Posted by: chrismaser | October 28, 2009


Relationship, the quintessential thread running through time and space, is the essence of sustainability. It is also the essence of humanity because we are creatures who must share to find value, regardless of how it is defined.

For example, what is your favorite place on Earth? How would you feel if you owned it outright? How would you feel if you owned it outright but were the last person on Earth and had no one with whom to share the experience? How would you feel if you owned your favorite place outright and had one other person with whom to share it? Two other people? Three other people?

I once asked this question of an audience, and a woman told me that she would not want to share her favorite place with anyone because they would just ruin it. But notice that she still spoke of her favorite place in terms of relationship with someone else. How we choose to respond to someone else is thus our determination of how we choose to share our emotions, knowledge, and experience of our self-concept with the other person. The other person in turn must make the same determination about us.

Mahatma Gandhi, in a conversation with his grandson, Arun, a few weeks before his assassination, handed him a talisman upon which he had engraved “Seven Blunders.” Out of these seven blunders, said Gandhi, grows the violence that plagues the world. The blunders are:

1. Wealth without work
2. Pleasure without conscience
3. Knowledge without character
4. Commerce without morality
5. Science [and technology] without humanity
6. Worship without sacrifice
7. Politics without principles

Gandhi called these imbalances “passive violence” and said that, “We could work till doomsday to achieve peace and would get nowhere as long as we ignored passive violence in our world.”

To his grandfather’s list of seven blunders, Arun added an eighth:

8. Rights without responsibility

That, says Donella Meadows, was in 1947, over 60 years ago, and today every blunder remains institutionalized, built into our corporations, our government, and our very culture. In fact, she says, we actively practice them and even take pride in some. She then goes on to add more blunders:

9. Justice without mercy
10. Order without freedom
11. Talking without listening
12. Stability without change
13. Private interests without public interests
14. Liberty without equality
15. Or, in every case, vice versa

If, as Meadows points out, you suggest putting morality into commerce, you are accused of being against commerce. Question wealth without work and you are a jealous hater of rich people or out to undermine capitalism, says Meadows.1 Whenever we make our private or public discussions about relationships an either/or proposition, we lock ourselves into an unwinnable position of defending a simplistic point of view that has little or nothing to do with the larger reality beyond that of our own perception.

Relationships are the strands in the web of life, and there is no escaping the web. For this reason, the following human relationships are central to sustainability:  (1) intrapersonal, (2) interpersonal, (3) between people and the environment, and (4) between people in the present and those of the future.


An intrapersonal relationship is the relationship that exists within a person. It is the individual’s sense of his or her own spirituality, self-worth, personal growth, and so on. In short, it is what makes that person conscious of and accountable for his or her own behavior and its consequences. The more spiritually conscious one is, the more other-centered one is, the more self-controlled one’s behavior is, and the greater one’s willingness to be personally accountable for the outcome of one’s behavior with respect to the welfare of fellow citizens, present and future, and the Earth as a whole.

There is an interesting correlation between self-centered and other-centered people when it comes to how they see themselves fitting into their environment. Self-centered people tend to be product-oriented in their values in isolation of the system itself. Other-centered people tend to be systems thinkers and so focus on the welfare of the system as a whole.

A product-oriented thinker is oriented to seeing only the desirable pieces of a system (be they economic or environmental) and seldom accepts that removing or isolating the perceived, desirable piece (or eliminating an undesirable one) can or will negatively affect the productive capacity of the system as whole. This person’s response typically is: “Show me; I’ll believe it when I see it.”

In contrast, systems thinkers see the whole in each piece and are therefore concerned about tinkering willy-nilly with the pieces because they know such tinkering might inadvertently upset the desirable function of the system as a whole. Systems thinkers are also likely to see themselves as inseparable parts of the system, whereas product-oriented thinkers normally set themselves apart from and above the system. System thinkers, being other-centered, are willing to focus on transcending the issue in whatever way is necessary to frame a vision for the good of the future, whereas product-oriented thinkers are self-centered and focuses only on what they perceives as personally beneficial.

The more of a product-oriented people are, the more reticent they to change, and the more readily they deny the effect of their behavior has on the system as a whole. These individuals see change as a condition to be avoided because they feel a greater sense of security in the known elements of the status quo, especially when money is involved. Conversely, the more systems oriented people are, the more likely they are willing to risk change on the strength of its unseen possibilities and its potential good for others—especially future generations.

