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Life coaching, counseling, and energy medicine

Sustainability: Is it really possible?

"In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations."—Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy

"The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated. There must be just and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting the needs of all people." —The Natural Step's Third and Fourth Conditions for Sustainability

Feeling hopeless about our society's headlong dash into environmental destruction? Wondering whether there's really anything anyone can do? Or are you in the "recycling, hoping and praying" contingent? Or maybe just not dealing with it at all, because there are too many other things demanding your attention—or because it's just too frightening to think about what could happen to our biosphere if present trends continue.

Alliance for Sustainability

It turns out there's a lot we can do, everyone can help, and a major center of the action is right here in the Twin Cities. The Alliance for Sustainability, headed by Terry Gips and based at the Hillel Center at the University of Minnesota, is dedicated to creating a state of the world in which health, wellness and basic needs (of humans and the environment) are met into perpetuity.  Says Gips, "When we first created this organization (formerly called the International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture--IASA) in 1983, it was launched by hunger expert and Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappe. Although we focused initially on agriculture, we always recognized that sustainability really embraces all aspects of life, from health and wellness to the economic system to transportation to housing; it's really comprehensive." 

Gips, who was co-founder and president of IASA and continues as the voluntary head of the Alliance, is a widely published ecologist, agricultural economist, sustainability business consultant, Natural Step facilitator (on an independent basis), speaker and author with more than 25 years experience in global environmental leadership, government policy, sustainable development, and business management and consulting. He was a White House aide to President Carter, Capitol Hill aide to two U.S. representatives, Cargill economic analyst and grain merchant, Director of Ecological Affairs and Sustainability for the Aveda Corporation, and brokerage assistant with a Wall Street investment firm. He wrote the widely-acclaimed Breaking the Pesticide Habit, co-authored The Human Consumer and Producer Guide, served as technical editor of Reviving the Land, and produced numerous articles based on his work in more than 45 countries. "In the beginning," he says, "we decided to focus on agriculture because we thought that was such a fundamental problem. There were so many abuses, so much destruction, it had so much impact on people's health, from the pesticides and destruction of topsoils to social justice issues like hunger."

The Alliance was a driving force in developing the concept of sustainability and its increasing acceptance around the world, through its publications, speaking and policy efforts, from Minnesota's cutting-edge organic certification program and pesticide legislation to the United Nations' Earth Summit Agenda 21 sustainable agriculture provisions. Gips has served on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Waste Pesticide Task Force, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Organic Advisory Committee, and the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board's Ground Water Advisory Committee, which helped develop and pass Minnesota's landmark ground water legislation. He also has served on many other boards, including CERES (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies), where he helped develop the CERES Principles for corporate environmental responsibility, which have been signed by 80 companies. He has received wide recognition for his work, including the Giraffe Award for risks he has taken to protect the environment.

What is sustainability?

So what is sustainability? Gips answers, "We defined sustainability as having four basic parts: It has to be ecologically sound—that deals with health and the environment; it has to be economically viable, so that farmers and other businesses can make a decent living and continue; it has to be socially just—in terms of equity and women, the poor and all people being able to have a voice in the decisions affecting their lives; and it has to be humane, meaning to embody our highest values, including how we treat animals, people, and the earth. So we thought those four elements were critical.  We focused on agriculture, but we really could have picked anything." 

Why the shift from agriculture to a larger focus? "We found that we had succeeded in our work of trying to get sustainable agriculture onto the agenda for government. We were active at the UN Earth Summit in 1992, and we succeeded in getting the UN to adopt sustainable agriculture as the goal for all 170 countries. So that was a huge accomplishment. And we've seen a shift in Minnesota, with the state creating a sustainable agriculture program and the University of Minnesota beginning the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture."

"So we've seen those kinds of shifts institutionally. We felt there needed to be a shift to overall sustainability. We applied the same questions about health and wellness--these four different aspects--to all systems, whether it's healthcare, housing, transportation, schools, business, government or communities, because we see the interconnectedness of all these different things."

The Natural Step

A major conceptual model used by the Alliance, and taught by Terry Gips in workshops, is the Natural Step (TNS), a consensus framework for bringing about sustainability that was developed and applied quite successfully in Sweden, and is now being used in this country. 

Gips writes, "Do you ever feel overwhelmed by what we're doing to the Earth and wonder whether we really can create a sustainable future? Can you imagine a land where:

  • Hundreds of thousands of young people became concerned about the Earth and created their own environmental projects, computer networks, video programs and a youth parliament?
  • Sixty large and small businesses made a commitment to sustainability and began offering ecologically sound products and services that increased profitability, improved performance, and provided competitive advantage;
  • The largest oil company developed clean-burning, farmer-grown bio-fuels and lobbied the government to raise air-quality standards while McDonald's eliminated toxics, used green, renewable energy and even solar panels and wind turbines, made a commitment to go organic by selling only organic milk, and serving veggie burgers and hamburgers with organic beef;
  • More than 70 major cities and rural towns became eco-municipalities, thereby decreasing costs and waste while creating more jobs; and
  • Conventional farmers made a commitment to become sustainable, saving money and the environment by reducing pesticide use by 75 percent in less than a decade, while creating the world's most environmental conference center by becoming fossil-fuel-free with renewable energy, utilizing sustainable forestry, converting their model farm to organic, and serving organic food.


"Would you like to live in a land like that? You can. Sweden has already accomplished it and more. And the ideas behind this success are spreading around the world—in part through an initiative called the Natural Step."

