Authored by Tiffany Vora.
What does the word “sustainability” truly mean? As I sail toward Antarctica with the Homeward Bound initiative, I’m discovering that the word “sustainability” means different things to different people.
These days, the word “sustainability” is the rallying cry for the fight against climate change, questioning how we use water, energy, land, and other resources. It’s the challenge to re-evaluate our emissions of carbon and the other greenhouse gases that impact our climate.
Importantly, the word “sustainability” is also a counterpoint to “business as usual.” Most businesses and even societies around the world have been built through extraction—taking what we need from our planet without giving due weight to the long-term impacts of our actions. An extractive mindset has maximized shareholder return … maximized market and profit … built lives that are easier, more convenient, and more fun. We can’t ignore that life has gotten better for billions of people thanks to extractive approaches.
But what got us to today is not going to get us too tomorrow. Today’s fires, floods, storms, droughts, and conflict is the product of yesterday’s extractive mindset. Sustainability can lead us in new directions—not just through mindset, but through a huge variety of practices that are being explored all around the world.
Let me suggest an additional way to define the word “sustainability”. It’s one that points back to the concept of “sustaining.” To sustain something is to make it last for a long time. How long is long? Plus, the UN Sustainability Goals remind us to look beyond climate change for big hairy problems that a sustainability mindset can empower us to solve.
As I’ve given talks for audiences all around the world, I’ve realized that embracing sustainability is hard because it’s hard to envision the future. To imagine a future so concretely that we can feel it happening to us. Science fiction can help with that; so, can having children (and grandchildren). But it’s really, really hard to ask people to make sacrifices today in order to deliver benefits—maybe—in some far distant, abstract future.
If my life is short, then I’m not really accountable for the future, right? It’s easy to choose myself today, and to ignore my descendants in a far-off future. After all, I’ll be dead by then! The future won’t be my problem.
That kind of thinking urgently needs to change. Why? My own work points to just one reason: because thanks to advances in biotechnology and medicine, millions of us have the chance to live longer, healthier lives than ever before. The first person who will live to be 140 years old may have already been born!
And that means the future is indeed my problem. Even futures that feel impossibly far off.
Picture your great, great, great grandchildren. Imagine that they take you by the hand, look you in your eyes, and say, “But you knew. You knew what could come. How could you just stand by while it happened?” Or even, “How could you make it worse?”
I believe that sustainability is not just about carbon footprints and water usage (although those things are very important). For me, sustainability means building a future in which I can look into a child’s eyes and say, “You’re right. I knew. And this is what I did—for you.” That’s a future in which I’m accountable not just for my failures, but for my experiments and my successes and the dreams that I had that weren’t quite ready for action.
To me, sustainability means leaving a legacy to the future—not borrowing from it.
Across a huge variety of educational and cultural backgrounds, the women in the Homeward Bound community believe that when it comes to building the future, we’re stronger together. And we believe that we can 10x our own individual impact by becoming more effective leaders for increasingly uncertain times. I’ve come to Antarctica with Homeward Bound in order to become a more strategic, visible, inclusive, and yes, accountable leader.
My journey with Homeward Bound began back in 2021. It’s certainly not going to end when The Island Sky docks in Ushuaia in December! And that’s my promise for sustainable impact, for decades to come.
Photo Credit: Heidi Victoria