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Sustainability is Social and Cultural

The third in the series of audio posts, created for an Introductory Sustainability course and to discuss what sustainability is.

Have you ever thought about how the place you grew up affected you later in your life? What messages did you receive from the places you experienced?

Was where you lived or spent time focused on the car or on the people?

Was nature a space to explore or fear? Was the idea of walking to school a necessity or an impossibility?

In keeping with the theme of this series of posts I’m going to give you some time to reflect on those questions: What was the message of the place you spent time as a child?

What about the spaces that you inhabit now? What messages do they send to you, to your neighbours, or to someone who might visit?

I’m fortunate to have many positive memories of the places of my childhood; but when I think about sustainability, one particular memory stands out. I remember playing street hockey in the parking space for the townhouse complex I lived in. We would set up right in the middle of the road in. For any of you who have played street hockey you are likely familiar with the “car!” call and the momentary opening that allows the car through before the game continues. 

Looking back, I’m both baffled and fascinated by this exchange. We had the road, it was our place, and we had to grant permission for the car to pass. Today I can see the privilege in this story, but at the time I only saw that the game, the community, the activity had priority over the car. This had an impact on my perception of what space is for, who space is for.

Today, I am a bike commuter and I have a very different perception of my place on the road. I want to have the place I had as a kid but I’ve experienced too many honking horns, swearing drivers, and an accident that resulted in multiple surgeries. Now, before you think that my childhood experiences left me racing through traffic and dodging between cars, I don’t. Half of my incidents, including my most serious one, have been when I have been riding on separated bike paths. I know the research says that these paths are safer but my experience has not been positive. Unlike my street hockey games, cars don’t have to give me any space when I’m on a separated bike path. Of course, they take it a step further by yelling at me for being near their space. What was so clear as a kid, that public space was for community, is quite apparently not the case as an adult.

Place is an important concept. We will put effort in to protect places we love and that can be positive such as events like the annual, except in covid times, river valley cleanup in Edmonton. But it can also be negative if we prevent, or try to prevent, others from using a space because they are different from us, as happened in May 2020 when a white woman called the police on a Black man who was birding in the area. Or as we looked at before with First Nations peoples being removed from their traditional lands in order to preserve the place as a national park.

Place also matters through processes like gentrification. With catch phrases like revitalization communities are redeveloped. Public art, new transportation lines, and business recruitment can make the once local residents wonder how they fit in with someone else’s vision for their place. For a local story check out the article by Jackson Spring, a journalism student at MacEwan University in 2019, about how the valley line LRT project in Edmonton and surrounding redevelopment is making the residents of the Boyle Street Community question their futures

Even buildings with their front and back sides can send messages about who belongs in what place, a reality that the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton actively tried to challenge with their new building by placing real entrances on three sides of the building. 

Place can also have cultural implications. Consider advocates for the hundred mile diet. As an Albertan the 100 mile diet has little appeal as I would face an upcoming winter of beef and potatoes. But consider a Syrian refugee or an immigrant from the Philippines, the 100 mile diet would likely mean no recipes from home ever. 

Place matters for sustainability but we have to make sure to ask a place for whom? Do we want sustainability that makes a driver feel like they can yell at me for being near them on the road or one that lets the kids decide when to grant access to the car? Do we want places that barely tolerate someone who is different or where we can ask to learn from every visitor and resident? Do we want public art regardless of its cultural relevance? Do we want revitalization that pushes people from homes they can no longer afford? Or do we want places that invite people in no matter what direction they are coming from? Do we want to eat within a 100 miles or do we want to eat the foods of our culture and family?

If you’ve followed the last two posts in this series you may be noticing a trend. When we talked about the economy we considered what values we have compared to what has value in our economy. In the environment we asked who gets to define what “the environment” even is. These both have implications for our social and cultural health. If we value consumption then what is the point of putting a welcoming entrance on the “backside” of a building? Afterall, we wouldn’t have a reason to invite someone in who couldn’t afford our services. If we value nature that is untouched by human hands then shouldn’t everyone be behind the fence regardless of any aspect of their identity?

Economy, environment, society, and culture are not the four pillars of sustainability because sustainability won’t be built on pillars. Pillars, or legs of a stool, or even interconnected circles, all common images when defining sustainability all imply that these are separate topics that only connect to sustainability when things are right. But that’s just not the case. We can’t separate the environment from our culture any more than we can separate the economy from our society. Imagining that we can see these areas as discreet entities has led us to the place where we exclude people by default. It prevents us from recognizing that “small actions” like carrying reusable grocery bags means nothing if you have no access to groceries. It prevents us from realizing that the trees we cut down because they disrupted the view were performing a service that will not be matched by building an erosion guard where the trees once were. It prevents us from realizing we are all in this together.

I used to run an activity with kids in the camp programs I led. We took a ball of yarn and connected the parts of a food web. But then we would remove something from the web, perhaps the nearby pond that had been filled in to make way for a shopping complex. The web would shift and change, parts of it would collapse, perhaps all of it would collapse, or sometimes one part of the web would grow in response while others withered and died. I feel like this is a much better analogy for the relationships among society, culture, environment, and economy. They are fundamentally interconnected but when you let a component drop, like trying to extract culture from the First Nations through residential schools, the ripples spread out continually along the rest of the web. 

So, what is the web of sustainability? What parts have overgrown more than they should? How do we support the re-emergence of what has been lost? How do we change our thinking so that we see connections rather than boundaries? Perhaps we once had those ways of thinking when we looked at our places through our eyes as a child, when places could be for community. Recognizing that many people learn at very young ages all the barriers in the way of community.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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