How do You Define Sustainability?

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what does sustainability mean to you?
Just One Question . . .

In 2006, Jenifer O’Neill (a close friend and associate in my marketing agency, Purple Ink.) and I began dreaming of ways we could merge our business experience with our shared values about healthier living. The conversation led us to resurrect a magazine I had published fairly successfully 15 years earlier, Relevant Times. The first version of Relevant Times, printed from 1991 – 1994, was a fun and informative regional publication sharing ideas about sustainable living (although we didn’t call it that back then). Perhaps it was a little ahead of its time, but I had to shut it down for personal reasons – just when things were starting to get fun too!

So as Jenifer and I hiked up our bootstraps for the journey to resurrect Relevant Times in 2006, we were beleaguered by a consistent droning question – asked by others and ultimately by ourselves – what IS ‘sustainability’?

‘Sustainable’ is one of just a few words being tossed around in the current cultural salad to enlighten us about how to create a more conscious way of living on this earth among our fellow creatures. So, what does the dictionary say?

sus·tain (sə-stān’) sus·tain’a·bil’i·ty n., sus·tain’a·ble adj.[1]

  1. To keep in existence; maintain.
  2. To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for.
  3. To support from below; keep from falling or sinking; prop.
  4. To support the spirits, vitality, or resolution of; encourage.
  5. To bear up under; withstand: can’t sustain the blistering heat.
  6. To experience or suffer: sustained a fatal injury.
  7. To affirm the validity of: The judge has sustained the prosecutor’s objection.
  8. To prove or corroborate; confirm.
  9. To keep up (a joke or assumed role, for example) competently.

I personally like number one. It is concise and uses the word ‘existence’. Sustainable is often paired these days with the words ‘living’ or ‘lifestyle’. When I see the definition that is all about maintaining existence, it resonates with the whole living theme and makes me feel a sense of urgency that survival may be an issue. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of hoping to maintain my existence as long as possible and when I’m thinking about more than myself, I want to see existence maintained for a couple of more generations so my kids and future grandchildren can experience existence too.

5 eerily could relate to the global warming, climate change thing. 6 is kind of a bummer, but the rest could be meaningful in the context of healthy, cooperative survival.

The first time I saw the word ‘sustainable’ used in conjunction with the environment and the concept of creating things that are healthier and last longer periods of time, was in an article I published in the first incarnation of Relevant Times back in 1991. The title of the article was ‘Sustainable Development: Building as if the Earth Mattered’. I didn’t write the piece, but I thought the concept was brilliant and was impressed with the use of the word sustainable and something clicked for me.

Since then, when the word sustainable is used in relation to the environment or green living as it is so often used these days, my own definition has evolved into something like this:

Living in such a way that we minimize our negative impact on the earth and the people we share it with, doing our best to preserve the world in its healthiest form for future generations. 

Jenifer and I became obsessed with finding a definitive, de facto definition and decided we would start incorporating one question into all our interviews. While we wanted to define sustainability, we were quite convinced that there is a personal context and that if we asked this same question to nearly everyone we encountered, we would likely get as many different responses as the number of people we queried. If we only had the opportunity to ask one question, this was the one we deferred to. We had the opportunity to interview some great green thinkers – some high profile, some high-minded, some just high.

The question was, and still is:

What does sustainability mean to you? 

Here are a few of the answers we got[2]:

Willie NelsonWillie Nelson (Singer, Songwriter, Activist)

“It means I don’t have to go anywhere. It means I can eat and drink and sleep and drive without having to go anywhere. I can find a farmer out here that can grow what I want to eat and grow fuel for what I drive.”

Woody Harrelson (Actor, Activist)Woody Harrelson

“you could almost definite it by its opposite, which is the economy we got going now – it’s not sustainable. Whatever the industry is, it can be something we continue to use. It doesn’t have to bleed mother nature and rape mother earth on a daily basis.”

Daryl HannahDaryl Hannah (Actress, Activist)

“I’m not really crazy about the word sustainability. It means things stay the same. I like the idea of things thriving. Since we don’t have a good word for that, we use sustainability.”

Jim Breuer (Comedian, Radio Personality)

“The word is way past my vocabulary. Anything but gas . . . Anything but gas!”

Josh Dorfman (Author, The Lazy Environmentalist)

“Living as well as you possibly can in balance with nature.”

You can see many of these interviews on a video we took back when Relevant Times was a media sponsor of Farm Aid in 2007.[2] 

[1] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

[2] All the interviews referenced here were done with Relevant Times, LLC ©2007 for RT TV. Megan McWilliams was the interviewer in each case.

image of Willie Nelson via Shutterstock
image of Woody Harrelson via Shutterstock
image of Daryl Hannah via Shutterstock

About the author / 

Green Diva Meg'

(aka Megan McWilliams) is a green living expert and media personality as the producer and host of the Green Divas Radio Show. She has been sharing low-stress ways of living a deeper shade of green for over 20 years. She also produces podcasts and videos for the Green Divas and other clients through the Green Diva Studio.

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    Lois July 1, 2013 at 9:54 pm -  Reply

    I really like your definition of sustainability. Before reading this I defined it as using only what I need without harming the planet by taking more than it can give.

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