Sustainability and Discernment

Monday, February 20th, 2023

Crossroads sign at sunset

Have you ever played Pancakes vs. Waffles?

Basically it’s a game of this or that: Players debate the merits of pancakes over waffles (or in my case, the other way around) and then everyone takes a vote on which is the superior breakfast fare.

This is a great game for people who enjoy the back-and-forth of debate, and any set of options is fair game: Which of the four seasons is best (autumn); mountains or beach (mountains); which is harder to play, basketball or hockey (jury’s out on that one…)?

Really, the only necessary skill in the game is the ability to exercise discernment, something we all use when we make just about any choice, often without realizing it. And exercising discernment—really thinking through the merits of each of our options—is super important, particularly when pursuing sustainability in its various forms.

When we think of sustainability, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the environment; at least it is for me. I first wrapped my head around the idea of sustainability when I lived in a Colorado ski town and coordinated a sustainable communities symposium focusing on climate change. 

It wasn’t that I had been living especially unsustainably to that point, but it was the first step toward being intentional about it. Thus began my silent and amorphous internal game of Pancakes vs. Waffles. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I at last gave voice to my unspoken game. 

At the time I was working in polar bear conservation and was driving a 15-year old Subaru that got fair, but not amazing gas mileage. On my mind was the decision between buying a new, ultra-fuel-efficient car or hanging on to old Big Su. In conversation with our senior scientist, I shared my dilemma, thinking I knew exactly what he would say. 

Instead of a cut and dry response, we instead entered a Q&A session. How much did I typically drive? (Less than 10,000 miles per year.) Was I anticipating changing that behavior? (Not likely.) What kind of fuel did it take, what was the mpg, what was the mpg of the car I was thinking of buying, was the new-to-me car going to be used or new?

Long story short, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense from an efficiency standpoint for me to buy a new-new car, and I held onto Big Su for another five years. But that conversation inspired a totally different perspective for considering options in how I lived each day. 

Here’s my favorite (it isn’t actually my favorite): I needed to heat my house and had natural gas  forced air heating, but I also had a wood stove and several years’ worth of firewood from two box elder trees taken down from my yard. 

The wood stove was from the 1920’s or thereabouts, but my house was 720 square feet, so it wouldn’t take much to heat even with an inefficient wood stove. But it also wouldn’t require much natural gas to keep it a tolerable temperature. 

Which option was better?

I never figured out an answer to that question, because there were pros and cons to each option—in that case, different greenhouse gas emissions associated with each fuel source— just as there are pros and cons to every decision we make. Instead I used a hybrid strategy, building more fires at a certain temperature threshold, using the furnace more when I wouldn’t be around to maintain the fire. 

And then a few years after the polar bear gig, I did some consulting for an organization that supported independent businesses, and I learned about a whole other dimension of sustainability—how supporting local economies helps to support sustainable communities. You’re supporting your neighbors, who provide goods, services, and jobs to you and your neighbors, all while keeping more money in your community. 

But let’s face it, you can’t always buy everything from independent businesses. So—is it better to make an online purchase and have it shipped to you in a vehicle that’s already transporting a whole lot of other things to you and your neighbors? Or is it better to jump in your car and drive yourself to a store and have your neighbor who works for the box store ring you up? 

Again, I don’t know the right choice. You might consider the greenhouse gases generated by the different methods of transportation, the financial implications of making the purchase from a corporation that admittedly provides jobs to your community, or maybe even if you need to make the purchase at all. 

My whole point is that it’s so very important to think through your options and make the very best choice you can for the things you value, and the things that impact our fellow human beings. Sustainability in all its various forms is of great consequence to us at The Water Project—relative to climate change, which is having a devastating impact on the communities we serve; to the types of wells appropriate for each water point; even to the locations we designate as water points.

In fact, for us a commitment to sustainability is nonnegotiable, because when we make a commitment to a community to install a water point, what we’re committing to is sustainability. We make the best choices in location and technology for a water solution that will provide a reliable source of safe drinking water for the foreseeable future.

Not only is it our mission; it’s our charge, our purpose—our promise.


Written by Amy Shellenberger

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