Help Define Sustainable Development

165 - SustainabilityWhat’s your favourite oxymoron ?

You know, terms that are self-contradictory, like act naturally, original copy, open secret, deafening silence, military intelligence, or my personal favourite Microsoft Works.

How about Sustainable Development ?

Can development ever truly be sustainable ?

Ultimately it comes down to what you think the words sustainable and development mean.

Sustainability is the ability to endure, and in this context is usually taken to mean something along the lines of: The ability to meet our own needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (the so called Brundtland definition).

This implies that we should hope to provide future generations with the same access to resources that we have available to us today, including energy, raw materials, fresh water, fertile land or natural landscape and habitat.

So for example, when it comes to energy, solar is considered sustainable but oil is not – as roughly the same amount of solar energy will continue to fall on the planet every day (at least until far into the future), while oil is a finite resource and will become increasingly scarce before running out.

With more and more of us on the planet, and all of us wanting to have more and more stuff for ourselves, trying to develop sustainable practices and technologies is increasingly important if we want our children and grandchildren to have a better, or even a similar quality of life to us.

So back to development.

We all want homes to live in, jobs to go to, food on the table, health, education, leisure, water, sewerage, electricity, faster broadband, occasional holidays and any number of other things, which all makes development important and desirable. How can we do this in a sustainable way ?

If we build new homes far away from places of work and facilities, it means people will have to use more energy in travelling. If we build in flood plains it means more resources dealing with the effects of frequent flooding. If we don’t install sufficient insulation in new buildings, it means more energy in heating. If we don’t provide efficient plumbing and water storage systems, it means using more water than we need to. If we cut down a forest or concrete over a wetland to build a new town or motorway, it means there is less habitat left for wildlife.

These kind of considerations are very familiar to those of us with a ‘green streak’, but we must remember this is only one aspect of sustainability.

As well as the environmental, the social and economic aspects are equally important – issues of equality, opportunity, crime, access to jobs and services, affordability, fairness ? We don’t want to saddle future generations with either a depleted and polluted planet, a fractured and violent social structure, or a huge unaffordable debt.

Unfortunately these so called three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social and economic) are very often seemingly pitted against each other – Do you want unspoiled landscapes or wind turbines ? Do you want cheap food or low impact organic farms ? Do you want nice houses with gardens in the countryside, or more countryside ?

These are not easy questions to answer, and can be very emotive, especially when considering our own local environment – we might all be a little bit NIMBYist on occasion . . . but we have to remember recycling plants have to be built somewhere, unless you’re a BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) !

So what does all this matter ?

You might not be aware, but a New National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF) came into force in the UK last year, guiding the shape of the UK’s future development, and (so the Government hopes) helping construct our way back to economic growth.

In it there is a clear presumption in favour of sustainable development - but what does this mean ?

Unfortunately there’s no simple answer – we all weigh the various factors differently, and a global supermarket chain might have a very different view about what sustainable development means than you might, for example.

But there is something else.

The NPPF also includes a strong commitment to localism, improving the voice of the local community in the planning process – to help decide what gets built where, and what sustainable development means locally.

If we want the proposed wind farm, or don’t want the proposed supermarket then the onus is on us to find our voice – attend meetings, write letters, send emails, comment on policies and ultimately use our vote in local elections . . .

As a former physicist I’m partial to the odd Einstein quote, and though this one might seem a little strong, the sentiment applies:

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil. It will be destroyed by those who watch but do nothing”


Photo from Ivan Walsh via Flickr

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Feed the World – Starting Local

160 - TinsThese are undoubtedly hard times for a lot of people.

In austerity Britain, as in most of the developed world, the Government is struggling to balance the books – and, as is usually the case in such circumstances, it is the poor that are facing the most hardship as a result.

Remarkably over twenty percent of the UK’s population is considered to be living in poverty: more than 13 million people, including over 3 million children. Most projections suggest this figure will increase further over the coming years.

Of course how you define poverty matters – discussions of poverty in the UK and other developed countries tend to consider relative poverty, the level of  inequality across society, rather than absolute levels of material deprivation or hardship. The current most widely used UK definition of poverty is a household income below 60% of national median income, ie: below £13,000 a year, or around £250 a week (varied depending on family size). It’s not hard to see how household income levels much below this figure can place the family under continual financial stress and uncertainty and contribute to social exclusion – preventing the family from engaging in things like travelling to see more distant relatives, attending children’s activities like swimming or sports, or taking holidays, trips and occasional meals out.

Inequality and social exclusion are certainly important issues, but focusing  on issues of relative poverty alone can obscure something else even more important – the existence of more extreme levels of poverty and hardship.

Absolute poverty is typically defined as an inability to meet basic human needs such as shelter, warmth, food, health and education, and while precise definitions vary, in the UK the typically used household income figure of £216 a week is used as a threshold for a more absolute level of poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate around 8.4 million people in the UK are in this position.

