Psychology of Sustainability

SUBHEAD: At this time of grave and genuine crisis, we desperately need to evoke what we love.

By Mark Garavan on 26 November 2014 for FEASTA -

Image above: Sarah van Erp (at front) with other volunteers at the Waverley Communal Garden, in New South Wales, Australia. From (

As the 21st century unfolds it is increasingly clear that we are entering more deeply into times of travail. The symptoms, both personal and social, of systemic stress are all about.

At the political level we see the re-emergence of various fundamentalisms, nationalisms, far-right politics and the normalisation of the Orwellian permanent ‘war on terror’ and subsequent justification for constant state surveillance of citizens.

Authoritarian government in the East and post-democracy in the West now exist side by side. Politics is contracted to a regime of technocratric management of the global economy.

The capitalist economic system lurches into continual instability kept afloat only by measures such as quantitative easing and the imposed socialisation of elite debts.

At the social level inequality, insecurity, new forms of apartheid and social exclusion, slavery and trafficking, and vast enforced movements of people in search of economic security further accentuate the instability of the world.

Hovering above all of this disorder ecological crisis grows.

The term Climate Change may suggest that only the weather is in question but climate is everything – food, water, temperature, nature itself. Half of all vertebrate life-forms have become extinct in the last forty years.

What is all of this doing to us today? These interlocking problems are not just ‘out there’. We are also being affected at a deep personal level.

Not only are we now in the age of social and ecological unsustainability; we must also acknowledge that we are in the age of psychological unsustainability. We must acknowledge the pain and distress of this.

All of this social and natural dis-order is taking a toll on our human well-being. Our emotions are picking up this systemic collapse long before our rational minds can.

Symptoms of stress and distress are all about us – the exponential rise of labelled ‘mental illnesses’ (fuelled by pharmaceutical companies), of addiction, of despair. Many of us are anxious or depressed.

As Feasta has predicted and argued since its foundation, the system itself is disintegrating. That this is happening is a tragedy. There is no comfort in having anticipated what is now occurring. We are now living through this time. It is no surprise that as the system decays we suffer stress and anxiety at a personal level.

It is in this context that Feasta needs to address where it stands today and what it can do at this time. We have produced detailed analyses and proposals over many years. All of these remain serviceable and valuable.

But as a small organisation, desperately trying to argue for fundamental change at a systemic level, a high toll is exacted at the human level. Organisations often do not talk enough about this element. Burn-out, inter-personal frustrations, sheer exhaustion can dissipate even the most committed.

I know all of these features from personal experience in campaigns. I know what total exhaustion and inability to continue is like. There is so much to do, so much seems to rest on our shoulders, the issues are so urgent, we feel so much responsibility. It can easily become overwhelming.

Often, advocates for change necessarily end up in the role of the critic, of the one in opposition, of the one who points out what is wrong, of the nay-sayer, of the doom-mongerer. We seem to come from a place of negation. We can appear experts in what is wrong, in what we oppose, in what we hate.

At this time of grave and genuine crisis, we desperately need to evoke what we love. We need to restore to our public discourse the capacity to dream of a world of inclusion, economic sufficiency, democratic participation and of psychological wholeness and well-being where care and compassion ground our fragile existence.

The widespread alienation characteristic of our failing system may channel itself into anger, hatred and fear unless a project of hope and inspiration can be offered.

The word Feasta can be used ambivalently. Its origins as a title comes from the line Cad a dheanimid feasta gan adhmaid (what will we do in the future without wood). This suggests the future as a place of forboding and warning.

But Feasta can also be an assertion of hope – that despite all there is a future. It must be inhabited and constructed. That is up to us.

But we cannot do it all of course. At a minimum all we in Feasta can do is not collude with the contemporary illusions.

We can speak with utter honesty about ourselves as struggling human beings, about our collapsing system, about our fears, distresses and vulnerabilities and about our hopes of a world that might be good enough for a holistically sustainable human life. Sustainability must include the social, political, economic and ecological and also the psychological.

The new language and praxis of a sustainable politics must include care and well-being – focusing on the welfare of all of us. That needs to start now so we can begin to support ourselves through these times of woe.

Related posts:
  1. A Complexity Approach to Sustainability – Theory and Application: Review
  2. A guide for sustainability advocates
  3. Comment on The psychological roots of resource overconsumption by Floro
  4. The Anne Behan Community Sustainability Award
  5. New Financial Architecture for Sustainability
• Mark Garavan lectures in social care in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. He is the author of Compassionate Activism: An Exploration of Integral Social Care. He is currently chairperson of Feasta's trustees.

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