Sense and Sustainability
April 2014

WarkaWater Tower

The most fundamental challenge for sustainability is the number of people on the planet. We all need food, water and energy.
For the first time in human history, we now have more people suffering from obesity, about one billion, than from hunger.
True sustainability can be achieved only through a fundamental rethinking of our values, priorities, and norms of behavior.
We need to redefine the relation between consumption and happiness. We need to develop a new metric, one that is different and broader than just GDP per capita.

These were some of the headline quotes I read from a report entitled Sustainability: New Perspectives and Opportunities, solutions proposed from a 2012 conference organised at the University of Pennsylvania. The report was a summary of the current data and analysis, which focused on four global themes; population dynamics, sustenance, energy, and pollution, and was presented in the context of various governmental, academic, corporate and non-profit sector responses.

Somewhere in the plethora of thoughts running around my mind, I know that the global sustainability of our planet is an important issue. Yet it took me a year and several months to read this report since I first received it in my inbox. Within the first three pages, I felt overwhelmed, finding it difficult to persist in reading the whole report (approx. 30 pages), let alone trying to understand what the statistics and analysis actually meant. The numbers, dates, quantities and percentages in relation to a global population and environment, were just too vast to comprehend within the context of the locality and city that I actually live in and experience in my daily life. My mind (and I suspect the same for a lot of people) simply shuts down!

One solution suggested at the conference was the rise of a heroic and charismatic person, someone to rouse a global tide of support in the way the world had rallied behind Nelson Mandela to abolish apartheid. And how easy it was to nod my head in agreement — yes, of course, that would be the perfect solution! Quietly I was thinking, just as long as it's not me who has to take on this mantle. Then I can continue with my small life in my small corner of the world.

Overall, the report painted a depressing picture. The complexity of the problems, and their solutions, seem so immense. And while there was no one conclusive or practical solution presented as a way forward, the overarching idea was that we must work together and be adaptive in relation to the real and measurable planetary processes that are already in motion.

The Executive Summary concluded thus:

After five decades of sustainability debates and policymaking, the world is still lacking a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the complexity of the issues and tradeoffs involved. While setting ambitious goals to effect quantum change is desirable, policymaking needs to recognize that it is impossible to determine with precision all of the actions required to ensure sustainability. Thus, a self-adaptive approach based on trial-and-error and experimentation must be adopted.

Just reading such a heady and intellectual paragraph makes it so easy to be apathetic, I thought. After all, how can little ol’ me possibly change anything in the bigger scheme of things, one person in a population of over 7 billion, which is growing by more than 200,000 people every day. It's all well and good to profess that we must work together, until the idea of ‘working together’ is thrown to the wind. A recent statistic I read stated that 85 people (yes, individual people) own more wealth than 3.5 billion of the world's poorest people. That's almost half the global population!

I only need to be still for a few moments to feel how scarily wrong the whole system is.

However, the truth is that I too am part of the system. It's a truth I must accept, whether I like it or not, however much I attempt to isolate myself within my cosy and comfortable London life. Shutting down my mind or turning a blind eye is the easier path, but this will not change the fact that there is no magic answer.

So what does it really mean to be adaptive? Many teachers, philosophers, psychologists and scientists have used the analogy that our mind (our individual thoughts, knowledge, experiences, memories, etc.) is a microcosm of what we manifest collectively as the macrocosm that is our world. At an individual level, a very simple example: I woke up one morning last week and remembered that I had forgotten to hang out the clothes from the washing machine before going to bed the previous night. I also realised that when I put the machine on, I had had the thought that I would forget. And so I did forget. There are many instances of this process that we generally overlook by saying, well, that's just the way I am… forgetful, daydreamer, scatterbrained, etc.

Most of our younger life is spent building habits and traits of personality that help us to survive. In the modern world, this is usually to get a good education, in order to get a good job, in order to earn a good wage, in order to buy a nice house, and to have savings to raise a family, and on and on. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; it is part of the current modus operandi that we believe will ensure the survival of our species. Yet, when do we stop to question ourselves about what we are really doing with our lives?

When we look a little deeper, in order to ensure the survival of our species, we must also ensure the survival of our planet (we all need food, water and energy…), and this requires a profound questioning of our thoughts and habitual life. It means expending effort and energy on an individual level in a way we are not used to, initially with a force great enough to swerve us out of the ‘routine.’ We assume that we cannot control our thoughts or our reactions, that they somehow manifest automatically and spontaneously. Yet true adaptability is about being able to change our habits, based on accepting that certain knowledge and action, which has served us until now, no longer works.

When I look at the reality of my everyday life, I see how easy it is for me to use unnecessary water when washing up, leave the light on in a room that I am not using, push the thermostat on the heating up instead of wearing an extra layer, eat more food than my body actually needs, shop for shoes and bag that I do not need… the list can go on and on, hundreds of small and seemingly inconsequential decisions. I can even pretend that I contribute to a sustainable world by saying to myself, of course there are times when I switch the light off, when I use less water, etc. The question is do I actually do it, every day and every time? The answer is no, I don't. And if I really tell the truth, the answer is no, I don't do it, even when I have the thought to.

As an individual (the microcosm) I have a responsibility to act, because I am a part of the whole (the macrocosm). I must begin to adapt in order to save the planet. And even though I admit I don't have a sense of this urgency most of the time, I know I've made choices that have gone completely against the grain of my habitual education. For example, ‘choosing’ not to have children, as one form of saving global resources (In 2013, the average cost of raising a child to 21 years old in the UK was £222,000. This figure includes childcare, education, food, energy, clothes, holidays, toys, recreation, etc.). To not have children as a conscious choice in our current society, where this is a controversial and much debated topic, does feel like an important contribution. However, it does not stop there. I have to keep looking and questioning continuously, the big and small actions, and this includes going through the embarrassment of reading a difficult report, no matter that I might have to read it three times in order to understand it.

The spectrum of opinions on sustainability range from one extreme to the other, from ‘there's nothing wrong’ to ‘we are at a crisis point.’ Yet how can I deny the reality of what I see when I am willing to really look around me? As a species we have ‘developed’ rapidly from a collective, communal life, to one that is increasingly individual (more so in the West, which the rest of the world increasingly takes as a role model). Sadly, this indicates that our minds are becoming more defensive and closed inwards, not open and collaborative. And if we continue to isolate ourselves, imagining that we and the planet are not part of the same eco-system, how will we then be able to work together?