True fact: I’m bad at making decisions. For real. I once burst into tears in line at a sandwich shop because I couldn’t find a balance between what I thought might taste best and what was best for the environment and what was most healthy and what my body craved and how much each option cost and how they all could be customized to change the parameters and aaaaaaagh! It was too much.
It seems I’m not the only one…
I’m seeing more and more tweets and posts and full-on articles about eco-anxiety and our increasing sense of helplessness in the face of impending environmental doom. It’s not just about what to have for lunch either. The more we learn about the plight of the world, the harder it feels to be responsible consumers. How do we decide what products to buy, how to vacation, and where to live when every single choice seems to have far-reaching and invisible consequences?
Sometimes, it seems like the only real options are either to forget about it all and wait for systemic change, or to divorce ourselves from consumer society entirely and set up an off-grid intentional living colony somewhere in New Mexico. Sadly, neither of those would be so great for me. I’m pretty stubborn about believing in my ability to make a difference in the world, and living off-grid would be incompatible with my husband’s programming career. That leaves me left to muddle along the best I can with the information available.
Thank goodness, someone’s figured it out!
Sort of. At the very least, there are people out there doing the big picture work to put our daily decisions into perspective. While I think of sustainability as simply “not taking up more than my fair share of the planet,” the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, more precisely defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” To that end, they’ve defined three pillars of sustainable development—social, environmental, and economic sustainability.
For large non-profits, governments, and corporations, those three focus areas provide the framework for a long-term development strategy. Organizations heeding the three pillars will form the basis of that systemic change we’re hanging our future on. For the rest of us, though, it makes for a handy decision-making guide. Instead of reviewing every possible implication of ordering a ham and cheese sandwich, we can do a quick check-in. How does this purchase impact people, planet, and profits?
What’s magical about these simple questions is that they provide us with a starting point, so we can feel reasonably confident that we’re doing better, even as we go about the much harder work of educating ourselves about all the complexities involved in the ways we’ve exploited our privilege (you and me, especially, fellow white people) and damaged the planet.
So, what ARE these questions?
Who made this? This is social sustainability.
What resources went into it? This is environmental sustainability.
Where will the money go? This is economic sustainability.
Pick up an apple. Who made this? A farmer. You might be at a farmer’s market and standing in front of the person who grew your apple, or you might be in a grocery store and only have a tag with a distributor’s name on it, if you have anything at all. That’s fine. Someone tended the tree your apple came from. Someone picked it. Someone packed it. Someone shuttled it to market. Keep those things in mind, but if you don’t know all the answers, take a deep breath and move onto the next question.
What resources went into it? Water, for sure, land, fertilizer, pesticide. If the apple is organic, you can guess that the fertilizers and pesticides were likely easier on the planet and the workers than conventional methods. If it was grown near where you live, you know that less energy went into delivering it to your destination.
Where will the money go? Follow the money, but don’t get obsessive about it. If you’re buying directly from a farmer, you’ll know that your dollars go through fewer hands than if you’re buying from a national supermarket chain. Over time, the more you educate yourself, the better you’ll be able to guess who’s being compensated and how fairly.
With each of these questions, knowledge is power, so when you’re able, do the research, but don’t let it paralyze you. You don’t need to be googling supply chains in the produce aisle. Common sense will go a long way if you just take a minute to work out the logic.
“Better” Isn’t the same as perfect
Real talk here…asking three questions isn’t going to turn us into perfect decision-makers. But you know what? That’s okay. Perfect is unrealistic. I prefer the idea of simply being better. Better today than yesterday. Better tomorrow than today. Better than we behaved in the past and better than we’d be if we gave up trying at all.
In the end, most of us have no choice but to live in this society, so we’re going to have to keep doing the best we can. So if three questions can up our mindfulness without reducing us to tears, let’s start there. Just asking the questions will make you better at answering them.
And better is better for all of us.