Here’s an interview I did for Planetshifter Magazine in which I suggest that the quest for sustainability is as old as civilization itself. The questions range from business and creativity to magic, history, alchemy and veganism.
Drink up and enjoy, cheers! Andy
Who is the earliest human being you know of who espoused sustainability?
That’s a good question. All ancient peoples recognized the circle of life and its annual cycles. Because hunter/gatherers lived in a world where abundance was simply a matter of travel, they didn’t have to think about sustainability per se. Their waste was minimal, and if they needed more food, they just moved. It’s only when you settle down and build a house that your lifestyle requires enduring whichever season the crops are scarce.
So in order to be sustainable, you have to learn how to successfully harvest and store enough food to make it through. We wouldn’t have civilization as we know it if someone hadn’t invented beer, because alcohol is the only way to preserve grain for long periods of time without refrigeration. So the first peoples to think about sustainability – i.e., the first ones to ask, “how long can we go on living like this?” – were probably answered by the first sustainability consultants who responded by asking, “do we have enough beer to make it through the winter?”
As a writer, how do you approach the creative process?
Writing, like all creative work is an iterative process. Drawing intangible thoughts into shape and giving them expression usually doesn’t happen all at once. You circle around things in your mind, try to figure out where the bones are, or what the first thing you want to say is. Sometimes it helps to build up the pressure and then type it all out on the page. It always gets revised. Words are rearranged, sentences are rearranged, taken apart, put back together with new pieces in a different order. Reading it through over and over, switching things as you go helps, I call this combing. I’m doing it right now. Like combing tangled hair, until it flows and shines from top to bottom. That’s pretty much what I try to do.
We don’t often think of it this way, but writing is creative in the same way that biology is creative. We have the DNA code of an alphabet, and we use it to form molecules called words, and we string these together in sentences which perform a specific function. Just like proteins, amino acids, starches and sugars which trigger a chemical reaction or build an organic structure, so our sentences trigger thoughts in our reader, or sprout trees that can convey whole forests of meaning and emotion. The writing process is the process of trying different combinations until you get one that creates a structure or causes a reaction that you like. All creative processes are similar in this way, whether biological, artistic or cultural.
What support are we really gonna get from BP as the Gulf oil clean-up and restoration await?
It’s always interesting to watch companies respond to these things. First they start by walking a thin line between “accepting responsibilities” and limiting their legal exposure to damages. Then they try to court public opinion, tell us it’s not as bad as it looks, to trust them etc. What’s interesting about BP, as opposed to Massey Energy for instance, is they had done a pretty good job of rebranding as Beyond Petroleum, with investments in solar and other renewables. What this reminds us is how dirty and dangerous our current fuel portfolio actually is, and how urgent is the need to transition.
So, what’s BP going to do? Probably the minimum that lawyers and lobbyists will allow. What’s more important is what we are going to do. Blaming BP (and Halliburton!) won’t put the oil back, won’t clean up the devastated coastlines or the other untold damage that is only just unfolding. The best thing we can do right now is ensure that this never has a chance to happen again by giving the fossil fuel industry a better business to be in.
We can continue to dig up our solar inheritance in the form of fossil fuels, or we can transition to living on our solar income in the form of sunlight, wind and wave power, and biomass. The question is not whether BP is going to get beyond petroleum, but when we are.
Isn't "Going Green" just a big money-making machine?
This question sounds like it’s coming from a place of “business is bad” which I think is kind of dated at this point. Business is a tool, and like all tools it can be used wisely or poorly. Incentivizing individuals to pool their talent, finances and resources to create something that generates profits for the people involved is a very effective means of activating human potential.
That’s why markets are as old as beer. So business as a model for human interaction isn’t going anywhere, and simply fighting big business was what environmentalists tried from the ‘60s to the ‘80s without much success in shifting the basic paradigm. The sustainability movement, from its early formulations in books like Natural Capitalism and Cradle to Cradle, is all about rethinking business as a model: going beyond the bottom line to the triple bottom line; developing better accounting for the true costs and impacts of business; and speaking to business people in their own language to redefine business practices in a ways that are healthier for life and prosperity.
