P.C.C. Guest Writer Kate Clabby: “Taking the Weight from Sustainability”

This term, I transformed my WR 122 course at Portland Community College into a Service Learning course.  About 40% of my writing students volunteered 8+ hours in the community and used their experiences to inform their coursework.  These students wrote some of the most insightful and powerful pieces that I’ve read in my eight years as a writing teacher.  This kind of teaching works!

Kate Clabby was one of my students and volunteered throughout the term at Zenger Farm, a non-profit urban farm in the Portland area.  Kate also generously agreed to share her work with PDXEAN.  This piece of writing in particular really reminded me discussions I often have with friends and students about how to fit activism into our daily lives.  This is worth a read!  Thanks, Kate, for allowing your writing to go public.

Taking the Weight from Sustainability

“Sustainability” is a word that can inspire hope, guilt, fear, anger, and determination.  What is it about this simple word that allows it to have such a deep impact?  In Portland, Oregon, bring up this word and one is likely to get flooded with discussion of living “off the grid”, gray water collection systems, and the merits of local, organic produce.  However, mention it on Wall Street, and you will be talking economic policy and investment strategies.  Still, where does all the emotion come from?  The true weight of the word “sustainability” comes from the fact that no matter in which area one is using it, sustainability asks something of the individual.  Whether it be reducing one’s carbon footprint or keeping a budget, sustainability gets personal, and if it isn’t defined properly, living sustainably can seem to be an unreachable goal.

If the goal of sustainability is so lofty and unattainable, what’s the point of even trying?  There is a large portion of society that feels this sort of hopelessness, and as such, believes it to be too much work for not enough pay-off.  This word is often thought to go hand in hand with the loss of large chunks of the typical American’s secure lifestyle.   Many citizens are not going to be inspired by having their lawns turned into organic gardens, and their steaks into veggie patties .  If sustainability is redefined to seem more achievable and enjoyable to implement, it’s possible that many who currently choose to block out the voices clamoring for change will consider adding more sustainable choices into their lives.

In order to find a definition that will help society open up to the concept, it is valuable to first look at what’s already out there.  A definition of sustainability from the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development is the ability of a community to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  (Carstens, p11)  This is a good sensible definition.  However, what this definition doesn’t necessarily take into account is the emotional attachment that individuals have to their current lifestyle.  Time and again it has been proved that turning to society and saying, “Hey! You!  Make a bunch of big changes in the way you live or there’s going to be some serious trouble headed our way!” just doesn’t work.  It’s time to bring more pragmatism into play. 

            Another respected authority, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defines sustainability as:  A. “Capable of being sustained.” and B. “Of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged” (Merriam-Webster).  Definition B has much in common with the laudable focus of that of the UN.  However, definition A is worth a closer look.  “Capable of being sustained.”  It is simple to look ahead at the future and come up with plans that will avoid damaging resources.  The real complexity is coming up with plans that today’s population is capable of sustaining.  For instance, in Portland there are many intrepid idealists ready to jump into action, trek into the countryside, and live an entirely self-sustaining lifestyle.  For some of these individuals, it is an adventure that is interesting to them, and their passion and dedication will make possible for them to achieve and maintain that goal.  However, a single mother with three kids doesn’t exactly have the time or energy to make that kind of change.  What is “capable of being sustained” for her?

Living more sustainably is very personal.  Similar to dieting, very few people are going to be able to keep up a drastic change for long.  In fact, nutritionists are constantly advocating for gradual sustainable improvements to the individual’s diet.  Just as one person could give up donuts but couldn’t possibly live without pizza, one could give up paper towels but would never in his life be willing to start blowing his nose in a handkerchief.  Everyone is going to have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to sustainability.  Rather than making it a huge concept that people give up in defeat, sustainable decisions can be tailored to the individual and foster continued inspiration through small successes.   For instance, that single mother could make it a goal to take her kids with her to a local farmers market once  a month.  This benefits the family relationship, health, and supports local agriculture while not requiring a daily commitment from a woman who is already exhausted at the end of each day.  Thinking of “sustainability” shouldn’t be exhausting either.  Instead of weighing it down with drastic visions, here is a definition to focus on:   Sustainability; the ability to assess a situation and determine what changes are manageable and will be able to be implemented long-term. 

This definition can apply to both individuals and larger organizations.  Zenger Farms is an excellent example of an organization that is living this version of sustainability.  It is a local, organic urban farm in Portland that is an excellent example of attainable sustainable choices.  Sustainability is a big focus of their work, and they do a good job of making it easy for the community to get involved.  In addition to the farm itself, the Zenger community also oversees a small yet vital wetland.  The entire property, including both farm and wetland, is only 16 acres.  Yet taking care of this relatively tiny piece of Oregon has been the sustainable choice that they could maintain and have an impact with.  The farmhouse, which is primarily used for office work, is run on recycled gray water, but the crops are hydrated with plain old city water.  The organization is making individual choices that make a difference right now, based on the resources that they have.  Much of the work on the farm is done by volunteers, and they make it easily accessible with weekly work parties that allow community members to get involved without requiring any big commitments.  It is completely unpretentious, and that is an important part of changing how society views sustainability.

Taking the weight out of “sustainability” and redefining the concept in a way that is more manageable and individual opens up a new, easier way of living, ultimately.  If we as individuals examine our lives, look at the choices that we want to make, and take the time to make plans that we know we can succeed at, we let a burden of struggle fall from our shoulders and can instead live with a sense of accomplishment, purpose, and honor.  That’s sustainable.

Merriam-Webster. 2012. An Encyclopaedia Britannica Co. 5/13/12 <http://www.merriam-      webster.com>.

Carstens, Laura “Defining, Inspiring, and Implementing Sustainability.” National Civic           Review 99.3 (2010): p. 11. Print.