The significance of Identity for Sustainability

Beyond being one of the Max-Neef’s Fundamental Human Needs (see footnote) I think our identity is actually central to effectively working towards sustainability. Questions of identity have come up repeatdly during my personal journey since graduation, whilst traveling overland back to Australia, and most recently during the Hallbarhet2009 event.

Completing the MSLS program and having a shared sense of identity with 200 other alumni has been really important for my work. The shared terminology, concepts, values and worldviews create a sense of community, enable idea sharing and have given me extra confidence in challenging situations and new roles. Because I benefit from being part of that community, I also contribute to it’s development financially, and by supporting others through mentoring and advice.

So far, that all sounds like a win-win-win for me, the community and society right? Yes, and it’s not all positive. I have observed that if I am too attached to being a ‘MSLSer’ and to the particular way of viewing and doing things that entails, it can mean I stop thinking, stop addressing the particular needs in that moment and steer away from questioning my own assumptions. The same over-attachment can also create barriers to engaging with individuals or networks through using exclusive language or not empathising with their perspective e.g. ‘My definition of sustainability is science-based, globally-recognised and highly strategic, so I am not going to even engage in a conversation about the meaning of sustainability’.

Another significant component of my identity is my nationality. Since leaving Australia in 2005, I’ve worked and met with people from diverse cultures and landscapes. Increasing my ability to empathise with different perspectives is an incredibly important area of learning for me. I believe I am now much more aware of different ways of building trust and community, new appropriate technologies for growing, making, organising and transporting, and new ways of perceiving situations that lead to more creative solutions. I don’t have to permanently let go of my Australian-ness to continue to learn more, but I must at least temporarily let go of excessive identification with my habitual ways of seeing, doing and being. For example, the temptation to be overly casual, cut down tall poppies, or pretend that our (current) negative or (potential) positive contribution to reducing global carbon emissions is insignificant.

A deeper manifestation of over-identification with a particular part of myself is being excessively attached to a ‘small’, independent and limited sense of my own identity. Identifying with that part of myself can mean I am plagued by fear and self-doubt in the face of  personal, or the enormous global challenges we face. This over-identification with a small sense of self is the primary challenge taken on by most ‘enlightenment’ teachings, but has special relevance in the case of sustainability practitioners if it means you choose to protect your ‘self’ rather than open up to collaborating or leading.

Recognising the limiting nature of that sense of identity, I have found two ways to get beyond my ‘small’ sense of identity. One is through personal practices meditation, contemplation, and deep dialogue where a common experience is that all of what and who I am is much bigger, and more than what ‘I’ alone simply think, feel and can see. The resulting expanded sense of self creates the mental space for me to face, respond to or ignore my own fears and insecurities e.g. ‘I am not just my emotions and thoughts, so the prospect of being embarrassed is less scary‘.

A second way to get beyond a limiting sense of identity has been learning more about the lives of those who I admire. This may be Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) or Gandhi, Vandana Shiva or Karl-Henrik Robert, or even close peers. Despite their super-natural achievements they are all human. Really (sometimes it’s hard to believe) they are made of flesh and bone, and prone to forgetting names or suffering from food poisoning (that’s what finished Siddhartha!) just as much as you or I. To me that realisation of their human-ness suggests there is every opportunity for me to make the same sort of commitments and efforts they did, and perhaps a similar positive contribution. That realisation really threatens the ‘small’ self’s fondness for hiding and making excuses,, which are perhaps the only limitations to showing the same clarity of  intention, dedication and creativity they show. For me, that realisation leads to a more liberating and energised engagement with life and sustainability challenges.

Through this selection of examples: MSLS, Australian and ‘small’ self, I have tried to articulate why asking ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What perspective am I identified with?’ are relevant to working itowards sustainability. Being flexible in your perspective, and questioning the value or overly identifying with one sense of self is, afterall, something we are also asking of those that we engage with in our  sustainability work. We are often challenging clients or colleagues to see themselves as a citizen rather than just consumer, as a grandmother as well as a CEO, creative generator of solutions in addition to a formal title such as ‘Procurement Officer’ or as a steward of the land rather than just farmer. So if I am asking others to loosen their attachment to a particular sense of identity, I think it can only help if I lead by example.

Perhaps you too might take some time to ask that question when engaging in your next sustainability project or initiative: Who am I, and which sense of self or perspective am I most identified with?

Footnote on Needs:

Our grandparents used to bump into each other and say hello while wandering through the village square and chat over a tea, while many of us now ‘bump’ into each other online and chat via instant messaging. However the fundamental needs that drive the desire to connect and be part of a community remain the same: like the needs for belonging, and participation. Through time and across cultures, these same underlying motivation have driven our actions. What has varied is how we satisfy them. Manfred Max-Neef’s model (view a version of this model here) describes these specific ten motivators as fundamental human needs.

Needs are relevant to sustainability,  because many of our current modes of satisfying those needs are dependent on large-scale consumption of material goods made from non-renewable resources. As an example, one way to satisfy the need for idleness (relaxation) may be to buy a cheap flight from London to a Greek Island, lie on the beach, and drink expensive champagne after a frantic week at work. A substitute may with a smaller ‘ecological footprint’ be to cycle to a nearby village with your friends, paddle in the river for the day, and sample some locally-brewed beer.

A version of this piece was originally published in the Winter 2009 edition of the BTH Sustainability Master’s Alumni Newsletter – ‘Trunk and Branches’, available here.

You can read more about how this concept of needs can be used with business in another post here or also in the June 2008 edition of Trunk and Branches, here.

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