Blogs >> Is the word sustainability still meaningful? by Dr Pavel Cenkl

Is the word sustainability still meaningful? by Dr Pavel Cenkl

flooded Britain

What does sustainability aim to sustain?

Discussions about how to build a sustainable future in the UK frequently miss a key point — that any debate about an environmental, economic, or social crisis is ultimately a conversation about people. To focus exclusively on abstract ideas is to miss an opportunity to engage with one another in our communities to craft the world in which we would choose to live.

Regardless of one’s political leanings, if nothing else, the protests associated with and inspired by Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion, and Fridays for the Future serve to remind us that the world is indeed both larger in scale and its seemingly intractable problems closer to home than we’d ever dared to realise.

That these problems go far beyond climate change is unfortunately often misrepresented or missed altogether. Our current climate change reality is part of a much more complicated relationship between ourselves, our communities, the economy, and the natural world. Even by emphasising sustainability itself as a goal, I think we fall somewhat short.

At best, ‘sustainability’ may give us a little more time to sort out our relationship to the environment; at worst, ‘sustainable’ has become a term used in adverts to sell us more things (which is itself of course not sustainable).

We could do far better than just sustain the status quo. But to do that, it is necessary to ask, what does our success with climate change and environment look like?

Chair of the Environmental Agency and UK Commissioner to the Global Commission on Adaptation, Emma Howard Boyd, has recently articulated the three “essential points” regarding Britain’s changing climate:
1)  Unpredictable and extreme weather is getting worse.
2)  We have a moral responsibility to act; “it is our responsibility to protect the assets that are entrusted to us.”
3)  We have an economic responsibility to act; “Failure to do so will be disastrous for our economic interests all over the world.”

Ms. Boyd may well be right on all counts, but it is hard for most of us to see the immediate impact of climate change on our own lives.  I would add to Ms. Boyd’s list that we have an even greater responsibility to ask ourselves how we can act and make change in ourselves and our communities.

The news may indeed be dire, but it helps to break down what seem like massive problems into things we can actually do and to support education that teaches us how to live and work together, attend and hold events that bring us closer to one another in our communities, learn the skills we need to drive a new economy forward, and better understand our relationships with nature.

The places we live and the way we live in them should reflect our values, shouldn’t they?

If we choose to actively engage in conversations about climate change and the many other environmental and social challenges that we are facing as a nation and as a planet, then we will need to ask -- what does all this mean for me? For my family? For my job? For my community?

At a handful of schools and universities across the country and around the world, teachers are helping students not only to learn what the future may bring and what a new economy will look like, but -- even more importantly -- how to help build that future for themselves.

One month ago, I began my post as Head of Schumacher College in Dartington, and as I have come to know the place and the people that make South Devon a special home for so many, I am learning, too, about the importance of moving beyond what is merely sustainable and toward actively building relationships through learning, through food, and through the daily practise of community that are deeply regenerative in their impact on both society and environment.

At the heart of the College community is a very simple concept that, for me, clears away a lot of rhetoric and confusing language: Care.

Care has a long and profound history in Britain, from the first Elizabethan almshouses to pastoral care in our schools and communities to today’s NHS. Care can make a difference in every relationship, whether that’s between two family members or between a community and its environment. 

The environmental and social problems we face today can seem absolutely massive, beyond our reach, and sometimes irrelevant to our daily lives. But if we focus on what we actually can do in our families and communities, I believe we will find that nearly all of us care about the very same things -- and that is a good place to start making decisions and building a future for all of us.

Whatever we choose to do, we must remember that the environment is not something ‘out there’; it is all of us, together.

Dr Pavel Cenkl is head of Schumacher College.