This can mean living in unfit housing badly affected by damp and mold, lack of sufficient heating, a shortage of basic clothing, no access to transport, and increasingly severely restricted access to food.

A family living hand to mouth has little ability to plan and save for the future, and when something goes wrong such as the car needed to travel to work needs fixing, or the heating boiler breaks and needs repair, or the main breadwinner is unable to work due to injury or illness, then food is often the thing that suffers.

The growth of foodbanks across the country is a testament to people’s concern, compassion and solidarity for those most in need within their own communities. Last year UK, foodbanks fed over a quarter of a million people.

The basic idea of a foodbank is that it collects and stores tinned and packet food donated by individuals, and then works with the various professional agencies like schools, GPs, social services and Job Centers etc, so that people and families considered to be facing substantial hardship, can be referred to the foodbank to receive a few days worth of food, to help tide them over any period of crisis. The aim is not to provide long term support, but just help take some of the pressure off the family finances to help them get back on their feet. The majority of UK foodbanks are affiliated with the national foodbank charity The Trussell Trust, who assist with organisation and data collection etc.

Over the last year I’ve been part of a small team working to set-up a foodbank in my local area – organising premesis, governance, finances, applying for grants, recruiting volunteers etc, and last Saturday I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours, along with the Youth Forum and many other volunteers, helping collect food donated by generous shoppers outside my local Co-Op supermarket, on behalf of the (soon to be opened), Forest of Dean Foodbank.

If you’re looking for something positive to get involved in within your local community this year why not consider your local foodbank – they’ll be happy to accept food donations or any offers of help, and you can be sure you will help make a tremendous positive difference to people’s lives.


Photo by sterlingpr via Flickr

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Go Brown to Go Green

I’ve a confession to make.

I’m a bit of a map geek.

Maps are about trying to capture and communicate knowledge about the world – and whether it’s tube lines or star systems, I think there’s something very cool about them.

One of the interesting things about maps is that they not only represent the geography, but also the period – effectively capturing time as well as space, with old maps working like a window back into the past.

Have you ever wondered what was ‘there’ before you were ?

If you’re sat in a Norman castle reading this then the odds are there wasn’t a whole lot of human development involved beforehand, but  if you’re in an old urban area, and the walls around you aren’t made of stone, then it’s quite likely there’s some history literally under your feet.

Weirdly, looking at old maps is a large part of what I do for my day job as an environmental scientist working in land contamination and remediation. If we want to properly understand the condition of the land today, it’s important to know what it was used for before – whether a farmer’s field or an old gasworks !

Two hundred and fifty years ago the UK gave birth to the industrial revolution, which went on to transform the world with factories, railroads and all kinds of products of coal, iron and steam. Needless to say there wasn’t a lot in the way of environmental protection or health and safety back then, and numerous toxic wastes and by-products of these various activities and industries found their way into local surroundings and communities, where many still remaining in the ground.

We’ve added to this contamination over the decades by spreading ash and clinker in our gardens, through fuel leaks, from deposition of combustion products from coal fires and car exhausts, lead pipes, asbestos roofing materials, sending effluent and sewerage into the ground and landfilling all manor of wastes. Contamination of our air and water tends to disperse and be short lived, but contamination of our soil tends to stay put.

There are three things to think about.

Firstly, are there places where this contamination is so harmful to people’s health that it need’s to be cleaned up ? If so how do we find them and who should pay for the clean-up ? An easy question to answer if you can identify the polluter, but altogether harder if you’re talking about contamination from factory long gone and replaced by housing.

Secondly, when we build new developments are we sure we’ve properly considered any possible contamination that may exist, and ensured our new homes and gardens are suitable for use – after all, the derelict site of a former chemical works might be heavily contaminated, but if fenced off, that contamination may not actually be causing any harm until houses are built on it.

Thirdly, have we stopped causing new contamination ?

These questions are important if we’re to have peace of mind about our homes, and progressively improve the quality of our environment – but the truth is they’re not rocket science. We have well developed and cost effective ways of investigating and remediating contaminated sites, and are continually developing our understanding of the risks and issues involved. Good news if we want to develop the vacant and derelict industrial sites in our urban areas, and avoid having to concrete over ever larger areas of our natural countryside, whether currently used to grow food, or by wildlife.

Mark Twain once said ‘Buy land, it’s the one thing they’re not making any more’, and of course he was right. The UK is a small crowded island, and if we’re to avoid eating up more and more green space through increasing urban sprawl for the homes and infrastructure we need, we’re going to have to get even better at recycling our old urban areas into new urban areas, including dealing more efficiently with the chemical consequences of former land use.

In it’s current drive for economic growth, the Government continues to debate the relaxation of green belt protection around our towns and cities. The alternative is, of course, that we focus development on our existing brownfields, using space more efficiently, rather than simply using more.

