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Is sustainability an impossible dream?

07 Sep 2022 | Written by By Sandra Falconer

Landscape photograph of lush green fields, with wind turbines on the horizon.

This piece was written by member, Sandra Falconer, who outlines the obstacles currently preventing us from achieving sustainability as well as the methods we can employ to make progress towards it.  Whilst climate change is a scarily imminent issue, Sandra assures us that we can make positive change through both individual and collective action. 

Read on for a comprehensive overview of where the world currently stands on sustainability…


Sustainability is a word that has been bandied about a lot in recent years. A sustainable world is one in which people have access to the resources they need to thrive, both environmentally and socially. Basically, it boils down to acting in such a way, individually and collectively, that we are living in harmony with our planet and with each other.

We used to call it stewardship. It’s the notion that our material environment is on loan, so we have a responsibility to maintain it in such a way that, when we pass it on to the next generation, it is – at least – in the same condition as when we received it. We owe It to future generations.

Socially, we want to live in a world in which everyone has the same access to essential resources such as food, clean water, health care and education. Right now, we’re not achieving this.

The problem

Since the Industrial Revolution several centuries ago, the impact of human activity on the environment has increased to the point where the planet no longer has time to repair and replenish itself. Even the least observant among us must realise that time is running out.

Extreme weather is bringing misery to millions. This summer alone, we have seen searing heat-waves and flash-floods. Spontaneous fires have destroyed homes and agricultural land. Major waterways, like the Rhine, are drying up. The current rate of species extinction is 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural rate. The depletion of bees, so necessary for pollination, is a prime example. On top of that, food and fuel poverty has become more prevalent – even in developed countries like our own. An increasing proportion of the world’s population live brutal, miserable lives.

I believe that we must make sustainability our absolute priority.

Solutions?

Extreme problems require extreme solutions. We have to find a way to supply people’s basic needs within the planet’s physical limitations. A demanding target! It is possible to achieve, but not by tinkering with the existing systems.

For too long, the prevailing economics have followed a ‘take, make, waste’ approach. Emerging models like Doughnut Economics and the Circular Economy suggest a more sustainable framework. The Doughnut Economy, developed by Kate Rowarth, argues that social foundations, such as food and fuel, education and gender equity need to be met without breaching any of the ecological ceilings, such as pollution, climate change and biodiversity. The hole in the middle of the doughnut is the gap where people do not have access to basic essentials, the crust represents the planetary boundaries. The safe space where the population can flourish is between the two.

 

The Circular Economy suggests ways in which this can be accomplished. The adoption of this, and similar schemes, is gathering pace. Its three main pillars are:

  1. Eliminating waste and pollution
  2. Circulating products and materials
  3. The regeneration of nature

So, how can this work, and what part can we play within it…

Individual responses

Let’s forget the enormity of the problem for a moment. Each of us can contribute toward positive change. Eating less meat and dairy releases land for crops and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, insulating our homes lowers the demand for energy and sharing, reusing and recycling materials protects natural resources.

Personally, I feel quite excited by the prospect of returning to the days when nothing was wasted. I remember how my mother used to unpick parcel string for future use. I recall a time when my son was away at camp and by the time he returned he had a much-needed new bed and his old one had become a luxurious rabbit hutch. In those days, we didn’t talk about carbon footprints, but we didn’t waste much either.

We can encourage change through our consumption patterns. When we buy ethically, we create a demand for the products we choose and production switches accordingly. It might feel as if our individual choices make little difference, but if 100 people acted in the same way, it certainly would.

I recycle fortnightly, but I am horrified by the amount of unnecessary packaging I purchase along with my weekly shop. A return to reusable bottles and fruit and vegetables bought loose would be welcome. Perhaps if we shopped more in local greengrocers and markets, that would happen.

Who we elect is also a way of influencing change. If we make it clear that our vote will go to the candidate whose policies and track record suggest they are sympathetic to environmental redress, we are more likely to succeed. Our choices, in politics and as consumers, help to frame the world we want to live in and leave behind.

Societal responses

Of course, once we unite with others, the impact is greater. There are many schemes in operation which harness community action. Two examples are community grocers, where short-dated food and household goods are sold at a fraction of supermarket prices, and community gardens growing food and providing much-needed green spaces.

One of our local groups provides a tool library so that those items we only use once or twice a year can be owned communally, saving resources and improving the general standard of living. Scrap stores take unwanted materials from local businesses and – for a small charge – make them available to the general public.

A photograph taken in a local scrap shop, showing shelves lined with craft materials.

People have to feel that they are a part of these developments and processes. Response to needs must arise out of shared experience. Telling people what they need fails to respect their knowledge and insight. If we just ‘do’ things for them, they never own it. They become mere clients, not actors.
However, there are areas which are too large for small groups to address directly. We cannot personally create renewable energy on the required scale, but we can demand that our elected representatives support such policies. Wind farms off our coasts attract less opposition nowadays and solar energy is gaining pace.

 

A landscape photograph of the sea, with wind turbines in the distance. The silhouettes of two people can be seen making their way across the sandy beach.

We can insist on policies which increase transport efficiency. Andy Burnham has led the way by providing affordable public transport in Manchester which will reduce congestion and pollution. Food production is another area which requires attention. Increases in population will require 50% more food and our current methods of food production are incapable of meeting that. Governments can offer incentives to those who practice more ecologically sound and productive methods such as organic farming and crop rotation.

An example of how this could work is the textile industry. When I buy garments from one of the budget retailers, I suspect that I am purchasing disposable clothing, made by poorly paid workers in unsafe working conditions. Quite aside from the humanitarian issues, the environmental damage is massive. Most of these items will end up in landfill or incineration.

The report, A New Textiles Economy (2017), recommends the phasing out of unsustainably sourced materials and a return to clothing which lasts. Today, only a few producers have taken this on board. One such is Eileen Fisher, whose Tiny Factory encourages customers to return their used clothing for manufacture and re-use.

On a wider level, the UK has committed to a more efficient future whilst the Netherlands has a government-funded target of transforming into a fully circular economy by 2050. It is estimated that this move will generate €7.3 billion and create 540,000 new jobs.

On the international stage, the task is more difficult. It’s hard to condemn developing countries for attempting to improve their standard of living using the unhelpful methods we ourselves have used. However, we can still elect those whose foreign and environmental policies try to peacefully influence international agreements for sustainability.

We can also show by example the advantages of sustainable practices in business and in agriculture. Such techniques can lower costs and increase productivity. This leads to more available jobs, less waste and energy savings. Such businesses are more efficient.

We never make converts by hitting people with our superiority, but we can lead by example. If they see our innovations working well, they are more likely to follow suit.

The problems we face require solutions which transcend old differences. We have to act together to bring about the change we desire. Our reward will be greater connection in sustainable communities where no-one lacks the basic essentials of life. In turn, it is hoped that it will lead to a reduction in conflict, a more caring, democratic society and communities which are more resilient in the face of environmental shocks, such as natural disasters.

It isn’t a path for the faint-hearted, and we might not succeed. But if we don’t try, there is a 100% chance that we will fail.


If you’re looking to live more sustainably, book onto our session ‘Tips and tricks to cutting your carbon footprint’ on Tuesday 13th September.

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