Product-oriented people are likely to be very much concerned with land ownership and property rights and want as much free rein as possible to do as they please on their property, often without regard for the consequences to future generations. Moreover, they have a greater tendency to place primacy on people of their own race, creed, or religion, as well as on their own personal needs, however they are perceived. There also is a greater the tendency for them to disregard welfare of other races, creeds, or religions, as well as nonhumans and the sustainable capacity of the land. Finally, they tend to be more “either/or” in their thinking.

System thinkers, on the other hand, are likely to be concerned about the welfare of others, including those of the future and often their nonhuman counterparts, because a systems thinker has a greater sense of how things fit together in a functional whole than a strictly product-oriented thinker does. Systems thinkers also tend to be concerned with the health and welfare of planet Earth in the present for the present and the future. And they more readily accept shades of gray in their thinking than do strictly product-oriented thinkers.

The upshot is that sustainability is possible to the degree to which other-centered systems thinkers hold sway in a community or society, which brings me to interpersonal relationships.


If someone in a store is rushing blindly to get somewhere and shoves you out of the way, you have a choice in how you respond to being shoved. You can get angry, impatient, and say something nasty, or you can be patient, kind, and understanding. Your thoughts and actions are the seeds you sow each time you make a choice.

We always have a choice, and we must choose. If we do not like the outcome of our choice, we always have the choice of choosing again. We are not, therefore, victims of our circumstances but rather consequential products of our choices. And the more we are able to choose love and peace over fear and violence, the more we gain in wisdom and the more we live in harmony. This is true because what we choose to think about determines how we choose to act, and our thoughts and actions set up self-reinforcing feedback loops or self-fulfilling prophecies that become our individual and collective realities.

It is just such self-reinforcing, behavioral feedback loops based on competition for resources that are destroying our environment. As long as competition is the overriding principle of our economic system, we can only destroy our environment because it has become the battlefield in which the war of competition is fought. Our over-emphasis on competition in nearly everything fosters the material insecurity that often manifests as greed.

Another tendency of human beings faced with a perceived threat to their sense of material survival is to defend a point of view. There are, however, as many points of view as there are people, and everyone is indeed right from his or her vantage point. Therefore, no resolution is possible when each person is committed only to winning agreement with a position. The alternative is to recognize that “right” versus “wrong” is a judgment about human values and is not a winnable argument. It’s best, therefore, to define the principle involved in the discussion as the fundamental issue and focus on it. An issue, usually perceived as a crisis, becomes a question to be answered, and in struggling toward the answer, both positive and negative options not only become apparent but also become a choice.

For us in the United States, at least, a crisis is often in our point of view because we tend to perceive the world through a disaster mentality, regardless of evidence to the contrary. We tend to focus on and cling to a view of pending doom, in part because of the emotional discomfort of an unknown future heightened by daily news with graphic portrayals of disasters worldwide.

Fear, a projection into the future of unwanted possibilities, breeds weakness, a state in which there is little time or energy left to develop other areas of life. Out of the weakness of fear, men too easily and too often turn to war in an effort to assert what little power they think remains to them.2

Recent years have demonstrated just how mindlessly cruel cultures can be when they live in proximity to and in dread of one another. The psychological and spiritual result of living under such heinous conditions deadens the mind while it savages the heart. Yet the cruelties of cultures and the violence of individuals are the food and drink of the news media.3

The instantaneousness of today’s news does not give us time to assimilate the stories within the context of global proportions. News came more slowly in olden times and could more readily be kept in proportion relative to the time and area covered by the news. Today, however, newsworthy disasters all seem to happen instantly in our homes via television and can become so overwhelming that they numb us emotionally even as they augment our fear of our own unknowable future. In addition, insurance companies continually foster a disaster mentality.

Consider that insurance companies are betting—based on calculated probabilities—that nothing will happen to you as they take your money, and that you, by purchasing insurance, are betting blindly that a disaster will befall you in the future. You, therefore, are betting against yourself and your future. And it’s just this disaster mentality that causes many frightened people to become increasingly self-centered.

For sustainability to be possible, however, self-centeredness must blend into other-centered teamwork. Setting aside egos and accepting points of view as negotiable differences, while striving for the common good over the long term, is necessary for teamwork. Unyielding self-centeredness represents a narrowness of thinking that prevents cooperation, coordination, possibility thinking, and the resolution of issues. Teamwork demands the utmost personal discipline of a true democracy, which is the common denominator for lasting success in any social endeavor.

But even if we exercise personal discipline in dealing with current environmental problems, most of us have become so far removed from the land and Nature sustaining us that we no longer appreciate it as the embodiment of continuous processes. Attention is focused instead on a chosen product, the success or outcome of management efforts, and anything diverted to a different product is considered a failure. It’s time, therefore, to re-evaluate the philosophical underpinnings that gird our notions of Nature, community, and society and how they can sustainably be integrated into a common future.


