Sustainability and Hope

I have just completed my fourth semester of my college career, and for three of those semesters, I have taken at least one or two sustainability-related courses. I have loved every single one; looking back at all of my classes, they have been my favorites.

However, I have noticed something that occurs in every single one of these classes, something that struck me dumb the first time it happened and continues to confuse the hell out of me time and time again. Every sustainability class. A little happenstance that I notice every now and then that pulls on my conscious a little more each time.

In between lectures in these classes, my professors will have us review case studies that we have analyzed and ask us to offer potential solutions to the problems along with some possible tradeoffs. No matter what kind of anti-school mood we’re in, no matter if we’re talking about the Aral Sea drying up or New Orleans disappearing underwater or intervening in human rights issues around the world or whatever, we really get into these kinds of discussions. We come up with decent, potential resolutions that are real, are possible.

And then, then comes the bigger question from my professors:

“Now, let’s say we’re going to take this to the EPA or the IPCC. Apply it to real life. Would it actually work?”

There would come a pause as everybody considers this. And then…

“Is there hope?”

And then, and then…. nearly all of my classmates will shrug and shake their heads no, offering their reasons as to why such and such situation is a lost cause. They will say although it is a good idea to think positively, realistically speaking, no. It would not work, ever. We should give up. Leave the problem as a sunken cost.

And I sit and stare at them in disbelief and think to myself… Then why are you here?

Why would anybody in their right mind major in this controversial subject that does not necessarily secure a well-paying job – or any job at all, for that matter – a major that forces us to go to the depths of human injustice and dust out the far corners of mankind’s capabilities to come up with solutions to problems that could potentially destroy our entire existence…why would anybody put themselves through that unless they had any hope for the future?

There are so many people who don’t have the faintest clue as to what sustainability is (read my personal definition here), and when I am asked, I tell them the basics. We are finding solutions to social, economic, environmental problems that our world faces today and will face in the future. We are thinking of ways to not necessarily save our planet, for she does not need saving, but mankind.

What I don’t say, what I don’t mention, what I always forget, is this: sustainability is more than looking at graphs and calculating and predicting. It is more than surrendering your soul to homework and research and pledging to speak for those with no voice. It is more than thinking of ways to solve the problems of world hunger and poverty and desertification and deforestation and population growth and territorial disputes and water pollution and human rights while cooperating with all shareholders involved and minimizing tradeoffs.

Sustainability is about having faith in the unknown.

It is throwing caution to the winds and thriving during the unexpected. It is being prepared. It is knowing that every now and then we will never be prepared.

It is about trusting logic and trusting madness. It is dancing in the rain when plans have been made for the sun, finding new legs to stand on when all others have been destroyed.

Sustainability is thinking on your feet and planning for the future. It is never retreating, never giving up, and knowing there is always a way.

It is having hope during the most desperate of times. It is always looking to the horizon in search of new answers and never considering the words I can’t.

We don’t know what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, and far into the future. Mankind has only been around for between 200,000 and 300,000 years as opposed to the 4.6 billion years our planet has existed. We are less than nothing to our great Earth. She could purge us tomorrow if she needed to. And if we keep acting the way we do, she just might have a mind to, and I wouldn’t blame her.

But fellow sustainability majors, fellow workers in the sustainability field, we must always have hope. Sometimes it is all we have going forward. There will always be hope for a situation as long as we bring it with us. No matter how impossible the circumstance is when we approach it, we must always believe that in the end, everything will work itself out, and a solution will be applied to the problem.

After all, if we don’t have hope, who will?

If we don’t have it now, then when will it appear again?

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