Exhausted and sweaty following a soccer match in the Texas summer heat, there I was in the parking lot gulping down the lukewarm water in my Nalgene and shooting the breeze with one of my teammates. We were on our usual talking points – politics, education, technology – and little did I know that my life was about to be disrupted. The topic shifted from recent energy advances to addressing the climate crisis. Though our conversation on the subject lasted for no more than five minutes, it triggered an episode of existential depression that had me down for almost a month.
It’s been about a week now since I escaped the negative thought patterns that plagued me, but that was not an achievement free of consequences. My perceptions, outlook, and behaviors are changed. Big-picture narratives about energy, water, food, communities, economies, etc. have started to cohesively meld in my mind. I have a greater sense of clarity, and I feel energized.
But to humble myself, I wholly acknowledge that I probably share these same symptoms of enlightenment with basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists. That said, I will try to balance my enthusiasm with continued healthy learning and truth-seeking exercises. And as we trek on our sustainability journeys, let’s guide each other. We’re in this together after all.
Since I am going to blog on the subject, it seems prudent to be up-front about my sustainability impressions. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission succinctly described sustainable development in its famous Our Common Future1 report.
“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth. The Commission believes that widespread poverty is no longer inevitable. Poverty is not only an evil in itself, but sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations for a better life. A world in which poverty is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophes.”
This resonates with me first because my wife and I recently brought a child into this world and I have been thinking a lot more about his future and, more broadly, the future of his generation and beyond. I also like the excerpt because it addresses how living beyond your means is more than a financial consideration. Earth is finite, and so are the technological capabilities of the human race. There are limits as to how much we may take from and put back into the earth. It’s like when we go camping and see the “leave no trace” signs but in our daily lives instead. Sustainable living necessitates learning these limits and then living within them. Definitionally, to do otherwise is to build our own ruin.
The excerpt also suggests that sustainability is not the same as environmentalism. Indeed, sustainability encompasses the environment, climate change, agriculture, healthcare, energy, social structures, politics, economics, poverty, and more. It’s a complex topic and many questions remain unanswered. However, we already have answers to many questions and solutions to many problems. There are already many easily adoptable sustainable practices that simply need to be promoted and implemented at scale, and better practices are proposed every day. One of the most challenging and important problems to solve is the adoption itself. Some of the best and most simple ideas require lifestyle changes that many consider difficult, radical, or backward because they are such a departure from the familiar but unsustainable status quo. Other ideas are presently out-of-reach for many people and require a technological or economical advancement to make them adoptable at scale. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) “agrihood” project in Detriot2, pictured below, is a superb example of a sustainable idea implementation with low barrier to entry, and I plan to discuss its merits more in later posts.
Though I only recently experienced this clarity, in retrospect it seems that my arrival to this point was inevitable and just a matter of time. Growing up in semi-rural Indiana, I lived on farm that was converted to suit the needs of my father’s landscaping business. We grew all sorts of produce including but not limited to pumpkins, apples, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, asparagus, rhubarb, basil, and chives. I even remember us having chickens when I was very young. And we had dozens upon dozens of native shrubs, trees, and flowers growing in our nursey. But I never recall my family speaking about these things in the context of sustainability. Rather, the produce we grew and eggs we gathered were for self-sufficiency. It occurs to me now how closely the two are related. Additionally, my mother’s family owned and operated a local well-drilling company. In fact, they still own and operate it today. Though I was never involved in that business, I still gleaned a lot of information about groundwater, water quality, and the like. Again, it now occurs to me how important these topics are in the context of sustainability.
Undergrad was a bit of a detour for me. I used to believe that I wanted to be involved in technology development. After 5 years of studying math and electrical engineering in undergrad and another 4 years deploying supercomputers in an industry role, I started to realize that I was more interested in applying technology than I was in developing it. (Though depending on your definition of technology, those two things might not be different.) Anyway, I left my job to go back to school for a MS degree in operations research and industrial engineering. One thing led to another, and now here I am at age 31 preparing to write a PhD dissertation on power system resilience and threat modeling. Though the scope of my research is limited to power and energy, I have become familiar with the sorts of integrated problems other researchers are trying to solve, e.g., those studied by INFEWS (integrated food, energy, and water systems) Scholars at UT Austin3.
Recently, I have started to realize it’s not even the applications of technology that get me going. It’s the first principles, the philosophy, and the reasons-why.
The Future of this Blog
I am privileged to have the means to carry a torch for the sustainability movement. Does my experience qualify me? No! My experience has just led me to understand that I should take part. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to join the sustainability movement! My purpose for this blog is to spread awareness and encourage others with the means to take action. Stay tuned to learn about ideas and practices for a sustainable future – answers to questions like “What makes a particular diet sustainable?” and “What cleaning and hygeine products should I use to help keep the world’s water clean in perpetuity?” Individuals are capable of driving bottom-up change. If you are concerned for the future, do not gamble by waiting on business leaders, politicians, and technologists to push the changes you want to see. We vote for our future every day – not in a voting booth, but with our wallets, our words, and our work.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” –Mahatma Gandhi