Article for Public Art Review, Spring 2011
More or Less Meaning
In general usage, sustainability has become virtually synonymous with the notion of renewable resources. Without question, this is a positive thing, to begin thinking about the future, and “trying to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (The Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development). However, this strikes me as only a portion of the story.
The word sustain is defined as; to support, to nourish or prolong. For instance, to sustain a rose bush involves caring for it in order to prolong its life, so that it will ultimately present whole and healthy flowers. However, the ability to truly nourish a rose, requires an in depth understanding of the entire rose/ rose bush as well as the conditions necessary to provide for and promote its growth and well being. Otherwise, any attempt to support the rose, will be only partial/ superficial, and will ultimately result in an unhealthy plant. To know, or to understand something, by definition involves a complete comprehension of its meaning, purpose and/ or function. In other words, once the full meaning of something is recognized and understood, only then can it truly be cared for, supported and sustained. What then is meaning? Where can it be found? How does one come to recognize it and embrace it?
Let us return to the rose for a moment. In order for us to come to know a rose, we must begin by asking, what is a rose? It is definitely more than just a name! This single question inspires a multitude of others. Is a rose a plant which grows in soil? Is it something that develops roots? What is the function of the stem, branches, and leaves? How does it gather the necessary nutrients from its environment? How does it eventually produce flowers? As one researches the answers to these questions, one realizes that although a rose includes all these aspects, they do not seem to fully encompass the intricate totality of a rose. What of the more delicate aspects of a rose, such as the scent or its interrelationship with the sun, or the process of photosynthesis? And what about the other thousand and one facts, which have not even been discovered yet? The questions seem to continue ad infinitum. It soon becomes clear that in actuality, a rose is part of a vast complexity of interconnected and unified parts, elements, and situations. To add to the complexity, one must envision that each and every one of these seemingly separate entities also has their own network of interconnectivity, as well as their own particular meaning or purpose for being. In this context, meaning may be seen not only as a boundless and all encompassing phenomenon, but also as the basic foundation that supports and sustains everything that exists.
Sustainability, therefore, is relative to the depth of knowledge one has explored, and the wealth of meaning that one has discovered. Obviously, a superficial understanding will only result in short lived sustainability, while a more comprehensive degree of knowledge, will ensure more successful efforts. Recognizing and accessing the web of interconnectivity concealed within the realm of meaning, seems to be a necessary step towards any harmonious, well balanced and long lasting effort towards sustainability.