Sustainability and your mental health

The unsustainability of studying sustainability.

Gazing into the Abyss

Sustainability is the capacity for human society, the environment, and the global system of economics and governance to persist over time.

I’m a student of sustainability who has come dangerously close to withdrawing from university – because, in part, what I’m studying can literally drive one crazy.

The first time I studied a tertiary course was at the University of Wollongong. As a promising student with a high ATAR, I’d just enrolled in a special “Dean’s Scholars” Arts degree complete with a hefty scholarship, where I was free to build my entire program however I wanted.

I chose philosophy, and nothing else. For two and half years, I did four philosophy courses every semester, gazing daily into an abyss of endless questions – many of which were impossible to answer. Eventually, as you might imagine, this decision of mine to dwell endlessly on serious topics messed me up badly.

The existentialists

In high school, I’d been a huge fan of the philosophy of existentialism. And as it turns out, it was studying this topic at university that led to a breakdown and my eventual withdrawal. The existentialists ask some of the biggest questions we can. Albert Camus, my favourite existentialist, dealt at length with one very big question:

Outside of classes, we are met with a disheartening wall of indifference and apathy

‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem,’ Camus argued, ‘and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that’.

To understand why he thought this, it helps to know that Camus saw life as absurd; without meaning or hope of any deeper understanding. It sounds pessimistic, even nihilistic, but there was a life-affirming quality: if life is truly absurd, shouldn’t we simply enjoy the ride? Regardless of where one lands on these issues, there is a cost for those who dwell too long on them. It’s not healthy to go around every day questioning whether life is worth living.

My problem with sustainability

Upon returning to university to study sustainability, I’ve exposed myself to the same dreadful abyss of ideas that broke me all those years ago. Studying sustainability can be a relentlessly and brutally depressing undertaking. Whereas other subjects might stress their students out with too much work, sustainability can sap its students of a will to survive; because we continue to fight in a battle that we are taught may be futile. The enormity of our challenge is daunting.

We are constantly subjected to seemingly impossible problems where our existence as a species is at stake. And outside of classes, we are met with a disheartening wall of indifference and apathy when we try to speak of the horrors we’ve witnessed and the need for unprecedented change. At best, we are met with tokenism and the smallest shreds of progress.

How wouldn’t this affect our mental health?!

What I’ve discovered is that sustainability asks the same question suicide does, but on a species level. Sustainability, however, is not of the same philosophical nature that Camus was. In all my studies, I haven’t once seen a scholar question sustainability’s fundamental premise: that humanity is worth saving. It is a given, in every case, that it is worth saving.

The profound realisation for me has been in understanding that we are all, to one extent or another, engaged in the conflict Camus described: between a futile endeavour (achieving sustainability) and simply enjoying the ride. Perhaps more subtly, we are engaged in a conflict between where our focus should lie.

As sustainability students, we are taught to fight against our seemingly inevitable demise. We are also taught to consider “business as usual” – enjoying the ride without a care for its inevitably gloomy and fatal end – as the enemy. To evoke Camus’ allegory of Sisyphus, we are taught to push that rock up the hill, and never question whether this is where our energy should be focused.

We are taught to push that rock up the hill, and never question whether this is where our energy should be focused

For me, engaging in that battle sometimes makes me deeply unhappy, because it all feels so futile at times. It’s like I’m wasting my time on a futile task when I could be appreciating other things more. But these binaries are just borne of frustration – there is a middle ground between the two that I’m learning to discover with the support and love of friends. For me, the middle ground is a space where we fight for the greater cause while appreciating that other things in life may matter just as much in the end.

Unlike in philosophy, sustainability has never broached the fundamental conversation about what we’re doing, and why. Sustainability has no Camus. In a very real and problematic sense, we’re not equipped to deal with the feelings we’re inevitably going to encounter: because our courses never address them, or the things that cause them.

The Fall

There is a moment in the show The West Wing when a character recounts a memorable scene from his favourite movie, The Lion in Winter. Three men are locked in a dungeon, about to be executed. One of the men, Richard, tells his brothers not to cower – but to take it like men. One of the other men cannot fathom this. ‘You fool!’ he says, ‘As if it matters how a man falls down?!’.

Richard’s reply is something worth remembering in dark times: ’When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal’.

We are potentially in our own species-level fall right now. And yet, even if all hope for survival is lost, I’d argue that things still matter. How we go out – that matters. It’s okay to go out fighting, despite the odds of success, like our sustainability lecturers beg us to do. It’s okay for us to resist what might be inevitable. There’s profound courage and nobility in that.

But we need to have that conversation. We need to ask what sustainability is: an exercise in ensuring our survival? Or an exercise in dying well? In this time of uncertainty, is it not potentially both? Reflect on that. On how, considering both possibilities, you might want to best use your time.

Finding a way forward

When it comes to sustainability, I would advise you all to be careful how long your own stare lingers. Don’t delve too deeply into serious topics, such as those explored in this column, without making sure you have other avenues open. There is a kind of madness that will find you if you narrow in on existential questions too much. Study other things. I recommend studying the arts, in particular –  as it can heal your soul, and give you ways to express feelings that otherwise might remain invisible.

Study poetry, or French, or basket-weaving, or cake decorating memes – whatever makes you happy. Not only can the arts play an important role in communicating sustainability, but it can help you find new paths to happiness you may not have otherwise.  It may just be the case that this is all that matters in the end; finding your own happiness on the way down.

This piece originally appeared in Woroni, a student publication of the Australian National University. You can check out Woroni’s website here. Republished with permission from the author.

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