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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What’s in Your Tool Shed ?

What’s lurking in your tool shed ?

Perhaps you own an electric drill . . . when did you last use it ?

How about a lawn mower, ladders, hedge-trimmer, jig-saw, trailer, wheelbarrow, patio-cleaner, wallpaper stripper ?

If you think about it, owning stuff that sits around unused for 99% of the time, is the epitome of unsustainability. For practical, utilitarian items like drills and ladders, what matters is access when we need them, not ownership.

There’s an obvious solution – sharing stuff !

It goes a little against the grain in our hyper-individualistic society, but it makes perfect sense – we don’t all need to buy our own a drill so it saves us money, and we don’t all need to find space for it in our own home so it saves us space and clutter (which Rachel recently wrote about on her Green & Tidy blog).

There are a range of ways we can replace ownership with access-  from hire schemes, to tool libraries, which work in a similar way to book libraries. Several organisations are already encouraging local groups and communities to set-up similar projects; such as Streetbank, and technology makes knowing where we can get access to things locally much easier.

There is a catch though.

To work, it requires a participating local community !

Unfortunately in many places this is something we’ve lost. We live next to each other, but often don’t know each other, or even come into contact with each other any more. There’s been a tendency in many places for us to lead increasingly fragmented and isolated lives. We sit in front of our screens forming friendships with people across the globe, but too easily neglect what’s outside our own front door.

But this isn’t entirely our fault ! It’s the natural product of the environments we’ve created. We often live apart from our work, and commute back and forth, usually by ourselves and we increasingly tend to shop in impersonal huge edge-of-town superstores. Many of our societies are increasingly divided and suffer from increased background levels of stress, tension and anger. We complain about the ‘fear of crime’ – perhaps it’s partly because we don’t know our neighbours as people and as a result don’t trust them . . . relationships matter.

There’s a large overlap between the health of our communities and the state of the planet. Personal change by itself won’t deliver the increases in sustainability we need, from energy to water use. If we are to succeed in combating climate change, peak oil and resource depletion, we will need to collectively re-engineer our communities to make it natural and easy for us to live more sustainable lives.

Although cities are sometime viewed as almost the opposite of ‘environment’, high density communities are invariably more sustainable than low density ones. In denser communities we can easily walk to a local shop, park, library or cinema. We can walk or cycle to work, avoiding inefficient, costly and time-consuming commutes, meaning we spend more time locally, and get to know more people. In a dense environment it’s easier to design and build infrastructure, from water & sewerage, to public transport systems. Dense communities also have a smaller physical footprint than sprawling suburban communities, leaving more land available either for food production or the natural environment.

Many towns and cities are trying to build more localism and sustainability into their development. Vancouver is a good example, with 40% of central area households no longer own a car, because they don’t need one on a daily basis – as they can walk, cycle or use public transport to get around. Car clubs/lift share/car hire schemes exist for the occasions when a car is needed, and the benefits of reduced car ownership are massive: personal cost savings in buying, maintenance and fuel, less traffic accidents, less obesity, better air quality, less land needed for garages and roads, and huge environmental savings in vehicle manufacture and disposal, as well as the obvious carbon saving associated with reduced fuel use.

It also means fewer large superstores and car parks are needed – in a compact community it’s much easier and more sustainable for a single delivery truck to deliver to 100 properties a week, than for 100 cars to visit the store!

Less obviously, reducing travelling also gives people their time back – up to 10 or more hours a week! As a result people play more sport, spend more time with their families and friends, have more hobbies and have time to engage in more leisure and cultural activities, not to mention politics and voluntary work !

As I write this I’m watching rioting and looting taking place on the streets of London and several other English cities.

While the reasons are undoubtedly complex, I’m sure our modern way of life, with it’s increasing disconnection and division, and loss of community is partly to blame.

Let’s hope we can quickly fix the mistakes of the past and rebuild sustainable, caring communities in our cities – for the benefit of both ourselves, and the planet.

Alex Steffen, editor of the Worldchanging gave an excellent TED talk last month titled The Shareable Future of Cities :

Photo by Miss Millions, via Flickr