…that we don’t take sustainability to heart?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that we don’t take sustainability to heart? It’s been a year since the Pulse’s last Sustainability Issue and, at times, it’s difficult to see what improvements, if any, have been made in terms of global healing.

A: Topics associated with sustainability typically focus on behaviors related to our physical environment (pollution, recycling, waste and green lifestyles). And while these practices are unquestionably necessary to ensure the well-being of our planet and future generations, our daily compliance appears contingent upon our personal outlook toward the world in general. Therefore, rather than addressing the sustainability of resources – I will approach this issue by examining the concepts of complacency, empathy and the sustainability of hope.

One of the greatest obstacles to change is our overwhelming trend toward complacency. Self-satisfied and safely embedded in our “comfort zones,” we go about our daily lives with little to no consideration as to how our actions (and inactions) impact the world around us. Like ripples in a pond, each step we take resonates outward – in all directions – impacting the physical, social and spiritual realms that comprise our existence. As we remain self-righteous in our chosen lifestyles, we lack the motivation and insight necessary to make substantive changes to our attitudes and behaviors. Americans have become entrenched in their comparatively privileged affluence. The creature comforts that we’re so accustomed to have lulled us into a collective slumber of apathy and indifference. And while we may sigh and shake our heads at media images of the hungry and deprived, our sentiments of pity amount to nothing more than symbolic gestures – devoid of concrete connection to our own personal accountability.

We’ve been socialized into adopting a competitive outlook toward others – with “survival of the fittest” lending validity to our successes in relations to other’s failures. In this way, we reason that the less fortunate are inherently less capable and worthy, sanctioning the battle cry, “may the best man win.” For example, Rev. Pat Robertson broadcast that the Haitians were met with a catastrophic earthquake as retribution for their immoral alignment with the “devil” in their rebellion against French slavery. And while Rev. Robertson’s sentiment may be an extreme example of the smug, self-righteousness I’m addressing here, the underlying principle is the same. As a collective society, we lack the realization of connectedness and symbiotic co-dependency that constitutes our environmental and social realities.

These notions relate to our “global footprint” in the sense that each of our actions exerts a measurable impact on our physical and social world. Indeed, “for every action – there is an equal and opposite reaction” (Newton’s 3rd Law). To a large extent, we minimize our roles as co-contributors to world hunger, environmental demise and global conflict. Whether due to arrogance or ignorance, we opt to indulge in pre-occupations with our trite and relatively insignificant quests for personal pleasure. Something is terribly wrong when our priorities are governed by watching our favorite television programs, going out for dinner or spending money on endless strings of unnecessary material possessions. We function as though we’re insulated from the world around us; when in fact, we are inextricably connected. This misconception has led to gross levels of personal irresponsibility, resulting in an overall lack of empathy towards our planet and its members.

For decades, empathy has been identified as a necessary prerequisite for social sustainability. As the capacity to emotionally connect to the experiences of others, empathy fosters compassion and respect for lives beyond our own. Ancient cultures from around the world have regarded empathy as a human manifestation of the Divine. The Sanskrit term “Namaste” (pronounced namah-stay) embodies this principle and translates as “I honor the Spirit in you which is also in me.” Interestingly, there is no known translation of this term in English (which is meaningful in and of itself). The underlying idea is that we’re all connected, in form and energy, to the same universal source. This realization triggers empathetic recognition of the other-as-self, or in more common terms, “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. Unless and until we develop a concrete sense of empathy, we will continue to falter in our attempts to sustain life on earth – as we fail to adopt the global perspective necessary to see beyond the ends of our own noses. In a book entitled, The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin describes that our current market economy and post-industrial, military/political mindset is antiquated and can no longer sustain a constructive global future.

But all is not lost. In order to shake ourselves from the numbing effects of complacency – and supplement our lives with steady doses of empathic sensitivity – we must gain and sustain hope. We must awaken to the realization that our goals of material gain and personal comfort have been strategically cultivated by the stakeholders of profit, and, that as individuals, we are powerful beyond measure. We needn’t be discouraged by the seemingly impossible challenges that we face as a global community. The focus of our conscious awareness has enormous and untapped potential for positive change and is ours for the taking. We can either face the sun, absorbing and reflecting its light. Or, we can turn our backs to its rays, tracing our shadows upon the earth. In the words of the late Studs Terkel, “Hope dies last.” The choice is ours.