What does it mean to live sustainably?


“Sustainability” is a super hot buzzword that encapsulates so many aspects that it’s overwhelming to the average person. We know certain things are generally “unsustainable” - fossil fuels, plastic, flying, the average US/European diet - but it’s far more difficult to know what exactly we need to do differently. Is it okay to fly once a year? Twice? How much plastic is too much? Is it enough to cut back on red meat or do I also need to cut back on dairy too, and how much?

Trying to balance all of these questions can make even the weekly trip to the supermarket a panic-inducing experience. And things that used to be fun and exciting - like travel - can now leave us feeling guilty. It’s tempting to ignore or deny all this talk of sustainability, so we can simply go about our lives without all this guilt, panic and overwhelm.


But I believe most of us deeply care about leaving the world better for the next generations. And I believe we can do that without sacrificing all the fun that makes life worth living. To do that we need a framework that helps us design a fun, meaningful and sustainable lifestyle. That is the goal of this column - to create a framework that you can apply to your life that gives you peace of mind without sacrificing all the fun.


Importantly, my view of sustainability extends beyond the environment. And, it’s about more than preserving that status quo, which in many ways is already unsustainable or unacceptable in terms of human dignity. Sustainability is a process that continually seeks to improve the welfare of humans and the global systems that nourish us. Sustainability links our very freedom and quality of life to the Earth itself and teaches us how to live in mutually beneficial ways.


We will look at sustainability in the following aspects of life:


Consumption - Everything we consume, from food to our possession to the types of entertainment we enjoy. Looking at the entire supply chain, we will examine how our consumption choices affect our lives and the future, and we will build a framework for sustainable consumption.


Community - We will go beyond the individual to examine how entire communities can operate in a sustainable way, including: housing, transportation, local organizations, social services, and education. Again, I’m thinking of sustainability in terms of the whole person, not just the environment. I plan to focus foremost on my home - New York City - with the hope that the old expression, ‘if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere,’ might actually be true in this case.


Civic and Corporate - Lastly, we will also look at how our systems of work and government can sustain an increasing quality of life for future generations. We will need to rethink the nature of work itself in light of sustainability. To do this, we will need governments to restructure the economy to incentivize sustainable work, as a part of a sustainable life, from the level of the global corporation down to the individual worker.


Obviously this is a huge topic that touches every aspect of a human life. We will take it slow, first zooming in on everyday decisions, before zooming out to look at communities and then the largest corporate and government structures. The goal will be to construct a simple, flexible framework for viewing your life - not to burden you with a never-ending list of considerations. To be successful, the end result needs to be a lifestyle that sustains you in feeling good while also sustaining those around you.


This may seem impossible, but I’m optimistic. Small changes in individual behavior have a huge impact. Consider the story of dolphin-safe tuna. When people learned that tuna fishing was killing dolphins, they boycotted tuna until the fishers cleaned up their act. Soon the dolphin-safe tuna lapel appeared, along with government standards to enforce it. It’s unthinkable today to buy a can of tuna without this label.


Changes in individual behavior force entire industries to change, along with governments, and ultimately the whole world. We can imagine a world in which it becomes as unthinkable to buy unsustainable products as it would be to buy a can of tuna that’s not dolphin-safe. We can build systems of work and government that create and sustain that world. And we can grow and nurture communities that sustain the whole person today and for future generations.


If you’re looking to get a head start on next-week’s topic - consumption - consider joining me in a “buy nothing new” pledge for the holidays this year. Here’s an article describing ways you can source great, used gifts for the holidays. Or, if you’re really brave, consider a “no gifts” agreement with your loved ones. You might find a holiday without gifts even more meaningful and certainly less stressful. Remember, however, that we aren’t aiming for perfection. Take the steps that leave you feeling better and not overwhelmed. We must enjoy the process, too.



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