Sustainable is the word of the decade, possibly the adjective for an entire century yet to come—a buzz-word, jargon, lingo of the linguists and necessary part of every top-ten, self-help or planetary-help best seller. Necessary hyphenated headline for the hip, the in, the new-age when that term is already old-age.
Whether the word itself is sustainable is yet to be seen.
Certainly most of the nouns for which it serves as modifier are in what Dick Cheney would describe as their ‘last throes.’ Sustainable agriculture? Good luck. Pick your favorite noun, from art to zen, and ask yourself if it’s sustainable. In an increasingly distracted and throw-away world, we’ve all too often ‘moved on from that.’
If something has been lost, the thing we’ve moved on from is the sustainable mind.
My definition of a sustainable mind is one that is able or trained to reflect upon conditions, keep them in focus long enough to draw a conclusion and then defend that conclusion among various alternative possibilities. The ultimate in sustainability is to stay with the subject long enough, often over a period of decades, to shift opinion depending upon new evidence or a change in societal, economic or environmental circumstance.
Not easy. Not the stuff of sound-bites. The brain is local, the mind is not.
Young people, as they always do, represent the most graphic evidence of where society is headed and they are multi-takers of the first order. Raised with iPods plugged in and the other ear to a cell-phone, doing homework (or any kind of stationary work) while simultaneously watching TV, listening to music and text-messaging, they are the new edition of the human animal.
It’s not an accident that society no longer hears, except in the short bursts of sound-bites. Not surprising that war is insupportable unless quickly won. Drowning in information, unable to listen in the constancy of messages, we’ve moved on. America (and maybe the world) lost interest in Iraq. Who really cares for the Abramoff story and which congressman may or may not be connected to his chain of legislation by payoff. President as liar, it’s old news. Tell me something new. Today is a blizzard of events that buries yesterday.
Over half the humans that have ever been born on this planet are alive today. 95% of everything created by human hands has been created in the past 100 years.
Turn off the iPod and the TV to reflect on that for a moment. Those realities mirror the overwhelming expanse of numberless stars that so excited our imaginations as kids on a summer night, gazing into infinity.
Reflecting on the recent (for it is recent) loss of the sustainable mind, who is there to reach for in explanation but Darwin? The evolutionary pace of the animal world, which includes our species, is relentless but it is slow. A thousand years to learn a skill, a million to seek the refuge of a cave, two million to come back out again to agriculture.
Yet the lightning eyewink of two hundred years has thrust us from a life on horseback into and through ever shorter ages; agricultural, industrial, flight, space, computers and the wizardry of the time-payment plan. Technology may have run right over the top of our ability to cope with it—or even recognize ourselves as trampled.
From writers, artists and musicians to lawyers, scientists and hedge-fund managers, we embrace the solitude of abandoned beaches in the Caribbean and mountain cabins. Never too far away from a good restaurant, mind you and close to satellite-access to the Internet, if possible, but places where the mind can linger for a moment or a week or a month. Our nostalgia for ‘life in the slow-lane’ may not predate air conditioning or antibiotics, but it pants at our feet like a friendly dog.
There are those who hunger for Walden Pond and those who are unexpressed without a motorcycle, a second career, a third wife and the mad desire to hang-glide if they can work that into a ballooning vacation. Like many, I want some of each. Like others, I wonder at the race to more income than can be reasonably spent.
The sustainable mind makes us wonder, the unsustainable makes us want—or so I have come to think.
Nothing wrong with wanting. It’s made of us a wondrous society and (until recently) the envy of the world, the place most think of when ‘opportunity’ of any kind or dimension comes up in conversation. But, just as ‘high-tech’ has come to value the benefit of a balancing ‘high-touch,’ it may be that ‘wanting’ needs the symmetry of reflection, the hammock-time out of the busyness of business. Enough sustained mind to settle in on and establish the price we are willing to pay for wanting.
I am fond of saying you can have anything, but you cannot have everything. The first and foremost anything I would hope to have, is a sustainable mind. From that, all else comes.