Sustainability means that development programs must, to the extent possible, integrate the local people’s requirements, desires, motivations, and identity in relation to the surrounding landscape. It also means that local people, those responsible for development initiatives and their effect on the immediate environment and the surrounding landscape, must participate equally and fully in all debates and discussions, from the local level to the national.4 Here, a basic principle is that programs must be founded on local requirements and cultural values as the pertain to social-environmental sustainability in balance with those of the broader outside world.

Some time ago, I attended a meeting on the development of rural communities at which economic diversification was the sole focus of discussion. It soon became apparent that the group had no idea of the importance of landscape to the identity of a community. For example, a logging community is set within a context of forest, a ranching community is set within the context of lands for grazing, and a community of commercial fishers is usually set along a coastline, be it a great lake or an ocean

The setting of a community helps define the community because people select a community for what it has to offer them within the backgound of its landscape. The setting therefore helps create many characteristics that are unique to the community. By the same token, the values and development practices of a community alter the characteristics of its surrounding environment.

In addition to the surrounding environment, the constructed environment within a community is also part of its setting and therefore its identity. This includes the buildings, zoning, design of transportation systems, and the allowance of natural occurrences within the structured setting.

In turn, a community’s worldview defines its collective values, which determine how it treats its surrounding landscape. As the landscape is altered through wise use or through abuse, so are the community’s options altered in like measure. A community and its landscape are thus engaged in a mutual, self-reinforcing feedback loop as the inescapable means by which their processes reinforce themselves and one another.

Each community has physical, cultural, and political qualities that make it unique and more or less flexible. The degree of flexibility of these attributes in a community is important because sustainable systems must be ever flexible, adaptable, and creative. The process of sustainable development must therefore remain flexible, because what works in one community may not work in another or may work for different reasons.

Beyond this, the power of sustainable development comes from the local people as they move forward through a process of growing self-realization, self-definition, and self-determination. Such personal growth opens the community to its own evolution within the framework of the people’s sense of place, as opposed to coercive pressures applied from the outside.

Sustainable development encompasses any process that helps people meet their requirements, from self-worth to food on the table, while simultaneously creating a more ecologically and culturally sustainable and just society for the current generation and those that follow. Due to its flexibility and openness, it is perhaps more capable than other forms of development in creating such outcomes because it integrates the requirements of a local community with those of the immediate environment and surrounding landscape, while instilling a relative balance between the local community and the larger world of which it is a part.


Our leaders and we must now address a moral question: Do those living today owe anything to the future? If our answer is no, then we surely are on course, because we are consuming resources and polluting the Earth as if there were no tomorrow. If, on the other hand, the answer is “Yes, we have an obligation to the future,” then we must determine what and how much we owe, because our present, non-sustainable course is rapidly destroying the environmental options for all generations to come. Meeting this obligation will require a renewed sense of morality—to be other centered in doing unto those to come as we wish those before us had done unto us.

To change anything, we must reach beyond where we are, beyond where we feel safe. We must dare to move ahead, even if we do not fully understand where we are going, because we will never have perfect knowledge. We must ask innovative, other-centered, future-oriented questions in order to make necessary changes for the better.

True progress toward an ecologically sound environment and an equitable world society will be expensive in both money and effort. The longer we wait, however, the more disastrous becomes the environmental conditions and the more expensive and difficult become the necessary social changes.

No biological shortcuts, technological quick fixes, or political hype can mend what is broken. Dramatic, fundamental change, both frightening and painful, is necessary if we are really committed to the children of the world, present and future. It’s not a physical question of can we or can’t we change, but rather one of true commitment based on our sense ethical principles—will we or won’t we change. If we are to approach social-environmental sustainability while there is still time, we must commit ourselves to do so, commit ourselves to keep our commitment, and then get on with it.

Related Posts:

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• The Negotiability Of Constraints

• Feedback Loops

• Grieving For Our Environmental/Social Losses

• Transportation—Efficiency Or Effectiveness, A Choice Of Focus

• Is Space A Resource?

• Open Space—A Biophysical And Cultural Necessity

• An Urgent Plea For Open Space

• Surrounding Landscape

• Riparian Areas And Floodplains

• Restoration Of A Specific Condition Is Not Possible


  1. Donella Meadows. Seven Blunders. Resurgence, 172 (1995):13.
  2. Jean Houston. Deganawidah in the world. The Quest, 8 (1995):10-17.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Robert Constanza and Herman E. Daly. Toward an ecological economics. Ecological Modeling, 38 (1987):1-7.

© Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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