A smiling woman stands on a farm holding a crate of vegetables
(Image credit: Tom Werner / Getty Images)

I believe deeply in the concept of making life choices with sustainability in mind. But the concept means different things to different people and entities, and it’s very typical to define it in a manner that requires more sacrifice from others than oneself.

That’s why I don’t try to set rules for myself rather than others. My only “proselytizing” is by example. And, I suppose, by writing this blog.

What Is Sustainability?

You’ll find almost as many definitions of “sustainability” as you find individuals, businesses, or government entities to ask. The term “sustainable” literally means the ability to maintain or support a process over time.

For example, a young person may be able to “pull an all-nighter” to study for an exam, but going without sleep is not sustainable. Just so, many of the practices that are common in developed nations are not sustainable over time if we want to continue living on the Earth as we know it. It is this that we mean today when we talk about sustainability.

My own personal favorite definition involves finding a balance between the environment, equity, and economy. On the other hand, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Living in a Sustainable Way

Viewed in this light, sustainability requires one eye on the present and one eye on the future, figuring out the consequences of actions before taking them. Everyone is looking critically at petrol-burning vehicles these days, since scientists have made it very clear that burning fossil fuels is not sustainable since it is doing serious damage to the planet’s atmosphere.

While I personally believe that sustainability requires eliminating dependence on fossil fuels to power our vehicles, I cannot afford an electric car. But I try to act with this issue in mind by taking public transportation whenever possible, riding my bicycle, or, when those methods of getting around don’t work, driving my scooter rather than a car. It burns gasoline, but it doesn’t burn the same amount as a car.

Similarly, I raise as many of my own crops as I can, but San Francisco doesn’t get much sun in summers, so there’s a lot I can’t grow. I do shop to the extent possible at Farmer’s Markets, buying locally grown produce from small producers rather than loading up on canned or processed foods. In my view, if everyone does the best they can toward a sustainable lifestyle, that is the most we can hope for individually. The rest is up to the government.

Preaching Doesn’t Pay

My own life experience suggests that preaching hardly ever pays dividends. Nobody likes to be told what to do or shamed for what they are doing. The best teacher is one who teaches by example, remembering that people have different resources that they bring to life, different circumstances that allow them to make change with a broader or narrower brush stroke.

On the other hand, I try to share my own experiences with plant and veggie giveaways in the neighborhood and by writing about green practices that have worked for me. If even one reader a day finds something worth trying, it’s success.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.