Do you ever wonder if something is missing from our conversation about sustainability?  If the way we're thinking and communicating about the challenges we're facing is "off" somehow...but you're not sure what's wrong, or how to get under the surface of your intution? 

If so, you are not alone.  As we approach the end of the 2nd decade of the 21st century, the concept of sustainable living has begun to enter the mainstream: this is a welcome change.

However, much of the conversation regarding "sustainable living" is focused on technical responses to human habitability --such as increasing use of renewable fuels, reducing waste, and changing transit and transportation behavior, while little to no emphasis is placed on the vitally important, but much less visible issue of ecological literacy...which involves how people think and communicate, and how our relationship patterns and mental models influence and shape the world we live in. 

Sustainability has become a glittering, 21st century buzzword...but what exactly does it mean to "live sustainably"?  How do we set and measure so-called sustainable goals, and who is included in defining and establishing these goals? 

Is sustainable transportation merely about technical issues, such as whether to drive a new Prius instead of an old pick-up truck (or the other way around), or do we need to ask deeper questions about the function and structure of our transportation systems? When thinking about the food we eat, is it enough to buy a tomato labled "organic"...or is there more to healthy agriculture than the final product?  And when we talk about green power, is the issue only renewables v. fossil fuels, or are their deeper and more complex energy equations involved? 

Technical fixes--such as insulating our homes more efficiently, composting and recycling our waste, supporting environmentally responsive agriculture, and finding ways to reduce traffic congestion, and pollution-- are the "what" of sustainability: making them is important. But there's a broader and more subtle set of adaptive competencies which are equally important and generally overlooked...competencies which involve how we do things...and how we think. This is the depth approach to sustainability, with an emphasis on the quality of our relationships...with ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

Practicing depth sustainability is about thinking, and acting systemically...noticing patterns, appreciating complexity, attempting to account for the impacts of our actions at varying levels of scale. Practicing depth sustainability involves embodying design principles and practices...both as an artful method of problem solving, and as a way of developing our ecological literacy. Practicing depth sustainability involves listening, and responding in new ways to the chronic, daily problems that plague us--such as human conflict--which don't have obvious technical fixes.  At this level, our challenge often involves slowing down and developing our capacity to appreciate nuance and different ways of knowing.

Developing and practicing the competencies of depth sustainability is neither more nor less important than making technical changes in our day to day habits: ideally, we need to change both what we're doing, and how we're thinking and interacting. But the timescale for depth sustainability is different, its outcomes are more subtle, and its focus is internal, not external: At heart, practicing depth sustainability involves a willingness to change ourselves...especially our attitudes regarding the (presumed) moral superiority of "green" and the increasingly common (and increasingly overt) contempt toward those believed to be on the  "wrong" side of sustainability...either because they do not perceive environmental or social problems, or because they disagree with the framing of those problems or with the proffered solutions.

Practicing depth sustainability involves humility and the willingness to learn how to use our senses more fully...to learn how to think in oblique and unexpected ways...to learn about ourselves not as atomized individuals, but as members of an interconnected, interdependent, global community capable of co-creating a more hopeful planetary future--a community which includes people whose perspectives may be fundamentally in opposition to the espoused ideas regarding what is, and is not "green."

Developing a depth perspective on sustainability can be challenging: learning to notice the deeper levels of our thinking, and to adopt different attitudes and approaches--including genuine respect for diversity of thought--is challenging, and takes time to develop. But that's OK: we didn't arrive overnight at our current historical moment of simplistic framing of complex problems, political fragmentation, and open contempt toward differing points of view. Problems long in development take at least the same amount of time to change them.  So let yourself off the hook regarding quick fixes, and learn to enjoy and appreciate the process of change...which always starts with each of us as an individual, not with telling other people what they "should" do. 

It can feel demoralizing to acknowledge that our social, economic and environmental problems--issues we currently define using a variety of outmoded 20th century "isms" followed by equally outmoded "solutions"--are in fact, incredibly complex problems with many contributors, and cannot be changed by electing a new leader, by enlarging government programs, or by imposing one-size-fits-all, politically narrow solutions on a wide swath of people.  In truth, our problems are a part of the human condition, and will always be with us in one way or another, no matter what we do. This doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and admit defeat...but it does demand that we learn to view humility as an essential aptitude for engaging in the complex, unending task of making the world a better place.   An ecologically intelligent approach to complex human problems starts by making genuine changes in one's personal behavior, including behaviors such as taking the time to look up from the daily grind and get to know your neighbors--all of them, from the butterflies and earthworms to the people next door-- and by recognizing that this type of change is just as crucial as installing solar panels, eschewing meat, or driving a hybrid car.

Depth sustainability begins by cultivating keen observation and communication skills. Doing so is useful in many ways: in problem solving, in working with others, and in coming to know ourselves and our communities more fully.  The opportunity cost is low, and the benefits are high.  So go ahead and install photovoltaics, if that's in your budget.  Or build a backyard chicken coop.  Replace your lawn with meadow, and your concrete driveway with a pervious courtyard.  And while you do those things, please give yourself permission to slow down, to look, and to listen--because even with all the problems we face in contemporary society, it is still a beautiful world.