A Guiding Light

A lot has emerged in my thinking since my July 28th post.  As I note therein, I am beginning to think more concretely about my studio practices, with an eye towards transitioning to more “sustainable” modalities.  It’s a sizable undertaking, to be sure.  Where to begin?  Look at assumptions and underlying values.  Establish some sort of criteria for making well-rounded choices. Before I do any of that though, it makes sense to look at the concept of “sustainability” itself.

Five years ago this month, I submitted a post on the topic of sustainability as it related to my experience processing kudzu fibers for weaving with Artist/Educator, Junco Sato Pollack  (Lessons in Sustainability and a “sidebar” about kudzu processing).  My experience with kudzu and the kudzu process was, and still is, exemplary of a truly environmentally sustainable practice, albeit one which would require a significant reset of what we now think of as productive labor in this society.  Ultimately, my own concerns about the planet’s survival, as well as our declining natural resource base, make obvious the need to filter all choices through a sustainability lens.  Of course this term and concept are applied liberally to describe a wide variety of human activities.  Since the concept of sustainability has come to such overuse, I want to find a definition that is both comprehensive and ultimately uncompromising.  Thus, in building a framework within which to evaluate technologies available to a small textile workshop (with an eye toward evolving my own practices), a clearer understanding of that concept is vital.

As it happens, I recently came across an essay by Post Carbon Institute senior fellow, Richard Heinberg, entitled Five Axioms of Sustainability.    In his essay, Heinberg supplies a brief history of the use of the term “sustainability” and the parameters within which it has been, and continues to be, applied to various aspects of human endeavor.  The history of the term’s use and evolution is illuminating.  With refinements over more recent decades (including Heinberg’s own) providing more granularity, one senses that a sort of “unified” definition of “sustainability” has once and for all been achieved.  After reading the essay, one thing is apparent: When looked at with honesty, there is no negotiating with the term’s embedded implications.  It is difficult for me to go there…yet; but toward the creation of a means by which I can honestly evaluate my own practices, I have started a “sustainability checklist,” borrowing from facets of the Heinberg essay and incorporating as sub-levels the questions listed in last month’s post (duplicated where appropriate).

  • Produces or embodies concentrations of substances extracted from earth
    • Will my product harm the environment?
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
    • What kind of waste does my manufacturing process generate and how can I reduce this?
  • Subjects nature to concentration of substances harmful to the biosphere (pollution, etc.)
    • Will my product harm the environment?
    • What kind of waste does my manufacturing process generate and how can I reduce this?
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
  • Can be built into a local supply chain and local economy
    • How far have the elements of my product traveled to get to the consumer?
    • Once it’s been made my product will have to be transported to the shop. How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my product?
  • Does not result in over harvesting, local displacement or other genetic manipulations
    • Can I use natural materials rather than highly processed ones?
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
  • Does not undermine Human capacity to meet basic needs
    • Will my product be designed in a fair way?
    • Will my product disadvantage or hurt any people?
    • Is the person making the product being paid fairly?
  • Is or significantly embodies a critical resource without viable substitution
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
    • Is my product going to stand the test of time?
    • Is it built to last?
    • Are my materials from an ethical or renewable source?
    • Is my packaging environmentally friendly?
    • How far have the elements of my product traveled to get to the consumer?
    • Once it’s been made my product will have to be transported to the shop. How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my product?
  • If natural resource, rate of use is offset by rate of replenishment
    • Can my product modify the way a user behaves? i.e.:
    • Can it help them carry out an activity or live in a more sustainable way?
  • If non-renewable, its use declines at a rate greater than its depletion
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
    • Is my product going to stand the test of time?
    • Is it built to last?
    • Are my materials from an ethical or renewable source?
    • Is my packaging environmentally friendly?
    • How far have the elements of my product traveled to get to the consumer?
    • Once it’s been made my product will have to be transported to the shop. How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my product?
    • Can my product modify the way a user behaves? i.e.:
    • Can it help them carry out an activity or live in a more sustainable way?

Obviously, these are all a bit abstract right now and subject to further development.  As I progress through future posts, things will become more concrete.

As I review these questions and begin to examine my own assumptions and practices, I wonder if there is a middle way, a way to reconcile less-than-perfect practices with the gravity of true sustainability; a way of honoring both the planet and the preciousness of human birth through engaged and conscious, albeit imperfect, practices?  I know many have formulated viable models and are engaged in conscious practice.  I will look at some examples in future posts.  Meanwhile, can I do the same, and what does that really mean?  This is where you find me right now, ready to take the plunge.  With the small textile/fiber-art studio in mind, where does one begin this undertaking?  Dyes/Colorants seem like a good place to start.  That will be the topic of my next post. 

2 responses to “A Guiding Light

  1. These are some huge and hugely important issues, as you recognize, Kathy. I grappled with them as well when I was weaving handwoven garments. There is a lot of conflicting information to sift through and various benefits and harmful impacts to balance against each other–all while staying true to your own vision and process. Thank you for sharing it all with us. I look forward to seeing where your research and experiments lead.

    • Well put Molly – I think you have fully expressed the nature of the quandary. I am in a state of flux and the nature of the balance you speak of is shifting…but balance is what I seek. I would like to investigate (dispassionately if possible!) all beliefs, assumptions, practices to define what will be “best” in my own case, but not to the extent that I lose the joy I feel toward this, my true vocation. Is this possible? That, among other things, is what I am to discover.

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