So what does ‘sustainable living’ even mean?
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
It’s funny how when you’ve lived and breathed something for months how you can forget how little you knew when you started out. During my year of eco-friendly decisions, I undertook hundreds of hours of research; hours of browsing, reading, viewing and listening which I think have led me to a pretty good level of understanding of the core environmental issues we face. I sometimes forget that what I now see with clarity, still remains a mish-mash of information for the vast majority of people. Not because the concepts are difficult to understand, but because we are consistently presented with confusing messages by the press, media and even those folks in charge in Westminster. Armed with a lack of clear information, I see people I know (allbeit with the absolute best of intentions) dedicating huge amounts of energy and emotion to trying to make changes in their lives that don’t always make sense.
I think the fundamental confusion people have is when it comes to the difference between Climate Change, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss. All three are man-made, all three are serious, but there is actually less cross over between this triumvirate of doom than most people think. In trying to live more sustainably I think it’s important for people to understand exactly what these three things are, what is causing them and what actions we can take to reduce our personal impact. It’s also key, I believe, that people understand that the real threat to the future of our species (yep it really is that serious) comes from Climate Change and biodiversity loss. Plastic pollution is undoubtedly an enormous issue that we must tackle, but if we allow ourselves to get distracted by it, we risk ending up with cleaner oceans, but oceans that are brimming several metres higher than they should be, being whipped up by ferocious and destructive weather systems within which we will struggle to survive.
So I’m thinking it might help to breakdown some of the jargon, explain what these three issues are start to help people disconnect them in their minds. So here goes:
The words you will hear on this topic are; Co2, carbon, emissions, fossil fuels, net zero, zero carbon, carbon neutral, clean energy, carbon footprint, The Paris Agreement, COP, Greta Thunberg, renewable energy, greenhouse gases, the greenhouse effect etc.
Every time we expend energy to do something, from running a dishwasher, travelling in a car, manufacturing a T-shirt, or even streaming a film on Netflix, fossil fuels (gas, coal, oil) are likely to be burned in the process. The burning of fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases (mostly carbon dioxide but others too). These gases then hang out in the planet’s atmosphere essentially creating a layer of insulation that makes the world get warmer and warmer. Changes to Earth’s average temperature of just a few degrees melts the ice on our poles, leading to sea level rise. It also fundamentally shifts our weather systems leading to more frequent and more severe weather events such as storms, droughts and floods. Science is warning we have to keep this temperature rise below 2 degrees (they used to say 1.5 but the chance of that is long gone) to stand any chance of being able to avoid devastating consequences. Let’s be clear here, this is not future tense stuff. At this point there is no way we can prevent the future flooding of some coastal areas. Climate Change is happening already, and what we are seeing in the form of storms, wildfires, floods and droughts is nothing compared with what IS coming and dwarfs to insignificance against what COULD come if we don’t act quickly. So that’s the scary news.
Now for the good news: WE KNOW HOW TO SOLVE THIS. We have absolutely everything we need at our fingertips to put the brakes on Climate Change. The technology, the intelligence, the science - we know exactly what to do. So what’s the issue? Well the two things we lack are a willingness to change, and the imagination to foresee a world that operates any differently than the one we have today.
So what can we do as individuals? First and foremost, we need to accept that change is coming whether we like it or not. We need to embrace the idea of less; less stuff, less travel, less meat, less convenience and fewer clothes in our wardrobes. But I can tell you categorically from my own experience on this, that living with less and reducing consumption is incredibly liberating. Just imagine a life where you’re not always wanting something you don’t have. It’s bliss.
Secondly, we must make demands of the people that are running the show. We must vote with the pounds in our pocket as well as our ticks on a ballot paper. If as individuals we keep making the same decisions on these things, we will continue to see the same outcomes. And the outcome ain’t looking good.
So what does that mean on a practical level? What are the things you can do day to day? Here are my top tips:
- use what you already have, repair, borrow and just make do (this puts the brakes on the energy burned to create more ‘stuff’)
- if you don’t have something you need, find someone who does (aka buy second hand)
- Conserve direct sources of energy. Turn your lights off, turn your heating down, don’t run appliances when you don’t need to, don’t jump in the car when you could walk.
- Move to a 100% renewable energy provider. If you create the demand, the supply will come...it’s the only bit of economics I truly understand.
The first time I read that living species are going extinct at the rate of around 200 every day, I thought it was utter scaremongering nonsense. Codswallop in fact...it couldn’t possibly be. But it is. In my lifetime around 60% of animal populations have been wiped out thanks to us humans. The loss of species is down to a variety of reasons, one of those (and here comes the first cross over) is Climate Change. Temperatures and the climate have changed faster than many species have been able to adapt or migrate, so they simply don’t survive.
