The surprising thing about words is that they can be completely ineffective. Coming from a person who clearly adores words — at least enough to have her own column — this is a strange declaration. But it’s exactly because I think about words more than the average person that I have had this epiphany. (Pretty sure I’m a word nerd; I’m even happier because that rhymed, if that gives any insight into my thinking).

From taking a variety of history, literature and even philosophy classes (yes, I’m that kind of student, no regrets), I’ve learned that most issues in society arise because people cannot create a universal definition for a majority of words. In other words, everyone has their own interpretation, or definition, of a word, and they’re unlikely to shift their views. When it comes to personal definitions and morals, we’re a deeply stubborn species. And these personal definitions create deep divides over some of today’s most pressing issues.

Take “sustainability,” for instance. To me, “sustainability” and “living sustainably” mean living in lasting harmony with the environment. We only get one beautiful planet to live on, so we should exist with it in a way that preserves its complex, interconnected systems.

I think I first developed this way of thinking when I was a little girl and my parents were teaching me how to swim. They always told me to respect the water. At the time, I didn’t really understand it. Honestly, I thought they just meant ‘don’t slap the water,’ because that was how I respected my little sister. But I think this mantra that reverberated through my childhood stayed with me. I have grown up with a personified view of the environment which I believe is deserving of the same level of respect as my teachers and grandparents.

But everyone has their own family and background that shapes the way they understand words, especially hot-button words such as “sustainability.” I’m sure more conservative people associate words like “sustainability” and phrases like “environmentally friendly” as loopy, hippie terms that just cut down strong businesses and inflate the government. And those conservative extremists aren’t completely wrong — supporting sustainable living would mean keeping corporations like ExxonMobil and others with no regard for the environment in check. However, that doesn’t mean environmentalists are just drugged-out, lazy hippies hugging trees and aren’t actually doing anything to make a difference.

On the flip side, conservatives are not all religion-crazed, big-business lovers who want to destroy the environment. These negative stereotypes and generalizations get in the way of actual progress and are deeply unsustainable. It’s all right to have your own understanding of a word, but the only way to move forward on any issue is to try and understand the opposition’s definition of that word and what shaped their understanding.

So, I know this is a bit of a paradox, but while words can be extremely polarizing, people talking through these words can break down the generalizations. To have a sustainable life, we also need to have sustainable, healthy relationships with others, regardless of our divergent ideologies. That goes beyond sustainability and into many of the world’s current issues. If we’re able to see our “opposition” as people just like us, we could actually start creating durable solutions.

One of the benefits of sustainability is that there are so many different ways to move toward living a sustainable life that people from all different religions and political ideologies can take part without compromising their morals. Go vegetarian, or just cut down on meat. Michigan Dining has implemented “Meatless Mondays,” because just one vegetarian day per week can make a difference. Live a zero-waste lifestyle or start recycling. Or next time the cashier asks if you want a bag, say no thank you. How many plastic Walgreens bags does one person need anyway? Replace your plastic water bottle with a metal or glass one (yes, I’m still not over this). Repair clothes instead of automatically buying new ones. Buy locally grown foods. Those are just a few examples of how to move to a more sustainable life. When I learn more, I’ll share them. Hopefully I can help expand your definition of sustainability. I’m sure you can help with mine.

Eliana Herman can be reached at erherman@umich.edu.

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