If you want the maps of the future to have as much green on them as our maps of today, why not drop your MP a line and let them know.

Afterwards you might also want to look at a few old maps of where you live – you might find it was an old factory, or you might find it was a green field.

Decide for yourself which is worse . . .

Photo by PhillipC, via Flickr

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Last Chance to See

We are living through what is referred to by many as the Anthropocene extinction.

Man’s activities, particularly destruction of habitat, is widely believed to be responsible to the loss of many species every year. In fact we simply don’t know how many species are being made extinct, but some estimates put it as high as many species every day !

If you didn’t get to see the Eastern Cougar, the Western Black Rhinoceros, the Pyrenean Ibex or Lonesome George, the world’s last Pinta Island Tortoise, anytime within the last ten years, then I’m afraid you’ve missed your chance. All are now extinct and gone.

You’ve probably still got a chance to catch the mountain gorilla (740 left), the Great Bamboo Lemur (60 to 160 left), the Blue-Throated Macaw (100 to 150 left) or  the Amur Leopard (19 to 26 left) if you don’t leave it too long.

Tragic and depressing as news of these critically endangered species are, no doubt many of us wonder what we can do to protect animals whose habitats are under threat far away.

Unfortunately the answer is probably not much – other than perhaps donating funds, where possible and raising awareness. Conservation and protecting biodiversity is something that has to be done locally. But we shouldn’t be so complacent about the biodiversity in our own backyard:

In the UK the Scottish Wildcat, the Red Squirrel, the Brown Hare and even the Hedgehog, are all considered to be under considerable threat.

Numerous societies and organisations would welcome you support, in campaigning to stop inappropriate development, protect habitat, support conservation measures and raise awareness, such as the Hare Preservation Trust, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, British Hedgehog Preservation Society, and the Westmoorland Squirrel Society.

We might not have been able to save the Chinese River Dolphin from our living room, but we might be able to save the Red Squirrel !

Photo from Wikicommons

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10 Ways to Eat Local

Eating more locally produced food doesn’t mean shutting out the wider world – it’s about reducing transport costs and impacts in production and shopping, supporting local economies and jobs, keeping more of the profits in the hands of producers rather than multinationals, reducing packaging and preservative usage, avoiding exploitation, eating fresher food, eating seasonal food, and ultimately reconnecting with where our food comes from.


More and more retailers are appreciating people’s increasing desire to know the origin of their food, and to buy more locally. Many of the supermarkets now have a number of local suppliers and product lines in their stores, usually being clearly promoted as local produce. The golden rule is if it’s not labelled as being local, then it probably isn’t.


Farm run shops source their stock directly from local producers, usually including a number of attached farms. If you’re not sure where your nearest farm shop is, check out a number of directory websites, including Free Index, and Information Britain.


Over 450 farmer’s markets now exist across the UK, meeting weekly, fortnightly or monthly, and providing an opportunity for local food producers to sell directly to the public. Bringing producers and consumers together, most sellers will be more than happy to answer questions about the food they produce. Most of the produce will have been produced within 30 miles of the market – significantly reducing transport impacts. Find your nearest farmer’s market on or via your local Council.


A range of community supported food schemes exist across the UK – from meat and vegetable box deliveries, to wine, breweries, dairy products and bread. The Soil Association maintains a list of community supported agriculture schemes and delivery arrangements.


There are an increasing number of local artisan food producers interested in producing high quality local food, and better connecting local communities with the food they eat. Community bakeries, breweries and many other projects have been set-up in various parts of the UK, either selling directly to the public, or via a range of local outlets. The Transition Towns network provides a range of information aimed to support community food producers.


As with the supermarkets, many local cafes and restaurants have realised the increasing appetite for locally produced food, and source many of their ingredients locally. It might be worth making enquiries at your favourite local eatery to see where they source from, and if not already local, perhaps encourage them to consider if they could.


In many areas allotment plotholders have come together to share and exchange their various crops between themselves, effectively creating micro community farms. Some have proved so successful they also sell surplus produce to the public, via local stores – which is perfectly legal so long as the allotment is not being run primarily as a business.


Something perhaps a little more ambitious than the rest of this list – there is increasing interest in turning areas of otherwise underused and derelict land into community orchards. Done well, a community orchard provides not only a source of food for local people and wildlife, but also an attractive community outdoor space. Contact your local Council to enquire about any suitable sites you might be aware of and see what support they might be able to offer.


At certain times of the year the UK’s hedgerows and woodlands are full of blackberries, wild strawberries, nuts, wild garlic, mushrooms, and a wide variety of nettles and leaves. Of course it’s important to know what you’re picking, but numerous books and guided courses are available for those with an interest in free food.


Of course you can’t get more local than your own back garden, greenhouse or window box. Try out your green fingers, and discover how satisfying connecting with nature and growing a proportion of your own food can be.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in the ebook The Year I Saved the World]

Photo from BazzaDaRambler via Flickr

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