I live in a bubble. I admit it. It’s a sweet little bubble full of funny, wonderful people who love local food, renewable energy, and learning to live lighter on the Earth. Even when I think I’m branching out, I just run into more people who love each other and the world we share. Our little Central Wisconsin community is a hot spot for environmental leadership thanks to people and organizations in our community that pioneered sustainability practices and education over the last few decades. We have an especially high density of knowledgeable and eager sustainability practitioners in our small town, but we all still mostly bounce around in our bubble. In fact, that seems to be the plight of the sustainability movement more generally. I can’t count how many conversations I’ve been a part of where people are asking themselves and each other, “How do we get beyond the choir”?  How do we get people who aren’t really paying attention to change their behavior and engage in the sustainability movement?

After years of study and work in the field, I had a realization. There is no choir to get beyond because we aren’t really a choir. We’re more like a big group of alarm bells, really. And who wants to hear that racket? We can’t get more people to join our team because it doesn’t look like very much fun over here. If you listen to the dominant sustainability narrative, it’s characterized by doom and gloom. And while I don’t argue with the facts that support that world view, I do argue it’s a highly ineffective recruitment tool. If it’s all hopeless, why bother anyway? And, quite frankly, I believe there is hope. And lots of it if that’s what you’re looking for. I’ll explain more about that another day. First, I want to say something that might sound a little crazy.

The sustainability movement is unsustainable. What? Huh? Yeah, you read me right. Too often sustainability advocates find ourselves working so diligently for our causes that we neglect our own needs, our families, and taking time for fun and personal rejuvenation. Very sweet and committed people justify the imbalance by pointing at the terrible environmental, social, and economic messes we’ve made for ourselves. We feel a sense of overwhelming urgency and obligation to better the world. We say “There’s no time, we need to change now. We need to change yesterday!” We say, “of course, I want a break, but if I can get just a little more done, then maybe the world will be better off.” And, if all that over-working was really turning the ship, I ‘d be the first one to support it and keep up the feverish pace too. But again, I don’t think it’s working – at least not at the scale we need it to. Many causes lack diversity among their advocates as well as the critical mass needed to spread the word and the work more evenly. And again, even when people believe in the cause and the need for change, they avoid acknowledging it because they just can’t give up every other part of their life to become involved.  Even when we know we “should” do something, like my 5 year old says, sometimes we just “can’t want to.”

Years ago, I quit the sustainability team at my organization after realizing the sustainability movement was unsustainable. At least it was for me. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to fix it from within. I never felt like I was living as sustainably as I should or could be. I was working full time, finishing up my masters degree, expecting a baby, and trying to still have time for my marriage, family, and friends. Way too often my local food would rot in the fridge because I was too busy to cook. When it came to sustainability, I mostly felt guilty, frustrated, and like a fraud. And I didn’t even have kids yet! How could I teach about sustainability when I didn’t feel like I was living sustainably myself?  I couldn’t.

I didn’t stop caring or doing my part. In fact, I focused more on my own actions, well-being, and life balance. I helped wherever I could, but also gave myself permission to turn off the bad news and go play. Oddly, it was pretty hard for me to pull this off. I wanted to still be able to say yes to everything; to work as hard as my friends do, but I couldn’t. When I did say yes to things I didn’t really want to do, it wasn’t fun. Since I no longer felt like that kind of obligatory work was making the difference in the world I used to think it did, it mostly felt empty and wasteful. What I want is balance, vitality, strength, focus, and purpose. Not busy-ness, feeling scattered, and spread too thin. I needed to get what I wanted to give, a more sustainable lifestyle.

After years of carving out my own pathway to sustainability, it’s finally making more sense to me. I’m finally feeling ready to share what I’ve lived and learned; what I’m still living and learning. Not because we’re all gonna die if we don’t do it my way, but because I genuinely think there is a more fun and more effective way to spread the gospel of sustainability.

