Sustainability – why it matters

I realised that I should share this article here.  I wrote this during 2016, just before I was made redundant from my role as a sustainability consultant.  It’s appeared in a number of places, yet I have refrained from posting it here until now, although I have no idea why.  The core message is important, the implicit one even more so.  Here then is the article that I hope will spark some ideas.  I hope you cry, change your life, smile, or carry on regardless — just do something!

 

Sustainability is one of the few issues which concerns everyone – regardless of faith, economic status or nationality.  For those of a religious persuasion, there is the moral aspect towards responsible stewardship of the Earth and life which is inherently divine in origin.  For those of a scientific atheist nature, there is the simply need to balance increased demand against dwindling resources.  2015 saw scientists from Stanford University and Universidad Autónoma de México declare that we had effectively entered the sixth mass extinction; the previous one infamously ended the age of the dinosaurs.

Given that scientists estimate life began on Earth around 4,000 million years ago, then the existence of homo-sapiens for the last 200,000 years (estimated) accounts for around 0.005% of that timeframe, then the impact of homo-sapiens upon the planet is extraordinary.  The scope of changes to the planet brought forth by homo-sapiens is even more amazing if you consider that we were nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes of small populations until the rise of agriculture around 10,000 years ago; civilisation as we know it rising out of the deserts some 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley of India and Pakistan.  In such a brief period of time, we have sculpted the land to our needs, eradicated hostile species we saw as threats, destroyed forests and built urban jungles in their place and mined the natural resources out of the Earth.  To refine the focus to a time period that is barely 150 years of that 4,000-million-year timeframe – the Industrial revolution saw the great explosion of homo-sapiens and our impact.  We consumed resources at a faster rate than ever and burnt forests and coal seems to fuel our machines.  Our increase in wealth and technological advancement saw science advance at a pace which surpassed the Enlightenment and the Scientific revolution.  Driven by these advances, we saw a population boom, fuelled by increased wealth, sustained by increased means to harvest food stuffs from around the world and sustained by advances in medical care.  The total population of Earth never exceeded 1 billion people until around 1800; it reached 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960 and then accelerated to over 7.4 billion today, with over 62 million people born in the first half of 2016[i].

Our growing population is rapidly outstripping the Earth’s ability to provide food, water and resources.  Yet, the disparity of wealth and resource access is also alarming: estimates for the number of undernourished people alive today place the figure at around 760 million, yet the estimate for the number of overweight people is more than twice that at 1,626 million.   Any conversation as to the scarcity of food and resources inherently includes a discussion as to the ability of the Earth to provide for a given population, yet we are unable to even share the existing resources equally and fairly between us and thus, we have a distribution issue to address firstly before discussion as to the maximum food yield of the planet.

Food is not the only resource which we consume at an outstanding rate.  Water, wood, minerals, metals and animals are all harvested by our industrial processes, to provide for our consumer needs.  In 2016, over 4 million hectares of forest were lost.  Driven by mining, farming and logging, the loss of these trees as a carbon capture and oxygen production facility is not the only impact.  The rainforest is home to millions of animal species and the loss of these ecosystems is devastating to many, sometimes undiscovered, species.  Once we reap the raw materials from the land, we typically enter them into some industrial process.  These processes often include the use of toxic chemicals; it is estimated that so far this year, over 4.2 million tonnes of toxic chemicals have been released into the environment.  It has been suggested by the WWF that we are currently consuming the planets resources at a rate of three times the ability to regenerate them, with Europe alone consuming an estimated 30% more resources than can be replenished.

Our neo-enlightenment age of the internet has been instrumental in the open sharing of knowledge to those who seek it.  Yet, our technological advances come at a price.  The energy consumed by both industry and consumers it rapidly increasing as we add an expanding array of equipment such as computers, tablet computers, mobile phones, Wi-Fi hotspots etc.  Over 300 million MWh of energy has been used in the first half of 2016 and over 83% of that is produced through non-renewable resources.  You may have a ‘green’ or ‘renewable’ energy contract, yet you still use the same electricity as everyone else.  Currently, the UK average fuel mix for electricity is only 19.3% renewable[ii].  There are more cars on the world’s roads than ever before, driving the consumption of oil towards what is likely to be the first major worldwide wake-up call to highlight the consumption of non-renewable fuel sources.  The carbon and other toxic pollutants emitted by oil burning processes may not concern the average consumer, yet the cost escalation and ultimate shortages of oil will do given that the oil industry estimates less than 38 years of oil is left at current consumption rates.  By reducing our demand for ‘energy’ from fossil fuels, we ultimately reduce the business case for operations such as fracking and oil drilling in the Arctic.  Protests and legal cases will achieve somethings, but money talks and can influence any government.  The only way to combat the influence of money is to reduce its value, a value that is driven by our appetite for fossil fuels.

