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The Elusive "Sustainability" and The Way of the Cherokee

The Elusive "Sustainability" and The Way of the Cherokee.

Ever since the concept of "sustainability" was officially acknowledged, the attempts at defining and redefining it have been innumerable. Some miss the mark by such a large margin as to be unworthy of a second glance. (For instance, the definition of "sustainable development" by a representative of the World Bank, declared to simply be "development that lasts"...)

The world's leading environmental think-tank, the U.N's World Commission on Environment and Development, in their 1987 report "Our Common Future" referred to sustainable development as one which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Nicely put, but far too vague.

I've long agreed with Wolfgang Sachs, who has candidly pointed out that "sustainable development" is an oxymoron and has emphasized that we must in fact "un-develop". Unfortunately, with the present rates of population growth, we are caught between a rock and a hard place; a very hard place indeed, especially because the "shepherds" determining development's course appear not to care about the important "future generation clause", and the "flock" (most of the populace) seems not to have grasped what actually sustains us all...

A somewhat holistic definition of sustainability was presented by prominent Slovak ecologist Mikulas Huba in an interview with the "Live and Let Live" publication.

"Sustainability entails a lifestyle which does not undermine the existence of others, of future generations and of Nature--in both living and non-living forms. On the contrary, within the framework of existing possibilities, it makes an effort to be of direct benefit. As such it presupposes love and tolerance toward not only one's kin but also non-human forms of life, in fact the whole Earth. We must manifest compassion, solidarity, foresight and thriftiness and be willing--by means of voluntary action-- to be of help whenever possible and sacrifice whenever necessary. In addition, we must actively make a stand against injustice and abuse."

The main reason I like Dr. Huba's version is that it so emphasizes the human element, thereby placing the responsibility straight into the hands of us all instead of echoing the popular notion that our fate is in the hands of government and industry. While it does not absolve the leaders of their share of accountability, it points out that major changes--and significantchanges, invariably involving a change of heart, often happen from the bottom up rather than the top down.

The last two sentences of his definition advocate social and environmental activism, implying that hope or even prayer, alone, will no longer suffice. With this I also agree. Yet activism, be it "against" or "pro" something, much like other well-meaning environmental, feed-the-hungry, clean air or clean water projects, are attempting to build of a structure (call it a "sustainable civilization") without a solid foundation. A foundation must rest in understanding--an individual and universal understanding of how, given the I.Q. of the human species, we ended up in the present crisis reaching nearly everywhere.

The Christian study of the Fall hints that we (represented by Eve) took an extra bite beyond what, in Paradise, was freely offered... That we have continued to take more of those "extra bites" for several thousand years has not been admitted to en masse. As long as the apples dangle from the tree, we refuse to temper our established desires. Taking has long been our culture's personal and collective addiction. Daniel Quinn was correct when, in his status-quo-shattering book Ishmael, he coined the fitting term Takers for the majority of the world's cultures.

The antitheses were the cultures of "Leavers"--now nearly extinct but representing a blueprint for this species' very survival.

The path to sustainability, I believe, involves our learning to live within respectful means of what Life offers...that is, we must re-learn how to take only what we need and no more, at least not unreasonably more. There are numerous "recipes" spoken or penned by those with greater wisdom than our mean average--from pre-Christian and Christian mystics, sages from the Far East or modern-day eco-cultural thinkers. One of my favourites comes from Forrest Carter's "The Education of Little Tree", spoken in the simple words of his Cherokee grandfather:

"It is The Way", he said softly. "Take only what ye need. When ye take the deer, do not take the best. Take the smaller and the slower and then the deer will grow stronger and always give you meat. Pa-koh, the panther, knows and so must ye."

And he laughed, "Only Ti-bi, the bee. stores more than he can use...and so he is robbed by the bear, and the 'coon...and the Cherokee. It is so with people who store and fat themselves with more than their share. They will make long talks, trying to hold more than their share. They will say a flag stands for their right to do this... and men will die because of the words and the flag... but they will not change the rules of The Way."

The fact is that, ignoring those rules, we have been learning to subdue Nature. The means we have acquired in this regard are remarkable, yet what we have not learned is to use our powers wisely.

Carter's narrative continues:

We went back down the trail, and the sun was high over us when we reached the turkey trap. We could hear them before we saw the trap. They were in there, gobbling and making loud whistles of alarm.

"Ain't no closing over the door, Granpa," I said. "Why don't they just lower their heads and come out?"

"Granpa stretched full length into the hole and pulled out a big squawking turkey, tied his legs with a throng and grinned up at me. "Ol' Tel-qui is like some people. Since he knows everything, he won't never look down to see what's around him. Got his head struck up in the air too high to learn anything."...

...Granpa laid them out on the ground, legs tied. There were six of them, and now he pointed down at them. "They're all about the same age... ye can tell by the thickness of the combs. We need only three so now ye choose, Little Tree."

I walked around them, flopping on the ground. I squatted and studied them, and walked around them again. I had to be careful. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled among them, until I had pulled out the three smallest I could find.

Granpa said nothing. He pulled the throngs from the legs of the others and they took to wing, beating down the side of the mountain....

A slow grin broke Granpa's bony face. "If ye was not Little Tree... I would call ye Little Hawk."...

...I would have liked to live that time forever...for I knew I had pleased Granpa. I had learned The Way.

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