets, UCLA researchers saw participants losing, on average, five to ten percent of their total body mass. Most, unfortunately, regained all that weight over the longer term, and some even put on more than they had initially lost. Only a small fraction of those studied kept the extra pounds off, and those were people who had established a sustainable pattern of simply eating less and exercising more. Nothing complicated or mysterious was at work here, just the cultivation of sound, sensible habits.22

My own experience in this area has been similar. A few simple practices, consistently followed, make a big difference. I’ve been able to avoid illness and chronic injury, control my weight, and maintain mental acuity and emotional stability into and through late middle age by attending to the basics. I enjoy a sensible “flexitarian” diet, engage in vigorous aerobic exercise six days a week, work periodically on balance and flexibility, try to get adequate sleep, and make time for meditation. It isn’t necessary or desirable to be obsessive about such practices, just reasonably committed.


Surviving and Thriving

As I see it, sustainability promises much more than the mere survival of a community, an economy, a marriage, or a sentient being. Its purpose is to help individuals, as well as natural and social sysatems, genuinely to thrive. Again, it supplies an effective means to realize a desirable end.

Even in a country as materially blessed as the United States, depression, apathy, interpersonal violence, divorce, vocational dissatisfaction, restlessness, and anxiety have reached epidemic proportions. Young people seem disproportionately afflicted by these maladies. In these economically perilous times, most of us are still comfortably surviving, but we do not feel we are living the good life. For all our gadgets, gimcracks, and 120 TV channels, we are not happy campers. A more mature civilization would be conscious of what its own members require in order to thrive.

A number of years ago the Dalai Lama participated in an extended discussion of mental health issues with a group of prominent Western psychologists and was brought face-to-face with this apparent paradox. During the conversation, one of the professionals observed that poor self-esteem was a persistent, underlying problem for many of his patients. These outwardly successful Americans, he reported, often didn’t feel very confident or capable and held a rather low opinion of themselves. The Dalai Lama was astounded and asked others in the room whether this description accurately reflected their own clinical experience. All nodded in assent. The Tibetan shook his head. This, he said, is not an infirmity from which my own countrymen suffer.23

Although the symptoms are perhaps more obvious and better documented today, the malady is hardly a new one. More than a century and a half ago, that astute visitor from France, Alexis de Tocqueville, anticipated this development when he reflected on the “strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance.”24 So are we ready to wise up, or will we remain stuck in patterns of behavior that ultimately are inimical to human happiness?

A culture committed to sustainability, to creating a social environment where people can thrive emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, would be eager to expose and treat the underlying causes of the condition. It would realize that mood-altering medications and psychotherapy, while useful in treating symptoms, do not address the pathology itself. The latter requires a more aggressive, nonmedical approach. Some of the Dalai Lama’s insights could prove useful here, as well as those of the ancient Greek lawmaker Solon, who once described the happy person as one who “is moderately furnished with externals, but has done noble acts and acted temperately.”

Our culture’s crude equation of material abundance with happiness presents a real problem. Despite the demonstrable fact that rich people are no more satisfied with their lives than those of modest means, most Americans still hunger for wealth—even if that means putting additional strain on an overburdened planet and placing more of their fellow human beings at grave risk.

Even if we could have it all, is it possible to be happy with an uneasy conscience? At least a third of humanity—over two billion people—lives at or below subsistence level. Those who are well-off cannot help but be aware of what their lifestyle really costs and whom it affects. The question is, can human beings truly thrive as individuals if the social, economic, and natural systems to which they belong are not also doing reasonably well? That is why Episcopal theologian Matthew Fox declares in his A New Reformation that “sustainability is another word for justice, for what is just is sustainable and what is unjust is not.”25

Sustainability is a practical principle, but it also has moral implications. For a culture to thrive and for there to be a general increase in happiness, measures to ameliorate inequality and injustice must be taken. A mountain of physical amenities is no substitute for a clear conscience.

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Endorsements



“Sustainability isn’t only, or even mainly, about light bulbs. It’s about patience and prudence and the other virtues described in this book—it’s about becoming mature as people and as a society. That’s hard work but good work, and this is the manual.”

—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy and The End of Nature

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