In view of an ever-increasing global population and consumer driven needs to harvest greater masses of resources, even toxic ones, from the Earth, then we are evidently on the cusp of a disaster.  With global temperature rises threatening major changes to sea levels with consequences to land mass, the potential for overcrowding is a very real risk.  Changes to weather patterns caused by changes to saline levels of the seas and levels of gases such as carbon dioxide further raise the risk of major changes to the regions which are inhabitable, possibly driving emigration and overcrowding, with the very real risks of resource driven wars.

When asked “what is sustainability?” many people think of recycling waste, solar panels and planting trees.  All of these actions are valuable, yet they are inherently symbolic and fail to address the major issue.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability as “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources”, and as something “able to be sustained.”  The two definitions are intrinsically linked.  In order to sustain life upon Earth, specifically the continued existence of homo-sapiens, then we need to conserve the equilibria of the ecosystem.   How we achieve this task is the real challenge.

Every moment of our lives contributes towards or against sustainability. The very fact that we are alive and breathing means that we are consuming oxygen, expelling carbon dioxide, giving off body-heat and producing bodily waste.  All of these products are however natural, yet there are many arguments against cattle farming centred upon the methane emissions of cattle whilst nobody ever suggests a cull of homo-sapiens in order to reduce our emissions!  Every part of the world with which we interact on a daily basis affects the sustainability of our lives.  The food we eat has a carbon, energy and chemical footprint; the clothes we wear have huge footprints; the technology we have come to rely upon has a huge footprint.  Every choice we make to wear something, eat something and use something throughout the day creates an impact.  It is estimated that for a UK citizen, 75%[iii] of our carbon footprint is generated by the products we buy and use.   Go ahead, feel good about your organic cotton – the reality is that cotton is one of the most water intensive crops on the planet and is only able to be grown in the regions typically with water shortages; farmers divert scarce water supplies towards their cotton fields and cause drought.  If you own a pair of denim jeans, they could have used up to 10,000 Litres of water to grow the cotton.  Such detail may seem pedantic, yet this is the reality of ‘real’ sustainability – detail is key and that is without even touching on the ethical sourcing concerning the very real ‘human cost’ of those who work to produce the goods which we consume.

Truly sustainable living would regress towards the socio-commercial models of antiquity, yet a complete abandonment of the capitalist model is unlikely.  Whilst we are not all able to embrace the sustainability of an ‘off-the-grid’ lifestyle without mains electricity and water etc., we can encompass key components into our everyday lives in order to reduce our impact upon the planet.  The final goal must be to ‘farm’ ourselves, thus managing our resources and our consumption of it as if we were managing a herd of endangered species upon a nature reserve.  The sad truth is, that the humans are an endangered herd that is need of management.  The nature of that management is beyond the scope of this short article.  A review of Plato’s the Republic is a fine beginning however, and is to be interwoven with the basics of farming and resource management.

 

The basics of sustainability

 

Transparency is the basic requirement.  Only if we know where our products and services come from are we then able to ensure that they meet our criteria.  As mentioned above, organic cotton is great in terms of reduced pesticides and water pollution, yet the real question we have to ask is if it is responsibly sourced such as through the Better Cotton Initiative which helps train cotton farmers to reduce their impact.  Your choice to remove meat from your diet, for ethical and/or sustainability purposes, may see you substitute it with Soy.  Issues with the traceability of Soy mean that it is highly likely your Soy is sourced from South America where it is linked with deforestation for farming.  There are responsibly sourced Soy options with certification by either the RTRS (Round Table on Responsible Soy) or ProTerra.  If you eat meat, then the impact of large scale farming has both sustainability and moral issues for you to consider.  It should also be noted that the WWF recently reported that the average European consumes around 61kg of Soy each year, embedded within meat and dairy products.

One of the most basic steps towards a more sustainable consumption of products is to adopt a local sourcing policy.  Strawberries in February may be enjoyable, yet importing fruits from South Africa for an all-year round offering is not sustainable.  Some are lucky enough to have a local farm shop or farmers market where seasonal and locally produced produce is available.  Where this is not an option, then a basic selection of British produce negates some of the issues associated with the import of produce.  Local produce is at least subject to the environmental controls imposed by UK law, something that you can apply pressure to your MP to push for change if there are aspects that are lacking in ethical sustainability, whereas you have no say how something is produced on the other side of the world.  Whilst you may not live near the sea, you can source fish from UK waters, rather than Cod from Alaska.  Such also enable you to make the moral choice to opt for fish caught by sustainable and regulated fishing methods.

