Last week, I was at an event where there was some talk about Swarthmore trying to embrace sustainability and simplicity to a greater degree. Afterwards, I was trying to parse out why those two words provoke really different gut-level reactions in me, why they don’t feel at all synonymous.
There’s a huge literature on sustainability as a concept, so I want to stress that what I’m about to say is more of an emotional reaction than a substantive engagement with that literature. But I associate sustainability with very comprehensive claims about managing the entire input and output of an institution, a household, a personal life. There’s a hubris around sustainability, a kind of aspiration to manage a huge range of decisions against a systematic checklist of criteria, with a global consciousness of action and consequence. Now there’s the very ordinary sense of a sustainable project or enterprise that’s all about how much money or resources are coming in versus how much money or resources are being spent. I don’t have any problem with that kind of discussion, it’s basic for a household or a college or a business or a government. When what’s meant by sustainable is a comprehensive evaluative grid that looks at every activity and involvement in global terms, I at best find that a dizzying bar to set. At worst, I think people end up pushing very strong claims about what is or is not sustainable in that universal sense which aren’t very supportable when you look at the fine print, and then trying to produce a strong institutional constraint to follow the logic of that claim.
Simplicity seems to me a more ad hoc, personal kind of evaluation of any activity. It’s an aesthetic, an attitude, a starting orientation. If somebody says, “Keep it simple”, I tend to think that means (for example) that good enough is the bar you’re aiming for, not perfect. That you avoid ornamentation or fussiness in staging an event, setting a requirement, carrying out a duty. That you avoid excess effort and excess use of resources. Now I grant freely that different people have very different sensibilities about what’s excess and what’s not, but keeping it simple would tend to imply that you just accept that variation and move along. Simplicity is live and let live, it’s not creating elaborate regulations or structures or standards which then need to be recited or enforced at every turn.