What Does Sustainability Really Mean Anyway?

What comes to mind when you think of sustainability? For me, sustainability always just seemed like a fancy word for green or recycle, until I thought about what it could really mean. I thought about it as two different words: “sustain” and “ability.” If you have an ability then you make something possible. For example, if you have a great athletic ability then you make hitting the ball or scoring a touchdown possible. And sustain makes me think of something that can be carried on or continued. If you put them together you get “making something possible to be continued.” I feel like the concept sounds pretty important to most people, yet we might not know why. It’s sort of like eating vegetables- we’re just told they’re good for us and we don’t really question it.

If you take advantage of “the whole world at your fingertips” like my parents say and google search the definition of sustainability, you’ll get these results. says it’s “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Merriam-Webster leaves you hanging with “capable of being sustained.” What are we even trying to sustain anyway? The UN World Commission on Environment and Development finally gives me something I can work with. It says it’s “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Okay, now this is starting to sound a little more involved than recycling. But what exactly is entailed in serving my own needs without ruining other people’s chances of meeting theirs?

As a means of survival, humans are designed to keep their attention on the present. I suppose that goes back to primitive times when a tiger could attack us at any time so we had to be alert, and that’s why much of our human behavior fails to account for future effects of present actions. Seeking the current pleasure of junk food in spite of future health effects, or spending more money now than our future self can afford is right on theme with how we view our planet’s future. The thing is we face pretty bad consequences of our current actions, which is why we have to find a way to steer our ingrained habits toward a different course. The key to sustainability is learning to live in a responsible way for an ecologically balanced world in the future.

In 2017 it only took us seven months to use up all the resources planet Earth can replenish over an entire twelve months. To tie this back into Merriam-Webster’s definition, living five months out of the year on borrowed credit is nowhere near “capable of being sustained.” In other words, our relationship of give and take has to get a lot friendlier if we want to pass along the same planet Earth to our next generations. I’m still in college and don’t have my own house or car, so my impact isn’t as high as it will be later. However, I can still make a difference.

What I’ve really tried to do is become more conscious of my consumption. I’ve learned about the health and environmental effects of eating meat for example, which is why I have made an effort to eat more plants. I had grown accustomed to all the resources I could want within arm’s reach. So I would routinely use a paper plate for a snack, fill a glass with juice and a plastic throw- away bowl with yogurt, throw my t-shirt in the wash when I spilled said yogurt on it, get a new glass for water when my juice one was still in the sink, grab a clean towel and take a twenty minute shower, and on and on. And I thought I was consuming responsibly as long as I recycled the paper and plastic I used.

It’s clear how easy it is to use and discard recklessly like an energy vacuum. I felt an obligation to be more mindful about the resources I use. And that’s why I don’t take showers anymore…. only kidding! But I want to live more sustainably to preserve all the beauty I see in the world. I think a lot of it comes down to reevaluating what we really need versus what we think we need. And focusing on the Reduce part of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. 

When looking for a Summer internship I narrowed my search to companies making a true difference in the world. And at the end of my year- long search I had a list of one. Lucky for me WeSpire was right here in Boston where I grew up, and even luckier I got the only job I applied for. I’m super grateful to be spending this Summer with a company that implements positive changes into people’s lives, because we are finding that this is the only way that can last over time. Or in other words, achieve sustainability.


About the author: My name is Ryan McElhinney and I’m a rising senior at Elon University. I have grown an appreciation for mindfulness and sustainability, and wanted to share my experience with you. Who knows, maybe it will influence you or someone you know!

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