"Peace and happiness were not a reward to be earned, but a state to be maintained with toil and grief." - Poul Anderson, Un-Man
When I first read that line, squirrelled away in a sci-fi anthology from the 1980's, it hit me hard. It speaks deeply to the contrast between humanity's evolutionary history - how we've developed for millions of years - and the massive, fractious civilisation that surrounds us. Then I thought further ahead and realised something more personally relevant to me: sustainability faces a similar problem, yet it's also a minimum vision of what we must achieve.
I say 'must', because an unsustainable future is a one where we will cease to exist sooner rather than later. The longer the time-frame, the more sustainability shifts from aspiration to basic necessity. It's a useful principle for the next decade. It's a very important one for the next century. The next millennia? If human civilisation still exists, you'd better believe we'll be better stewards (or passengers?) on our planet as it whizzes through the Universe.
The Milky Way visible in South Australia, 2016.
That doesn't mean, in a millennia, we'll have it all figured out. New generations, new endeavours and the ebb and flow of Earth's systems will continue to throw up challenges. Right now, we're seeing sustainability principles battle into the mainstream. What we achieve now will help make sure there are still people who will remember us; if we do really well, those memories could even be fond.
But let's be realistic:
Sustainability will never take care of itself.
Sustainability will never be easy.
Sustainability will never be simple.
It addresses issues bigger and more complex than the human brain has evolved to easily comprehend. Individuals can falter. Systems can be corrupted. Mechanisms can become obsolete. Political movements can be overthrown or subsumed. Forward steps can be reversed.
We know this. And here we all are.
People's Climate March in Adelaide, 2015.
You're reading this; I'm writing this. Millions of people around the world act. They plant trees, file lawsuits, recycle cartons, 'like' the AYCC, support education programs, march, run shoestring crusades against coal with expert witnesses crashing on the couches of volunteers, write letters, talk to each other, transform business models, sing, teach, install solar panels, block runways, lobby, donate, take cloth bags to the shops, vote - they take one step, then more.
Those actions are a huge collective achievement. Unfortunately, it can only be huge because our collective impact on the world is even bigger.
We must do what we can close that gap. Scale up the action and shrink the impact. Help others to do the same, if they will benefit from our help. Make others do the same, if they will benefit from ignoring us. When we fail, we learn and we keep trying. When we succeed, we learn and we keep trying.
Sustainability is not a reward to be achieved, but a state to be maintained - and exceeded - with vision and toil.
It is alive because our only future is a sustainable one. It must be.