09/04/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

Sustainability and the Freedom to Choose

With the presidential elections around the corner, we are reminded of the tenets that the United States was founded on. We live in a country that prides itself on choice, and on certain 'unalienable rights.' To quote the Declaration of Independence, these include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The freedom to choose is ingrained in the American culture and mindset. We choose our lifestyle, our career, our partner, and our friends, among others. Our capitalistic society is built around this idea of choice -- wherever we look, we are presented with options. Enter the concept of sustainability. It asks us to think about the impact of our choices and our actions. Does living sustainably limit our freedom to choose? I would argue that it does not. Instead, it enables us to live within a set of parameters that comes with its own set of choices.

Although we, as individuals, like our 'freedom', we don't necessarily take advantage of it. You may argue that you choose what to buy, where to eat out, what to watch on television, or what to read. But how much of your choice is guided by your friends? Your colleagues? Your parents? What about the ads that are around you practically 24/7? How often are you actively making new choices?

Without getting too philosophical, the 'choices' we make are often not choices at all. They are a result of our environment, our predisposition, and our set of conscious or subconscious moral parameters -- nature and/or nurture. We all abide by a code of values and morals, which provides certain parameters and rules for living. Once we are aware that this is the case, we can acknowledge these parameters then choose to consciously follow them or direct ourselves towards new ones. Either way, we are still choosing a set of parameters -- whether it's the existing one or a new one.

For example, your code of values may tell you to respect others. As a result, you will refrain from stealing, lying, or harming someone physically or emotionally. However, if one of your friends decides it would be fun to go to a store and see if he/she can get away with stealing, you have a choice. If you join in, believing that stealing is bad, you can: a) feel guilty about it; b) change your belief and decide that this is something that's OK; or c) reason that an exception can be made in certain circumstances and that this was one of those circumstances.

Sustainability represents a code of values and morals -- a set of parameters by which to live your life. It is, as with other parameters, something that may come naturally to you based on your background and/or the people you associate with, or it may be something new.

The next question, of course, is why choose this set of parameters over others?

To answer that, you will need to ask yourself what you believe in. Do you believe that the current population growth rates will outstrip the earth's resources? Do you believe in using enough for yourself yet leaving some for others today and in the future? If you answered yes to either or both of the above, then the parameters of sustainability, with its associated choices, fit with your personal moral code. You therefore have the freedom to choose within that set of parameters.

Anca Novacovici is the founder and president of Eco-Coach, Inc., an environmental sustainability consulting firm in Washington, D.C. You may contact her at To learn more about Anca, click here.