Simplicity vs. Sustainability

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.

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5 Responses to Simplicity vs. Sustainability

  1. Western Dave says:

    Russell is going to love this.

  2. Heh. You know me too well, David. I was just thinking of sending Tim an article I’ve written on simplicity and bicycling. It’s thesis is that “keeping it simple” actually sometimes does involve “creating elaborate regulations or structures or standards which then need to be recited or enforced at every turn.”

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    See, I somewhat obviously am wary of that. Simplicity is a shared cultural property, so it needs talking out, and that can sometimes verge on a regulatory experience. But the idea that it need enforcement would be, as often, a place where we split and you go vaguely communitarian and I go vaguely libertarian.

  4. Stentor says:

    This is interesting, because — perhaps due to spending my days immersed in that sustainability literature — I have the opposite valence to my reactions to those two words. For me, “sustainability” connotes attention to the goals of an enterprise and concern for how you’re affecting others or your own future (which I suppose is not too far off from your conception, though I interpret “sustainability” as being much more “good enough” than some other, more maximalist ways of thinking). Whereas “simplicity” to me sounds like fetishizing one means to sustainability, and in that sense much more limiting.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I hear you. Definitely a good deal of the sustainability literature tries very hard to define the concept closer to my emotional feeling about simplicity in this post, as well as tries to keep it close to that sense of money in, expenditures out. But I really do feel there’s a maximalist tendency in some sustainability activism, as well as a tendency to actually complicate the work of everyday life. If I need to march all over the place just to make consistently sustainable choices, then that is in and of itself not especially sustainable (either in the sense of conserving personal energies or in the sense of making inputs and outputs align).

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