Some species are dying because we are removing their habitats for human gain. Examples are the growing of palm from which we extract the oil just so we can stockpile 27 bottles of shampoo in our cupboards. We are tearing or burning down forests so we can grow crops for human and livestock consumption. We spray the air to keep ‘pests’ away from our veggies. We remove woodlands to build train tracks and pump rivers dry so we can enjoy long showers and luscious looking lawns. So what happens to the life that lives in that air or those woodlands and rivers? Again it just can’t survive.
The animals and plants that are dying because all of the above disrupt delicate eco-systems. If our actions lead to the downfall of one species, and another species relies on the first in any way, then that one will fall with it as an indirect consequence. And the reason that I put biodiversity loss up there with Climate Change as the things we really need to worry about, is that we rely on delicate ecosystems as much as any other animal living on Earth. If we see ecosystems breakdown to the extent that plants can no longer be pollinated, guess what? we can have all the ex-rainforest land we want, but we won’t be able to grow a single bean on it.
So what can we do about this one? Well the excellent news is that the natural world has an AMAZING ability to recover. With support and room to breathe again, we can stop battling for space with our fellow living creatures, and they will (apart from the properly extinct ones of course) start to bounce back. It’s been seen time and time again in conservation programmes. But we have to stop tearing down and pillaging and start rebuilding and regenerating.
So again, what does this mean on a practical level? What are the things you can do day to day? Here are my top tips:
- Avoid the palm oil you can avoid. In some ways sustainable palm oil is better than other options, but the current systems in place to ensure sustainability are flawed. If you already have a face cream, use that one up before you buy another. And ask yourself if you really need the Mr Kipling cakes or the bag of Haribo.
- Eat as organically as you can - it’s kinder to life across the board and has the added bonus of keeping soil rich (which helps lock carbon out of the atmosphere - there goes another cross over). Extra, extra bonus is that it tastes better too. Is that a luxury reserved for the privileged few? Well maybe yes, so if you consider yourself remotely privileged, why not take one for the team?
- Save water. I speak to so many people that don’t realise that the water in homes comes from our lakes and rivers. If your local river is running dry, it may be because of a changing climate, but it may also be because not enough people are turning the tap off when they are brushing their teeth.
- welcome life in to your surroundings, plant things that animals and bugs love and let the garden go a little bit wild - even if it’s just a small patch of wildness.
Ok true confession, the more and more my journey has gone on, the less and less obsessive about plastics I have become. Let me be clear, single use plastic is undeniably an ecological nightmare - it can hang around for centuries and it breaks down into tiny pieces that are ingested by animals and marine life (there’s the biodiversity loss cross over). Plastics have been found in snowflakes in the Arctic and in the air we breathe inside our homes. There is no denying that anything that we can do to turn the tap off on single use plastic production is vital. It is not sustainable.
However, if we put all our focus on this issue, which as individuals we are tending to, we can very quickly lose sight of the existential threats that Climate Change and biodiversity loss present. If you swap your plastic shower gel for a bar of soap, but the bar of soap still contains unsustainable palm oil, then you are missing the bigger environmental win. Personally I would rather choose a sustainable product in a plastic wrapper than a non sustainable one with no wrapper at all. Similarly, if you obsess about not being able to find strawberries in anything other than a plastic punnet, but it’s December and your strawberries are getting to you by plane, then it’s another environmental own goal. Just don’t buy the strawberries.
Don’t get me wrong, I avoid single use plastics as much as possible. When I can’t, I meticulously reuse them and eventually recycle whatever I can. But when it comes to making conscious decisions as a consumer, it’s not at the very top of my list, and as soon as I started focusing on the notion of generally consuming less, the plastic has become less by default anyway. I suppose my point is, if we agonise over whether to buy something like Coke in a plastic bottle or a can, then we are distracted from the bigger picture where we look at whether we should be using that pound in our pocket to support a company like Coca-Cola at all. It has a terrible track record on unsustainable palm oil and water wastage (but for the record, faced with the plastic vs can dilemma it would be a can every time!)
Bottom line...if the whole world went plastic free tomorrow, the planet would still fry as a result of Climate Change.
All that being said, reducing plastic pollution IS important, and here are my top tips:
- find a local refill shop and buy as much food from there as you can. Not only does this reduce plastic consumption, but in most cases you’ll be supporting local business and local employment which have huge positive ramifications for Climate Change.
- invest in good portable reusables. Big canvas shopping bags look lovely, but actually the small ones that fold into their own pouch are so much easier to keep in a coat pocket or handbag, ready or use at any time. Equally a folding reusable cup, is a total godsend.
- look for local Terracycle projects. These recycling schemes take difficult to recycle plastics and make them into something new.
- turn single use plastics into reusables, why buy a swanky new stainless steel container when you have a three year old ice cream tub in the cupboard already?
So I hope that’s provided clarity for anyone feeling a bit baffled. For me sustainable living means learning to live within the bounds of what our beautiful planet can supply. To not take more from the Earth than we give back. To respect nature and our place within it. As Mohandas Gandhi famously said: “there is enough on Earth for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed.”