Civilization versus Individual Needs: What are the Implications for Sustainability?

The holidays are here, and within the week I’ll be seeing all of my extended family over delicious foods and festive merriment. Shortly after that, there will be New Year’s gatherings to attend. It’s a time to reflect and consider what the next phase of life will hold.

There are many reasons to celebrate this year, and I find it more important than ever to look at the supporters and connections that I have accrued in my recent ventures. What do these connections say about my interests and priorities? I look around and see many people with social and environmental interests; individuals who are actively supporting the community that I have lived my entire life.

I still have a nagging interest in developing more practical skills and hands-on abilities. Much as I enjoy higher-level thinking and writing, I wonder how much can actually be accomplished through words alone. Where can action be taken regarding issues of environmental and social justice? It’s a challenging question. It seems that one person can either be contributing their time to activities of importance to the community at a broader level (e.g. sitting on committees, writing policy, or campaigning for a cause), or doing tangible projects which have importance to only the individual (e.g. building a chair, growing a harvest, or raising a farm animal).

I see imperfect connections between performing a fulfilling personal activity and contributing a larger benefit to the community in this modern age of detachment and technology. Our iPhones and internet connections keep us busy with social media updates and projecting a certain image of our lives to our friends and family. We’re so busy trying to get ahead financially and survive in a tough economy that we eschew reflection on how our actions ripple out to the family, community, and global level.

This problem can be described as the ‘problem of civilization’. We’re connected, and yet we’re not. We have innovative policies and progressive ideals which have circled back to perspectives held by early human society. Our priorities are messed up. We’re disconnected from the ‘things’ in the world which have real meaning; healthy trees, fresh streams, a diversity of animals and plants species. Even basic sunlight exposure is a challenge for some people to experience.

To get a pessimistic insight into these issues and reflections, I would encourage the reader to pick up a copy of Derrick Jensen‘s Endgame Volume 1 – The Problem of Civilization. It’s basically a summary of my undergraduate studies in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. And, like my undergrad studies, it leaves me with no clear answers and a sticky, angry, emotional residue that feels painfully like despondency.

I think that if positive ecological and social choices were personally fulfilling to the individual in the moment (rather than having abstracted, long-term, and community spin-off benefits), we would be behaving in much more sustainable ways. I’m at a loss as to how this fulfillment would magically occur, but I do know that it would involve every element of what makes us human: we would have more active, engaged, and happy relationships with other people, more intense experiences with the natural world, and more genuine interactions with the universe. Currently, the structure of civilization undermines these situations, with its paradigm of us-versus-them. The us-versus-them mentality pits us against different genders, different species, and different worldviews.


We can’t solve problems in isolation, and sustainability is one of the most complex and multi-faceted concepts that we’ve ever bandied about. (Even the term itself is contested ground, containing as it does no clear delineations over what is to be ‘sustained’ in the long term). While the fulfillment of civilization and individual needs seem to differ, the end-goals (of peace, life, joy, and survival) are the same. Our emotional experience of pleasure and self-identity have an important role to play in our behaviors.

As I gather together with family this holiday season, I won’t be reflecting on these deep and problematic issues. However, into the beginning of 2015, I hope to gather new insight into the connections between my needs as a person and the betterment of our basic state of being human.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lee says:

    Nice article, but one question. Do you believe that statement by Derrick Jensen? Do we NEED TO TELL LIES? Does he not believe in TRUTH?
    Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  2. marialegault says:

    I enjoy seeing pictures of birds and nature – keep up the great pics on your blog! Thanks also for the compliment on my article. I think that Derrick is correct in suggesting that we are ignoring ecological issues.

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