As soon as we think of waste, the first instinct is to think of recycling.  Recycling our waste is a great thing, yet it does not reduce the impact of producing that waste in the first instance.  By not buying more than we need, we reset the supply and demand ratio so that production quantities will invariably decline in response to the reduced demand. The minimisation of waste is the key action that we should all take.  France recently made it illegal for supermarkets to throw away unsold food, driving a behavioural change to minimise ‘over-stocking’.   As well as sourcing local produce, you may have the option to grow your own.  No food is more sustainable than that which you grow yourself and can ensure it is organic and pesticide free as you wish, with the small scale of your production having a minimal ecological impact.   You can even provide your own fertiliser and compost with a wormery and recycle any food waste you do have!

There is no need to adopt a vegan diet either, a balanced diet is increasingly favoured by the likes of Simon Fairlie.  Whilst large scale cattle farming has a huge impact upon the environment in a number of ways, yet livestock do also play an important role in the ecosystem and in supporting biodiversity.  Balance, as with so many things, is the key.  By reducing the amount of meat you consume weekly, you can reduce the demand for meat, in turn reducing the livestock levels and their negative impacts.  The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations defines a sustainable diet as “…diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition… protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems… economically fair and affordable…”[iv]  The Eatwell[v] guide plate offers guidance as to a nutritionally balanced diet, which is also beneficial towards the reduction of greenhouse gases emissions.

We have all been guilty of buying too-much when we go shopping and ending up with uneaten food put into a bin or composter. It is not just food either.  How many of us select a new mobile phone every year or second year, without concern as to if the old one was still a functional phone and the massive impacts of the toxic metals used within mobile phones?  The same applies to new tablet computers, new cars whilst the old one was still working perfectly fine.  Our capitalist society runs on the proliferation of the fashionable consumer mentality.  Cessation of the impulse to obtain the latest technology or trend is a great first step towards a more sustainable lifestyle.

We all have wardrobes that have more clothes and accessories in than we realistically need.  The fashion industry runs on seasonal changes, yet the designers who profit from our seasonal wardrobes inevitably have a key ‘style’ to which they adhere and avoid ‘fashion’.  Fashion is just a trend, following in the path of what everyone else is wearing.  Surely, we are not afraid of being ‘different’ and ‘individual’?  Find your style and refine your wardrobe to suit, responsibly sourced of course, and reduce your purchases of new items to only that which is truly required and confine those impulse purchases to the recycling bin.

There are other key actions you can take to reduce your impact.  Make your home more efficient with insulation, double-glazing and energy saving lighting.  Making use of daylight rather than artificial light will also reduce electricity consumption.  Solar panels are viable if your roof direction and pitch is suitable.  Repair and reuse furniture – a coat of paint can change and renew the life of an old set of drawers and the impact of the paint (water-based or low-VOC for sustainability) is far less than that of new furniture.  You can alter the way in which you travel and support your fitness as you do so.  Walking and cycling are great, yet the impact of a peak-time train is infinitely smaller than that of a car journey.

You can reduce the impact of your clothes; research suggests that as much as 39% of the environmental impact of any item of clothing is in the way it is washed and ironed.  Make your clothes last longer with a variety of approaches including washing only as needed, washing at a lower temperature, line drying and ironing only when necessary.  Some great tips are available at: http://www.clevercare.info/en. Repair and alter your clothes rather than replacing them, then make sure that they go into a recycling scheme when you can no longer make use of them.  With the prevalence of textile recycling schemes on the high street, there is no excuse to not recycle fabrics.  With companies such as I:CO (http://www.ico-spirit.com/en/homepage/) running textile recycling for companies such as H&M and Puma, then the drive to reuse textiles is gaining pace.  The benefit of such a scheme is that they are also pushing for the separation and reuse of fibres from old clothing which can then be woven into new garments.  For those with sufficient willpower, there is always the truly sustainable measure of ceasing to be ‘fashionable’ in favour of having a definitive style that has no need of a continual update.  Sadly, such individuals are seldom seen.

Can you state the truth when faced with illogical and short-sighted finance directors who protect short-term profit at the cost of making a real commitment to sustainability?  Dare you have a style, rather than follow trends?  Can you make the tough decisions that lead to giving up the holidays abroad to reduce the carbon footprint?  Would you dare to switch-off the heating, or the air-conditioner?  Some of you will agree with what I have outlined above.  Others will care little for it.  Ultimately, the choice is your own.  No man can stop a river alone, but if he is strong enough – then he can walk against the flow.  Are you strong enough to walk against the herd?

 

 

Further reading:

http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2015/oct/20/the-four-horsemen-of-the-sixth-mass-extinction

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_world

http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/meat-eating-vs-vegetarian-or-vegan-diets

 

[i] Source: http://www.worldometers.info/

[ii] http://electricityinfo.org/fuel-mix-of-uk-domestic-electricity-suppliers/

 

[iii] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130123162956/http:/archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/economy/documents/sustainable-life-framework.pdf

[iv] https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/sustainability/sustainability.html?limit=1&start=1

 

[v] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide

 

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