The Journey of Friendship

Park Forest Junior High School. 1988. There I met one of the goofiest kids I’d met. A weirdo like me but a little taller and gawkier. But we were sort of nerds into Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, robots and aliens who joined the Science Fiction club. Twenty years later, he and I are still friends. For the last three years, we have done Sustainability Now Radio together.

At this time of year 2009, the guys from Freeze Thaw Cycles held the shop’s fifth birthday party at Mike’s house. Late in the night, after a lot of talk about local agriculture, renewable energy, sustainability and more than a few tasty Elk Creek and Victory beers, we decided to convert an hour of Mike’s Friday funk show, On the Good Foot, into Sustainability Now. Our deep roots in the area, Mike’s work on bike paths and landscape architecture, and my desire to meet as many people working on sustainability as possible guaranteed we could find guests on most topics. Of course, we were a couple of sheets to the wind at a party lined with mountain bikers. It was going to be awesome.

I think right from the first show we knew there would be a lot to talk about. But how to structure it?
In his book The Creation, E.O. Wilson gave some advice on how to teach biology. First principle he states is start big. Go with the big picture and then you can zoom in. A big concept in biology could be something like the tree of life. For us, it was “What does sustainability mean to you?” or “How do you define sustainability?” I tend to like the “mean to you” version because it’s about the person and not something formal.

There are lots of definitions of sustainability out there. There’s the version from Our CommonFuture by the World Commission on Environment and Development which defines “[s]ustainable development [as] development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations.” The “three pillars” version is an accounting version that balances people, profits, and planet.

But I want to know people and how they live in the world. What do they believe? Why do they believe it? What do they do to carry out this thing called sustainability? That’s how you get good stories.

And we’ve gotten a lot of stories from great people. Too many to list here and most of them have influenced my understanding of sustainability.

So I’ll let you know about some people who have affected me on this show over the last few years.
Don Brown of ClimateEthics: Climate change is the biggest sustainability issue we face today. It clearly connects the economic, socio-cultural, and environmental “compartments” of our world together. It brings Ehrlich’s I=P*A*T to life. The rising pressures from climate change and how it’s affecting people differently in different parts of the world presents a massive moral dilemma. Don has really helped me to see these issues.

Richard Alley, Professor of Geosciences, author & host of Earth: The Operator’sManual, and co-winner of the Nobel Prize for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Alley is one of the most exuberant teachers and scientists alive today. No one explains the complex climate puzzle with so much clarity as he does and with so much authority because of his work on Earth’s climate over hundreds of millions of years and especially over human history and pre-history. It’s easy to get very doomy about people and the climate, but Richard manages to be positive.

Janaia Donaldson, Peak Moment TV: Donaldson sees that peak oil, climate change, and rising populations already challenges in the world and that those challenges are multiplying, escalating, and accelerating. Like us, she has decided to reach out to people who are working on these problems at all kinds of levels and create an online interview TV show. She’s interviewed the most grassroots of the grassroots community gardeners and resilience groups, environmental activists like Derrick Jensen, and economist David Korten. Clear and pleasant communication.

Barb Jarmoska of Responsible Drilling Alliance & Dave Yoxtheimer of Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research: We didn’t have these two on at the same time. But the shale gas development issues in Pennsylvania have been astronomical and the range of opinion makes the head spin. I am clearly in Jarmoska’s camp on this one because I see the total threats and land impacts from shale gas run contrary to a sustainable society and Barb (and several other guests) stated the case clearly. However, Yoxtheimer knows the industry and showed us history, science, and engineering from the point of view of someone who believes shale gas can be developed responsibly. Reasonable people can disagree.

Braden Crooks of Groundswell: Last fall, State College passed a Community and Environmental Bill of Rights in large part because Braden worked so hard. I collaborated with Braden (and many others) to get that going. Seeing a community take its home rule seriously in relation to the rights of nature was stunning. Braden clearly and tenaciously articulated our shared vision for more harmonious living with nature and one another.

Andy Lau, Penn State’s College of Engineering: Andy “The Dude” Lau, introduced me to sustainability as a really human-oriented concept. It wasn’t big problems and climate change. It’s about who we are as we are inside of ourselves, with others, and in the technologies we create for ourselves. Imagine putting Lebowski with Ivan Illich and Siddhartha over a soundtrack of Hawkwind teaching engineering design and you have Andy.
Dana Stuchul of Veggie Commons and Woody Wilson of Wilson’s Homegrown Farms: These two were on the same show and showed us complimentary visions of community-oriented resilient agriculture. Stuchul has worked with local land owners to totally open organic gardens on property that had been lawn. Now it feeds and beautifies and brings people together. Wilson has a small business where he can become your farmer, doing everything from constructing, maintaining, and harvesting a garden in total or helps you plan your garden and guides you along as he does with me (pic at right).

Alfredo Sfeir-Younis is President and Founder of the Zambuling Institute for Human Transformation: In October 2010 I did my best interview with this man. He called sustainability “coherence.” That single word showed me so many things about the way we live now and the way we could live…how incoherent modern life is and how much we can do though good living together.

Many other people were instrumental for this show, many of whom never came on. People like my family, my adviser Madhu Suri Prakash, and my assistantship adviser Jacqueline Edmondson. There were the authors and visionaries who we never interviewed. There were also the people right here who who did a lot in the Centre Region. You know who you are. I also have to thank the land and the water of this area for raising me.

Mike is my friend. We have been friends for almost 25 years. And this journey has brought us opportunities to connect with people all over Earth from Chile to Saudi Arabia to California to right here in our community. The whole show has come to be our way of connecting with the community and connecting people and communities together so that we can live together more sustainably. I’ve made friends this way including Andy, Dana, Chris, Tsultrim, Braden, Beth, Seth, Seth, Greg, Don, Krystn, Bill, Katherine, Ed, and others.

Here I am, hours from my last show. What does sustainability mean to me? I think sustainability is a lot like Ivan Illich’s concept of conviviality. Sustainability is personal freedom realized in ecological interdependence. To have such good living, we need friendship. To have such friendship, we need love. Deep and abiding love.

I believe that cultivating all of those connections and new friendships has strengthened my friendship with one of my oldest friends.

Sustainability is friendship. Thank you Mike.

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