I appreciate a word with a clear charter such as sustainability, though lately it largely refers to the ability of our planet to sustain humanity. Why only us, you may ask? Because we live in the anthropocentric age it’s similar to egocentric, we think we are the crown of creation, it’s all about us. And indeed our virtues (if misused) have made us the single most dominant force that influences and determines the destiny of the entire biosphere.
We have the power!
We amassed a power no species ever did in the history of Earth, (though some will argue that aeons ago some green algae did). Now, we can decide what to do with this power.
Sustainability means enough resources to support life on Earth. But many believe that Earth is not sustainable by design. The scarcity principle is a pessimistic economic theory dating back to the 18th century and known as the Malthusian Equation; calculating how the exponential growth of the human population will eventually exhaust the finite natural resources of the planet resulting in unsustainability which will express itself in wars, plagues, famine, extinction of species, social unrest and such maladies.
The problem with looking at our reality as the validation of the scarcity theory is that seeing is not believing but rather the opposite. We need to change our belief system in order to see a different world emerging before us.
This paradigm of unsustainability is so disconcerting that some visionary multibillionaires such as Musk and Bezos pursue the colonizing of Mars and outer space as a sanctuary for future generations, (those who would be able to afford it).
On the other hand, humanity can and should make a major shift in attitude and set things right on planet Earth. It is not that complicated, in fact, simplicity is key, and the indigenous people of the world have all the know-how we need for that.
The first Indigenous people I met were the Bedouins of the Sinai Desert. The year was 1977 and Sinai was in transition from Israeli occupation to Egyptian repossession, while the only dwellers of this majestic land were three Bedouin tribes. I was an Israeli soldier positioned there to see the transition through. In my 18 years of youth, I’ve never met any other people besides my fellow Israelis. And the Bedouins were such a striking oddity, like ghosts gently floating in the hazy desert winds above the blinding whitewashed sand, the men in their all-white ankle-long dresses; the women fully wrapped in black.
After a few personal encounters with the Bedouins, I was further struck by their overwhelming hospitality, their generosity of time, their inherent dignity, their easygoing stance, their noble gait. Impressionable that I was, I had decided I wanted to become one of them. And so I did. For my entire 3 years of military service in the Sinai, each time I was off duty, I would get someone to drive me in the army’s jeep and leave me deep in the wadis or far by the shores of the Red Sea, alone, with them. I left my military fatigues behind and dressed in a white Jalabiya and learned how to wrap the white turban, the Cafia around my head, just like them. Gradually, I spoke the language, I learned the codes, I even had a Bedouin girlfriend, t.
Having literally nothing at all, to the uninitiated eye the Bedouins seem the poorest of all people, but in fact, the Bedouins are the richest people I’ve ever met. Rich with the most valuable possession of all with the most precious resource of all, what we lack they have - time.
The Bedouins have the liberty to enjoy a good rest at noon in the shade, under the cliff, where the wind gently cools them off. They are so present in the moment, they are never in any hurry. Sweet tea is brewed, burning just a few dry twigs under an acacia tree, and fresh flatbread is baked directly in the hot earth under the sizzling coals. I swear there is no Michelin star decorated restaurant in the world that can match the refined delicacy of just that, sweet hot tea and fire-baked flatbread. Their homes are tents made of camel hair, or huts joined together from an impossible array of things tied and knocked in together from the scraps of the desert and the sea. No house, designed by any famous architect can match the elegance and romance of such dwellings. Moreover, when you own a house, you are bound with a mortgage to a fancy slab of concrete with neighbours from both sides and two narrow parking spaces and what have you. When you won a tent, you own the world. You are free. How precious is that?
In the evening as the day cools off a circle of men forms around a small fire. A boy passes to wash our hands as each man blesses and gives thanks to existence. One large single tray is placed in the centre of the circle, with aromatic rice and a nice chunk of goat meat on the bone, and it’s enough for us all. As we eat, some chat, some giggle, but our voice is soft, not disturbing the whisper of the winds, the call of a single bird on a thorny branch on a lonely tree. The falling sun kisses the sea in passionate colours then a gibbous moon is rising. The boy Samir sits next to me, ‘look how beautiful is the moon, so beautiful is the desert tonight’. I sit and listen to their stories under a hyper luminous sky and I know these are the richest people I will ever meet.
From them, I’ve learned how scarcity turns into sustainability. It starts with a deep respect for the land. Respect for their fellow desert inhabitants, the camels, and the goats. Respect to the medicinal plants, to the shade of a lonely tree. Nothing is being wasted, a plastic bag will be reused a hundred times, no garbage is being produced, an empty can of coke turns a kid’s toy. Enjoying their simplicity, not over-consuming, reusing and recycling, living in a community, knowing hospitality is something that is turning around.
Years have passed, I’ve left the desert of Sinai and roamed the world. And yet, I have never stopped being a Bedouin myself. I live in a tent, always. No matter where I dwell, be it Los Angeles or Tel Aviv, I sleep in a tent, on the rooftop of an apartment building or in the backyard of a house, I am outside in the elements. I sleep in a tent because a tent is a symbol of nomadic life and us not being separated from the elements. A tent is teaching us to leave a gentle footprint on the earth, honouring simplicity and moderation. With the tent come such values as hospitality and the love of the other. With a tent comes luxury and romance.
Planet Earth is rich and abundant and resources are not finite. The only thing lacking is the right attitude of the ruling species, us. In these times of great stress to our planet, we should all be tent dwellers, at least symbolically, by adopting these principles.
If we want sustainability we should assume responsibility.
Our ability to respond to the rising challenges ourselves. It starts by remembering who we are, children of this planet, its guests. We are all nomads, hospitable tent dwellers, thriving on simplicity.
This is my tent. It’s lush, comfortable and elegant. And yet it is nothing but a piece of fabric applied to a frame that is set on the earth.
We got away from nature, we’ve built cities and amassed possessions, and we forgot that nature is not merely a resource; nature is who we are. We forgot that we are children of a planet. The Indigenous people of the world can remind us that.