SUSTAINABILITY AND PROXIMITY
“Sustainability” is a darling word with many good, well-intentioned people. However, darling words tend to obstruct our intellectual view, so let’s be careful with them (maybe even kill some of them).
Background: In music sustain is part of a note’s “envelope”. Sounds start with an attack, then they sustain and finally decay.
This corresponds with the Indian triad of gods.
Brahma creates, Vishnu sustains and Shiva finally destroys/transforms. And this happens every time we play or sing a tone!
Sustain is quite important for singers who want to hold a (hopefully beautiful) note for a long time. It needn’t be traditionally beautiful, just listen to this Edgar Winter track.
That growling tone (at 3′ 33″) was “sustainable” for 10 seconds.
I wanted to give some perspective on sustain, since it is not only about ecological thinking, consumerism, etc.
What these musical examples also show is that nothing can be sustained endlessly. Decay/release follows sustain. So I think we should talk about sustainability as longer sustain.
The clothes of our grandparents were meant to last for life, and this was true for many other things. We see the opposite of this today in the mad race of the computer and mobile phone industry. Buy the new model and forget about “long sustain”. These things are built to die.
The industry wants them to be obsolete in a year or two, so that they can sell you a new one (with perhaps even shorter lifetime). This “planned obsolescence” is a disharmonious but economically (somewhat) understandable situation. It seems to tie in with the question of poverty-affluence.
“Poor” people cannot afford to replace clothes etc. all the time. Things need to last. “Rich” people on the other can afford both to buy the new and to throw away the old.
Which means that “rich” countries, and people, are producing lots of WASTE, the definition of which is not “something that no longer works” but “something that is thrown away even though it stills works, in order to give place to the New Model”.
This shows how close “rich” is to “wasteful”.
Many people ask: How can we create a sustainable world? (Or as I would suggest, create a longer sustainability.)
Let’s look at the question of affluence, richness, the American Way of life, etc.
If I can make, say, 100 dollars by selling you a coat that last your whole life, but maybe ten times as much by selling you clothes that will fall apart, not to mention go out of fashion, in a few years, which will I choose?
I don’t sell clothes but I suspect that for most modern businessmen the second choice will be the better one. (More profit = better.) One would need very strong reasons for building things, structures, models that last, in a world where everything changes by the week.
People also become (are seen as) obsolete, even though they still cand eliver. Even presidents aren’t “sustainable”. For good or bad, we change them every other year. Which is itself interesting: we don’t seem to trust them a longer time and they in turn aren’t motivated to have a long-term philosophy. A presidential term sometimes look like a Grab and Run.
So can we find really strong reasons for building things and structures that last?
I believe it’s possible, but we would need to rethink our ideas of scale, of big business.
Say you are in the vegetables “industry” (small scale). Every Friday you stand in the market and sell vegetables from your garden. Of course one could call those who buy your goods “consumers”, but you probably won’t. That’s too anonymous, the word sounds wrong for small-scale business.
You will know many buyers by look, some by name. They and you will not be strangers.
This creates an interestingly positive situation; unless you are unscrupulous and a real crook you will NOT sell your customers really bad carrots. Then it will be hard too see them in the eye next Friday.
So in the nearness and intimacy of the situation lies an inbuilt safety mechanism: proximity will basically keep you ethical.
Now imagine that you sometimes visit a distant town with a market. Those folks you might meet only once, so what if you sell them some second-rate tomatoes and inferior apples? No big deal, others do it, too.
And if you NEVER saw your clients, if you were the boss of a big vegetable venture, your morals could be even more loose. Of course you don’t want to be sued, that’s a new risk in the picture, but you sure don’t need to put any love into the venture.
Respect and considerateness, even love, goes well with small, face to face-business, while cold commercial calculation, even cynical greed, often goes hand in hand with big industry.
I suspect that people who swindle, abuse and exploit others would instantly turn (more) moral if they had to do their business in an actual, physical marketplace. Nearness changes our roles. The buyer is no longer consumer, the seller no longer industrialist. We are closer to each other and might even chose to barter, instead of using money. I’ll fix your leaking roof for a sack of potatoes. Everything gets more personal (and banks, people who make money out of money, are left out of the picture).
Perhaps more importantly: the buyer not only ceases being a consumer, he also ceases being a “resource”.
Resource can be a rather horrible word. Food is a resource, as is air and water, coal and oil — but we have gotten used to see people, yes, each other, as resources. And “consumers” are resources for industrialists and bankers, though them they can make big money. For them people are stepping stones, money making levers.
I believe this thinking has to go. “How can I make money on it/you?” cannot, should not, be first first and prime question. Today it very often is. All other questions are relegated to second and later places.
But what if this sad situation (that casts such a mean shadow on humankind, on our moral level) could be amended with the tool of proximity?
The ethics of business people would probably improve if they more often saw their customers in the eye.
I am sure that politicians, very often involved in corruption, would better themselves and become ethical, if they moved within a smaller circle, like our seller of vegetables at the local market. So called “voters” (a means and resource for getting elected) would become plain people: acquaintances, pals, friends.
I am pretty sure that politicians in general are just as kind to their friends as anybody else. A small-town local politician is not very far from the vegetable seller in the market; he needs to see his voters / pals / acquaintances in the eye quite often.
That nearness keeps him in check, because shame is an inbuilt quality in Homo sapiens. But it diminishes with distance. I am ashamed to deceive my friend, but a stranger just traveling through town is fair game, not to talk about strangers I have never seen and never will.
So I would conclude:
DISTANCE CORRUPTS, PROXIMITY MAKES DECENT
My line of argument goes like this:
Sustainability is a question of building objects, things, mechanisms and working models with longer sustain.
This entails rethinking the way we do business. The current model of “built not to last” (whether we are talking about clothes, computers or political plans) creates enormous amounts of waste. Just think of the islands of plastic floating around in the Pacific.
It also polarizes us in a sad way into two basic groups:
— Sellers and buyers
— “Consumers” and producers
— Politicians (powers that be) and “voters”
This polarization is an image of distance.
Yes, we still have markets where you can buy locally grown food, but nowadays we also have totally anonymous production manufactured in Taiwan by who knows who, for who knows what wage, for the profit of another unknown (but this time very rich) figure: The magnate.
So it seems to me that we should redefine our roles — and distances.
Instead of the great polarization, the great divide where the seller knows nothing (and cares nothing) about the buyer, we should get closer to each other. I think the Slow Movement that holds up local, small-scale values, might have some answers.
“Local” has also become a darling word with some, but it seems benign.
Turning the car of civilization in the direction of LOCAL — standing for nearness, “Let’s see each other in the eye (not just send automated e-mail to our list of customers) and in the process turn more humane, friendly and considerate towards each other (“otherwise I can’t bear to meet you in the market next Friday…”) — seems to be a good step towards sustainability.
Our culture has for many years done the very opposite, used, gotten used to and worshiped all things TELE. Telegram, telephone, television, telecom, telemarketing, etc.
All these things are about distance, about doing things at a distance. But with distance come all the diseases I have pointed at: unscrupulous business attitudes, cynical exploitation, lack of heart, culturally approved greediness, etc.
But shrink the picture, lessen the polarization, make businesses smaller, more small-scale, and I actually believe we will be kinder to each other. Maybe even stop seeing each others as monetary resources but as fellow creatures.
That could be a sustain pedal for our future, for a better Musica humana.
And this sorry, all too common pattern would maybe melt away.