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Sarah Susanka, FAIA,

Author, The Not So Big House, Susanka Studios

By Sarah Susanka

Something amazing happened last year at the first West Coast Green Conference. It was electric. It was deeply inspiring and it caused quite a buzz in sustainability circles. But how did it happen? It was alive. You could feel it the moment you stepped through the door. Thousands of people came when only hundreds were expected and amazing things happened to almost everyone who attended.

My own experience of amazement occurred as the result of an idea that came to me right before I gave my keynote address.  I suggested to Christi Graham, the conference organizer that 3 x 5 cards be handed out to everyone who attended my talk so that they could answer a question that I would have for them at the end.

As I began to speak, describing an entirely new way of thinking about what sustainability might really mean, I could feel the energy of the room building. People were beginning to grasp that there was something huge they’d been missing about how change happens.  I could feel the collective “aha” just as clearly as if my own body were experiencing goose bumps. There was an unequivocal sense of everyone in that room being one body, one form sharing this new understanding, and it was completely intoxicating. Through each other’s presence we had shared something extraordinary. 

I’d made the case that when we long to do something, that longing is exactly what the planet needs, and thus the most sustainable act we can make. At the end I’d asked everyone to write down one passion that they had never pursued because they’d thought it an indulgence, or believed they didn’t have time for it. And what resulted was an outpouring of previously unexpressed longings that attendees had eagerly inscribed on their index cards. 

I’d had to dash away right after my presentation in order to catch a plane so I’d been unaware of what happened thereafter until a few days later when Christi called to describe the events that followed.  She explained that the cards had been collected, sorted, and posted on the walls of a gathering room which conference attendees were able to browse through at their leisure. Over the course of the next two days a steady stream of people had moved through the room reading, laughing, sometimes even weeping. People were able to see first hand the raw creativity that longed for liberation and expression. And as a result, hundreds of connections were made between people with similar visions, spawning all sorts of new ideas, enterprises, and friendships. It was a “passion” wall—a wall filled with unlived longings that now, for the first time in many cases, were being acknowledged, articulated, and shared.

What had happened was that people had been inspired. They’d discovered that there was indeed something they could do to create a more sustainable future and—wonder of wonders—it was something they’d actually been longing to do for ages but hadn’t thought possible. The passion wall provided such an incredible tool in waking ourselves up to the truth that we do know what to do to begin a rebalancing our lives and the planet, that I decided to include the same feature on the Not So Big Life Website. And if you want to read more about how we can “be the change we wish to see in the world”, as Gandhi so powerfully encouraged us to do, I hope you’ll consider reading The Not So Big Life, where there’s a lot more to help you integrate this understanding into your own life.

The real secret is this:  By expressing what each one of us knows, as all of us did last year at West Coast Green, by being present in the moment, and by engaging completely in what is there before us, we are able, collectively, to begin to bring everything back into balance. We’re not in control of how things unfold, and we can’t think our way to fixing the problems we see in such profusion around the globe today, but when each of us engages fully in our own life, and puts into practice what he or she knows, the whole planet changes in ways that are more wondrous than any of us could individually conceive.

That’s what created the electricity at the conference. That’s why there was such a buzz. And this year, I have a feeling it’s going to be even more so. The equilibrium we seek for the Earth and the meaningfulness we are seeking for our own lives is in fact only obvious through the spontaneity of the moment. It’s always that way. And when a conference offers its participants the experience of that delight, well, let’s just say it’s worth doing again and again. I hope to see you there!

Sarah Susanka is an architect and author of The Not So Big House series. Her latest book The Not So Big Life:  Making Room for What Really Matters, was released May 1, 2007 from Random House. Visit for more information about everything Not So Big, from house design to life design.

View the 2006 Plenaries & Keynotes

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