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Sustainability in action

Tuesday 2 February 2010
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Sustainability is complex, and even the most conscious among us may wonder whether we really live sustainable lives. Giles Crosse looks at how to take more meaningful action.

What is considered sustainable? Do we have to give up everything or are there more realistic options for balancing impacts with a more thoughtful way of life?

It’s an interesting question, because so many of the most common elements of 21st century living seem opposed to sustainable principles. Driving, consumption and the food we buy in the supermarket can all contribute to global warming and threaten biodiversity.

Equally, there’s little less appealing than the notion of giving up every tiny luxury for our planet. Clearly some kind of balance is required.

So what’s the solution?

“Sustainable living is by its nature a holistic concept,” explains Karl Hansen. He’s the Director of The Living Rainforest / Trust for Sustainable Living. It’s a charity that looks at rainforest ecology as a metaphor for sustainability issues.

“The focus is not just on our ideas, but also our actions. I like the broad, ‘big picture’ approaches. Looking not just at population, but at consumption. Not just economics, but also ecology. Ultimately, we'll probably need to adopt a new language for all of this, and release ourselves from the old ways of thinking which got us here.”

This all encompassing approach could make sense. The University of Manchester Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) is a centre of global excellence researching major national and international issues associated with sustainability.

SCI work on embedding sustainability in large organisations, key to creating global change, reveals four essential drivers, ‘quality management and measurement; change management; ecological design; and systems and science based frameworks.’

In other words, determine ways to improve, and manage that improvement effectively. Doing so can make use of tools already developed to ease other areas of business change, like shifting to new suppliers, management or computer systems.

SCI also recognises Hansen’s suggestion of a new language, believing there will be need for a widespread cultural change to implement sustainability effectively.

Guiding principles.

“For my money, I think the ‘ecological footprint’ is one of those ideas which may still be with us in 1000 years.” says Hansen. “I also like the ‘precautionary principle’ as a guide for policy makers, to help governments avoid actions which carry too many risks for the planet. And I think the Earth Charter may contain the germs of a much needed new ethics for this next millennium.”

Hansen reckons carbon is important but it is only one aspect of the problem and of the solution. So what should the ordinary person be doing to live a more sustainable life?

“If I were a guru I might say that the best way to make your life more ‘sustainable’ is to remove yourself from modern life. To be still and quiet, and try to live with as few material trappings as possible.”

“But I also believe that employment needs to become green. We need a green jobs revolution to go hand in hand with our shiny new green lives. So it’s back to trying to  integrate the things which were previously seen as separate, thinking and doing, producing and consuming.”

He’s right. Making this work will be about you or I finding new jobs in sustainable businesses, not giving up production, goods or healthcare. The technology already exists to create TVs from sustainable materials, powered by renewable energy.

Top down attitudes

But for this to happen, policy makers need better defined clarity on how policy and practice work together.

“Governments need to own up to how messed up their leadership has become.” says Hansen. “On the one hand they preach renewable energy, yet their revenues depend on taxes from fossil fuels. They preach sustainable land use yet they support ecologically destructive industries with trillions of dollars of subsidies every year.”

“They need to stop sending mixed signals and get their acts together. But if we want good green leaders, then we also need voters who are ready to vote for them!”

Fortunately, many countries and cultures are historically much more sustainable than others, so perhaps there is something we can learn about natural balance from this?

“This is very true,” continues Hansen. “Numerous studies have been done recently which put middle income countries like Costa Rica on the top of the pile in terms of their people’s happiness and the health of their ecosystems.”

“See for example the Global Footprint Network country rankings, and a report last year commissioned by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More work needs to be done on this and more publicity needs to be generated.”

“Appropriate technology has a big role to play,” he continues, describing the roadmap to a sustainable future. “But we also need to be wary of destructive technologies which just replace one set of problems for another. I'm thinking of things like nuclear energy and GM crops.

“Clearly, they have some benefits but we run into problems when we barrel ahead without fully appreciating their true costs. Unsustainable agriculture is another case in point, great benefits in terms of higher yields but terrible global costs in terms of ecosystem destruction.”

“Biodiversity, and ecosystem health more generally are crucial because they are system critical. Without healthy ecosystems, nothing else can be sustained. Economies, populations, monetary wealth, ultimately, they all depend on healthy ecosystems.”

“Sustainable living is a journey. There is no single right answer but there is a very big question, ‘How should we live?’ And everyone has to find their own answer.”

There’s no simple fix, but developing a sustainable planet will require a mixture of political and cultural change, widespread movement to greener technologies and production, a shift in education and plenty more besides.

But to suggest we must give up everything material to become sustainable is missing the point. Giving up outdated ways of thinking, governing and living will become far more important.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up to Our Future Planet and start redesigning your future now!

The University of Manchester, Sustainable Consumption Institute: Improving Sustainability Skills and Knowledge in the Workplace

Action for sustainable living:
Case Studies:
Rolls Crescent Primary School
Chorlton’s Big Green Festival
Fo Guang Green Action Group
The Energy Academy
New Barracks Co-operative Housing Scheme



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