And this same conversation is happening in design as well, it’s happening in new technologies, in urban planning. It’s happening in faith communities and among non-profit groups too. So the conversation we hold every year at West Coast Green around “green” building, innovation, design and technology is much more about creating meaning than creating money. It’s about finding scalable solutions to global challenges. And it starts with breaking down preconceptions, and learning to listen to each other.
Isn’t permaculture just another way to use up the earth’s resources?
I think it hinges on the phrase “use up.” What does that mean? We can transform minerals and gases, but they never disappear. So if I “used up” a bunch of compost and turned it into vegetables, and then I “used up” the vegetables in a yummy dinner and then turned them into a big bowel movement in my backyard composting toilet and then I “used up” the compost… you get the picture. Everything on the earth can be thought of as a resource if that’s your attitude. It could also be thought of as a gift.
“Using up” the earth’s resources could be as natural as eating, or as irresponsible as massive deforestation, over fishing, and aquifer mining. It’s not about using them up, but about passing them along, and the types of cycles we’re creating by doing so. In terms of cycling nutrients on a local scale without creating toxic byproducts or damaging ecosystems beyond the point of self-repair, I think permaculture is a better way to go than factory farming, if that’s what you’re getting at.
Do you see sustainability as a new religion?
That’s an interesting question. I think there’s sometimes confusion between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is something that happens within people, while Religion is something that happens between people. Religions are particular, spirituality is universal. Religions allow people to explore spirituality in groups, they bring people together with rituals, costumes, and language to explore a connection with the divine. Spirituality can happen all alone in total silence, just being awed by a sunset or an ancient forest. The quest for Sustainability is spiritual to the extent that it is driven by our inner urges to connect with life forces that are older or larger than ourselves.
It could be thought of as religious to the extent that it brings groups of people together to foster a connection to the larger systems which we’re all part of and which we depend on for survival. But sustainability doesn’t have to be spiritual or religious. It could simply be a good business decision to cut waste and increase profit; or use a newer technology that offers better performance at a lower cost. I think one of the reasons sustainability is as inevitable as science, religion, and new technology is because it combines all three of those.
Are you seeing the resurgence of alchemy and myth in the Sustainability Age?
I think alchemy and myth have always been important parts of the human experience, and they still are, new to each generation. Myth is about understanding, and alchemy is about our ability to transform the world around us. Myths and metaphors all emerged with the earliest stories we told ourselves around the campfire tens of thousands of years ago, our first forays at explaining the universe around us. And our myths have continued to evolve throughout time. Alchemy is the endeavor of transforming simple ingredients into more complex ones. Which is essentially what life does.
Ancient alchemy represents early experimental attempts to understand the true properties of elements and organisms. To understand life. I think the alchemy we’re doing now is really very exciting: nanotechnology, artificial photosynthesis, bioengineering, quantum mechanics. We don’t know where these experiments will lead, they may give us powerful tools, or deadly weapons, but probably both. These are explorations on the fringe of our understanding and our ability, so in one sense they are very cutting edge. But the urge to understand the universe, and increase our ability to transform the world and ourselves is as old as time.
Is veganism the true path to heaven?
Yogis are often vegetarian, because there’s less karma attached to a plant diet, less psychic disturbance and baggage. But eating meat is certainly a natural thing to do, many animals are predators, and we are no exception. Our nearest primate relatives are omnivores, eating insects with relish. But to move beyond animal or physical consciousness, to tune into more subtle energies and higher vibrations it helps to quiet the noise in the system, which is what yoga, meditation and other spiritual practices are designed for. Which also implies that Heaven doesn’t lie down a path, somewhere away from us.
It is here, all around us, inside us if we would be quiet enough, and still enough to feel it. Diet may be one factor in a person’s ability to access that state of consciousness, but I doubt it’s the only one. After all, Hitler was a vegetarian. When you talk about heaven you’ve moved beyond the material plane by definition. If you get hit by a bus, I don’t think it’s what you had for breakfast that determines what happens next.