01/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sustainability, Any Way You Want It

Sustainability is partly about the environment, and wholly about the way we choose to live. It is a new way of referring to a very old thing: a trendy way of repurposing lessons handed down to us from the scriptures--or at least from our grandparents. It is the golden rule, repackaged. Somewhere along the way "Do Unto Others" got a little bit stale and ceased to fit the ideology of a culture programmed to produce and consume. The raw individualism and entrepreneurial ideals that define this country were sometimes at odds with the idea of living in a way that gives back to the community first and foremost.

The pendulum of modern economics and industry was built strong and has swung hard, and its effects have been far-reaching. But even though we come from a culture that thrives on individualism and ambition, the golden rule is deeply implanted. And it is easily remembered when we feel vulnerable and afraid: threats to our homes, jobs and environment make the need to give and receive empathy a renewed priority. We are all taking a step back and wondering what changes we can make to keep financial and ecological risks at bay. As we try to fortify our ailing wallets, febrile planet and restless consciences, sustainability has become emotional chicken soup.

The concept can encompass our behavioral choices on almost anything. Sustainability means moderation, reason and compassion. It is a recognition that, while we can dream big dreams, we cannot accomplish much in the long run without our feet planted firmly in the ground--literally.

Personally, I find it overwhelming to focus on sustainability in all of its iterations. I would like to be someone who lives with integrity and cares for her neighbors, but the idea of trying to address all of the instances in which our culture and society have veered away from sustainable practices is too tremendous for one gal to tackle. This doesn't mean I can't strive to make choices that are sustainable on a variety of levels, but I have found it rewarding to specialize my efforts.

For me, sustainability is easiest to address where food is concerned. Food is my direct line with the world. It is how I support my body and it is something I control completely. Nobody forces me to eat anything: all of my food choices are my own, and made deliberately, if I so choose.

There aren't a lot of ways we can be so fully in control as when we eat--perhaps that is why eating disorders and food obsessions are so prevalent. How we eat is truly an expression of how we feel and on the most basic level, what we eat becomes who we are. Even more complexly, what we choose to eat becomes our country and our world. It may not seem like a big deal to reach for a Happy Meal, but a lifetime of food choices really can have a huge impact.

There was a time when I tried to be green in every way, but ultimately I found the endeavor frustrating and alienating. So I focused on the thing I enjoyed most of all--food. More specifically, I focused on procuring, cooking and eating food. The process started with one tomato from a farmer's market, which lead to one delicious summer Caprese salad. I have not stopped shopping locally or cooking seasonally since. Each meal prepared at home from mostly regional ingredients is a triumph, not only because it is better for my community, my body and the Earth, but also because it tastes a lot better than something made in an anonymous factory or by anonymous hands.

I share my joy of cooking and eating with friends and family, but it is a private choice and a personal matter. My days of total green pursuit taught me that not everybody needs to be a martyr: and almost nobody wants to be around one. Shopping from local farmers or sharing food grown and prepared in a sustainable way is something I can share and spread without taking on the self-righteous hue that so often taints idealists.

There are lots of paths to sustainability. Pick the thing you love best, and do it as respectfully, mindfully and compassionately as you can for your neighbors, your planet and yourself. There you have it: the golden rule.