So, here are 7 things I’ve learned about sustainability so far:

  1. Sustainability is not about saving the Earth, it’s about saving ourselves.  The Earth will be fine. She is more resilient and strong than we give her credit for. While it might take millennia to correct human impacts, she can and will do it. It’s humanity that’s putting ourselves at unnecessary risk. And you don’t even have to look at all the daunting global scientific evidence, we can see this play out in our personal lives and families. Beyond meeting our basic needs, increased consumption is not making us happier, it’s making us less happy. The problem is, we all seem to be too busy to notice that the momentary bump we get from a new toy is incredibly short-lived. Like Will Rogers famously said, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people that they don’t like.” We are stumbling over stuff, drowning in debt, and depriving ourselves of what we really want and need: connection. Connection to ourselves, to each other, and to the Earth. I had to slow down to notice. I have to keep slowing down to keep noticing. Which leads me to my next point.
  2. Sustainability is a lifestyle change, not a diet. Simplifying your life is not something you do once and then you’re done. You have to keep choosing to buy less and live more. It’s more of a trajectory than a destination. Not only does stuff (and the general escapism it represents) have a tendency to creep back into every small space we carve out, what we understand about sustainability continues to change and evolve. Sustainability is about learning, adapting, and learning and adapting again.
  3. It’s about progress, not perfection. No matter how urgent and important it might seem, we can each only do what we can do. While it would be super rad if we could all wake up tomorrow and suddenly do everything right for the Earth and ourselves, it’s highly unlikely to unfold that way. We each have to start somewhere. If we can feel good about starting, even with all our imperfections and slip ups, we’re that much more likely to keep going.  Once we have a few great habits in place, it’s a lot easier to maintain them and keep adding new layers of sustainable awesomeness. Shaming ourselves or others is a recipe for failure.
  4. Sustainability is more fun; it’s not about sacrifice and self-righteousness. Believe it or not, living more sustainably can be way more fun. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say, if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. Sure, there might be growing pains in the beginning as you wean yourself off of instant gratification in favor of joy that runs deeper and is more long-lasting. But, no one is asking you to sit in the dark and eat kale chips. Although, you should definitely try kale chips if you haven’t, they’re delicious! Start making small changes where you’re willing to and don’t compare yourself to others. If you’re hoping to convince others to join you in your quest for a more sustainable lifestyle, be kind. I’ve learned the hard way that just getting mad at people doesn’t work. Sure, you might get mad every once in a while. But if you want to have any chance of influencing others, you’re going to have to get over it and try something that might actually work. Like listening, understanding, and leading by example.
  5. Make it a game, not a contest. If you’re going to compare, compare yourself to you yesterday or last week or last year. Are you doing better? Are you trying out the changes you want to make in your life? Are you having fun more of the time? Find others to play your sustainability game with. Do you need help? Ask for help. Are you feeling judgey or like you’re being judged? Tune that crap out. You are your worst critic and there’s no way that’s helping so cut it out. Celebrate your successes, play, feel your momentum even when it’s small, keep going.
  6. Learn how to think, not what to think – Sustainability is not a list of to-dos or don’t dos. The “best” specific choices change over time and across different places and circumstances. It’s way better to know how to think about your choices and their consequences because our understanding and technology is constantly evolving; and that is a good thing. For example, it never was just about changing your light bulbs to CFLS (the action), it was about choosing the light with the least impact (the reason). If you focus on the reason rather than the action, then you won’t be as confused or irritated now that LEDs are replacing them all.  As a friend of mine likes to say, “the Earth will have the final say on what’s sustainable.” In the meantime, it matters that you’re thinking more deeply about your choices at all and looking for the best choice you can make right now. Good job!
  7. Sustainability doesn’t have to be led by concern for the environment. Wanting to live more sustainably doesn’t mean you have to become a tree-hugging, dirt worshiper; although, you totally can if you want to:) Since sustainability is a comprehensive concept that includes environmental, social, and economic aspects, you can enter from anywhere. Maybe you want to get out of debt, have better relationships, or improve your health? All of those goals fit within the bounds of sustainability. And guess what? If you start taking action to improve the sustainability of your spending or health, there’s a very good chance you’re going to have less of an environmental impact as well. As it turns out, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe (John Muir).” Start where you are. If you’re someone who wants to help others live more sustainably, start where they are. It’s all good. The important part is that we start.

So what do you think? Do you have sustainability lessons to add to this list? What have you lived and learned so far?