Fixing the Earth? Fix yourself first

We talk about “giving 110 percent” like it’s a good thing. This is strange, because running an engine at 110 percent will often cause it to fail prematurely. A machine that consistently performs at 99 percent efficiency (and requires a consistently-spaced 1 percent downtime) is far more reliable than one that can be pushed to 110 percent for brief spurts, but then unpredictably breaks down.

Oddly, we typically accept that machines need maintenance, but we don’t always accept this same basic fact in ourselves. We pride ourselves on being busy, boast about finishing reports at the last instant, and feel successful when we “save” a project from disaster. We drug ourselves with coffee, Red Bull, and other forms of caffeine, just to finish our commitments. We pursue things that we want on our résumés instead of things that we know will make us happy. We rarely sleep as much as we should, despite desperate pleas from our bodies and minds.

Every day we put off something necessary for our well-being—whether it be starting that exercise program, getting enough sleep tonight, or saving for emergencies—to instead pursue shorter-term concerns; we are borrowing from the future.

The problem is, sooner or later, we’re not going to be able to borrow any more. Just like those who accumulate huge credit card bills, spending more money (or time) than we can afford inevitably leads to disaster. Living beyond our means in either instance will catch up to us eventually.

When trying to take the long view of our own personal lives—which, in the end, is what sustainability is all about—certain aspects of college life could be considered a string of bad habits that can take years of adult life to fix.

I, personally, want all aspects of my college life to be something I’m proud of, but more than that, I want the habits and practices that I learn here to be things I can continue for decades. True sustainability—in ourselves—requires a shift in mind-set beyond anything we’re used to, because we rarely live in sustainable ways.

Sadly dear Poly reader, if I know you as well as I think I do, you’re probably skimming this article while standing in line to get a coffee to keep you awake while you frantically rush through another day. I beg you, dear reader, to reconsider. Even if you don’t care one iota about the planet, at least take care of yourself.

Save some money—before you need it. Clean your room—before the dust starts to bother you. Call your mother—before the opportunity leaves you. Take care of the things that will keep you running for the long term, even if it means missing a couple lesser things along the way.

By all means, give the world the best 99 percent you can. But keep that extra 1 percent for yourself—don’t let friends, professors, significant others, or parents take it away from you. It may mean saying “no” to more opportunities than you’d like, and it may sometimes mean disappointing good people. But it’s the best you can sustainably do.