Beyond Green

I’m tired of talking about sustainability. Not because I think it’s not important, but because I think everybody agrees it is. Skeptics remain about global warming and humanity’s responsibility for it, but everybody agrees that it’s not fair if one generation depletes resources that will be needed by a future generation.

This week I attended a focus group — I’m tired of focus groups too, but never mind — and the question posed on the Powerpoint slide (Don’t even get me started about Powerpoint) was “what does sustainability mean to you?”

I have previously answered that question with another question: “Why are there no hybrid convertibles?” Higher drag coefficients reduce fuel efficiency, but so what? If efficiency was all that mattered, we wouldn’t care about color, or the size of the glove box, or whether it lights up like Las Vegas when we open the door. We wouldn’t care because we’d be riding our bicycle. But most of us don’t.

Around the table, we raced efficiently through conservation techniques, externalized costs, peak oil, lifestyle choices, American excess. You know the drill. I disagreed only with the tone. It’s all so defensive or self-apologetic. Follow the “zero footprint” metaphor far enough and you’ll reach its hari kari conclusion: “The world would be better if only we weren’t here.” But we are. So now what?

Instead of the umpty-umpth rehearsal of barely cloaked self-hatred, let’s take charge. I want to play offense. We should curb some of our excessive appetites, granted. But we still want our children to live longer and happier than our parents did. Modern life requires energy. Conservation can help, but we must produce more energy. Wind and solar and waves can diversify our energy portfolio, but we always overlook the most amazing source of energy this side of the sun.

Look in the mirror.

You convert food into energy. You choose every moment how much energy to direct to any particular task. We know what creates, focuses, sustains, and stores energy for humans. So we should do more of it, for the sake of the planet and for ourselves. Beauty stores energy. Curiosity sustains energy. Challenge focuses energy. Falling in love creates energy.

We not only can create energy. We can create energy in others. And we can create others who create energy. Carl Sandburg said it first: “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.”

If we spend less time escaping from life and more time engaged in it, that fills the collective storehouse of energy we call community. Happy workers are more productive. Volunteer stream teams pull blackberries up from their roots, civic leaders plan initiatives around conference tables, church groups gather to serve meals for the homeless. Each effort moves everything forward just a little bit.

As the community betters itself, it attracts more and better participants who can do more in an endless spiral upward. Pride of place feeds on itself.

Once we recognize how we’re all doing this for each other, we’ll move ecstasy out of our private hot tubs and into the ocean of humanity. Shared ecstasy is way better than zero footprint.

“Zero footprint” makes us sorry for our life. We need just the opposite. For me, sustainability is synonymous with joie de vivre. When we really love life, then we find ways to be engaged. We want others to catch the same fever. We may even want children, who can (literally) embody, share, and extend that joy.

And then of course we’ll want to take good care of our environment, leaving the world better for those who come after us. If our goal is to “leave no trace,” we’re aiming too low. Self-aware beings shouldn’t be hoping the planet breaks even for our presence. We can do better. We’re able to fix what’s broken, improve what’s just OK, redeem what’s wrong.

That requires a lot of energy. The kind of energy you feel when you’re riding in a convertible. Or when you’re tousling a child’s hair in the grocery store. Or putting the finishing touches on anything you’ll want others to see you’ve touched.

A vibrant community creates, distributes, and stores energy. Pride of place is the forgotten fuel.


Don Kahle ( drove a plug-in electric car for eight years. He sold it in 2006 and bought a convertible. It’s red.