TNS uses four conditions for sustainability, or "system conditions": 1. Reduce mining and use of fossil fuels; 2. Eliminate hazardous substances produced by society; 3. Protect biodiversity and ecosystems, and 4. Efficient use of resources to save money, reduce waste and meet human needs. Gips says, "TNS was brought to the US by Paul Hawken and organizational learning professor Peter Senge in the mid-1990s. It has now been adopted by corporations like Home Depot, Nike, Interface, Mitsubishi Electric USA, Norm Thompson Outfitters, and Collins Pine, as well as public institutions such as the University of Texas at Houston Health Sciences Center."

Interconnectedness of living systems

Asked about the connections between sustainability and global and personal wellness, Gips referred to his book, Breaking the Pesticide Habit, in which he talks about research that shows many of the pesticides and fertilizers "had well-documented, detrimental health and environmental impacts, such as contaminating ground water with nitrates, and in the case of the pesticides, everything from cancer, birth defects…a range of challenges."

He explains, "But the research also shows that certain of these pesticides and fertilizers interfere with the uptake of nutrients from the soil, micronutrients, by the plant. And the plant actually becomes weakened, and in a weak state, it literally sends out a signal to insect pests to attack a weak plant. So the pests attack, and the solution is more pesticides.

"You get on what we call the pesticide treadmill: You keep applying more and more. Which is how we got to Silent Spring [title of the landmark book by Rachel Carson]. When you really understand how nature works, and how cells function, you see that there's a total connection between the health and wellness of plants and the health and wellness of human beings, and health and wellness of the environment. And the truth is that if you look at things from the standpoint of a cell, you have to go to the molecular level to find any difference between the cell of a plant, of a person, or of another animal. They're almost identical. The primary difference between our cells and plant cells is the ability of plant cells to do photosynthesis. So if you start seeing a problem with plants, or with certain animals, pay a lot of attention. Because it ultimately will probably show up with human beings."

Finding win-win-win solutions

Gips clearly works hard to use a positive approach; he doesn't approach polluters as "bad people," or rub their noses in their sins against the environment. Yet he has clearly been very persuasive in his sustainability work over the years. Asked about his philosophy in approaching corporate managers, government officials, and all the others involved in these issues, he replied, "I've worked for the past 25 to 30 years on sustainability. I've worked in the private sector, the public sector, and the nonprofit sector, with some of the world's biggest corporations, some of the world's greenest corporations, for the White House, for Congress, all different kinds of groups." For example, in Congress, "When we would have the hearings I would always discover that somebody was being hurt, not intended, by the bill. There almost always are winners and losers. It was a stunning realization for me, a very harsh realization."

"So all of those experiences combined to sort of shift my thinking to always try to find win-win-win solutions. So that the government accomplishes its goals, the business or the farmer, whoever it may be, can stay in business, and we have a healthy environment. I begin with the standpoint that we all have a long way to go. We all have these challenges, and what we need to do is to create a society that supports people, sort of ignites the spirit of people, in wanting to make these changes, and rewards them for the changes they're making, to create positive incentives. That doesn't mean we don't have negative motivators, but really, people are far more likely to be motivated by the positive."

"And I also found that it is literally not possible to have enough police on every farm to watch what a farmer does every day, or in every company, in every plant—it's just not possible. Somehow we have to have a society based on trust, on ethics, on values. So I would rather begin with a positive assertion that if we know what we're trying to accomplish, and we create incentives to support people in doing that, we're far more likely to get there, and actually enjoy getting there. And we'll probably get there faster, and we'll probably do it all together. So that's really what my work has been about."

What individuals can do

So what can individuals do now to become more sustainable in their own lives and to contribute to the larger cause? Gips answers, "First, really understand what sustainability is. The Natural Step provides that quickly and easily.  Second, have a vision of what's possible. [The example of Sweden can help here.] Third, use the tools at hand." This could include looking at one's own recycling habits, fuel use, and other consumption; for example, Gips recommends purchasing products for the home at Lakewinds Natural Home Store. "Fourth, join the Alliance.  It's free, and you get the Manna newsletter free."

Gips concludes, "The UN estimates that to meet the basic needs of everybody on the planet would cost $60 billion, which is the minimum cost of Star Wars, or 4% of the wealth of the 250 wealthiest people in the world. We just need the will to do it."

In addition to Natural Step seminars and introductions that can be arranged for any group, the Alliance for Sustainability's current projects include the Sustainability Resource Center and Website, Center for Sustainability and Spirituality, Center for Judaism and Sustainability, Sustainable Communities Project, Organic and Non-Genetically Modified Foods Initiative, Sustainable Hospital Project, Junk Mail Tree Project, Living Green Expo (April 27 at the State Capitol) and Skiers Ending Hunger. For more information or a free membership, see the website www.mtn.org/iasa, or contact the Alliance in the Hillel Center at the University of Minnesota, 1521 University Ave SE, Minneapolis MN 55414, 612-331-1099, fax 612-379-1527, e-mail iasa@mtn.org.

Judy Steele is a living-skills teacher, counselor, and organizational consultant with a master's degree in transpersonal psychology and over 30 years of experience in assisting organizations and individuals with the mental, emotional and spiritual roots of life and work effectiveness. She can be reached at 612-929-0489 or jwspr@earthlink.net. Website: www.schoolforliving.org.  (Minneapolis MN)