What is sustainable living?

Centre for nature and green living

What is sustainable living?

haiku: Hope for the future Lies in changing the present It lies with you, me
Hope for the future lies in changing the present. It lies with you, me. (a haiku written at the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Environment Centre being open)

We often say that St Nicks’ aim is to promote and enable sustainable living. What we don’t often say is what we mean by that. A recent discussion amongst staff has highlighted the fact that it’s so much easier to agree on what isn’t sustainable, than what is.

At the moment, most of us in the UK would need another 2 or 3 planets to sustain our lifestyle if energy and resources were used equitably around the world. As a species we have completely changed the face of the planet, pushing nature into ever smaller and smaller spaces. According to a recent paper in Nature, this year the amount of human-made stuff, such as concrete, plastic or asphalt, will have surpassed all global living biomass and: “On average, every person in the world is responsible for the creation of human-made matter equal to more than their bodyweight each week.”

We, and the economy as we know it, are living at the expense of others and future generations, of both people and other species. That is definitely not sustainable on a finite planet (as is vividly illustrated by the Impossible Hamster video).

We really need a systemic rethink of our relationship with the Earth. Climate change is just one of many symptoms of how badly we’ve been managing it; Covid may well be another. Saving the planet is actually much more about safeguarding humanity’s future, which hinges on restoring a better balance between us and (the rest of) nature.

So, what does sustainable living that fits us back on to one amazing planet look like?

  1. permaculture ethics and principles, from oswego.edu

    permaculture ethics and principles, from oswego.edu

    It’s lifelong learning. It would be great to have a really simple recipe applicable to everyone’s life but it’s not possible as the science around sustainability continually develops and personal circumstances change. One definition of sustainability could be having a life worth living on a healthy planet, using the least resources needed, whilst having the best positive, rather than a negative, impact on the environment and others around us. This requires continually learning and adapting. Working out our impact is a good start. Generally speaking, the three biggest carbon emitting areas in our lives are the way we travel, the way we heat and power our homes, and the food we eat. Each accounts for about 20% or more of our individual carbon footprints (Climate Outreach). Envisaging what a “good life” is for you while addressing those is a great next step. For some, transport may be the easiest area to tackle, for example by pledging not to fly because they don’t have any family abroad, but others may opt to reduce meat consumption instead. Ideally, we all do our best in all areas of life and the permaculture ethics and principles, or One Planet Living, provide a good framework to guide our progress.

  2. It’s a balancing act, not a purity test. Nobody is perfect. We all have to balance a variety of factors when making our choices – from money to efficiency or impact on others around us – and that may result in a compromise or even environmentally bad option. St Nicks as an organisation often faces tough decisions on whose funding we apply for and accept. Does the good we can do with money from organisations whose sustainability or ethical record may be less than perfect, outweigh the downsides? We sure hope so, if we can’t avoid making those calls in order to sustain our work. In an imperfect world heavily reliant on exploitation of nature and fellow Earth dwellers, we can only weigh up everything and come up with the best decision with the information we have at the time. This may not always turn out to be the best option overall; however, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, do better next time and try to change the system. The main thing is not to use our or others’ imperfection as a reason for inaction. Focusing our efforts on areas where we can make most difference is much more productive than feeling guilty about getting something wrong.
  3. Jovial atmosphere at 2015 York Open Eco Homes

    Jovial atmosphere at the first York Open Eco Homes in 2015, discussing the multiple benefits of improving home energy efficiency

    It’s about normalising what should be a given. According to Climate Outreach, lifestyle change and systematic change are two sides of the same coin because the majority of greenhouse gas emissions globally can be linked to household activities. Action to reduce these in our everyday life and making space for nature wherever possible, needs to become the “normal” rather than a niche thing to do, or something that only some people can afford to do. Some of us certainly have a much bigger action debt than others, so addressing and demanding an end to inequality also needs to be a big part of the picture. There’s plenty of negative examples though, so showcasing and talking about the positives is just as important as supporting collective efforts to make a difference. Talking to your loved ones or colleagues about your sustainable choices, or the campaigns and organisations you support, may amplify the impact you’re having by inspiring them to join in. It may also help you find new ways and actions to undertake together. If nothing else, it could lead to some interesting but hopefully peaceful debates over Christmas tables or screens…

We’re keen to hear your thoughts on sustainable living and what it means to you. In the New Year we plan to feature our supporters’ take on sustainability and our New Year’s resolution is to get better at reporting on our successes as well as failures when it comes to applying it in the running of the charity. Please get in touch, or sign up to our Ta(l)king Action event on 12th January 2021, if you’re happy to share your experiences. We look forward to hearing from you!

Post written by Sustainability Officer Ivana Jakubkova







21 December 2020 | Categories: Back to Basics, One Planet Living, Opinion Piece | Tags: carbon footprint, Learning, making a difference, New Year's resolution, one planet living, sustainability, sustainable living