Thursday, 10 February 2011

Sustainability ...oh I don't know

Back in 1980 I wrote to Margaret Thatcher expressing my outrage about the destruction of the ozone layer by CFCs. The Department for the Environment wrote back and reassured me that they were doing their best to see that the UK was not contributing to the destruction of the ozone layer. Ahem. I was just a kid and I wasn't convinced. I was also annoyed that Margaret had not personally dealt with my concern - she was the one in charge.

Six years later I started a degree in Environmental Chemistry. Aside from the fact I learned that environmental has 3 'n's in it the day before I graduated, my interest in protecting and preserving the environment stayed with me throughout my degree. I guess the subject was taught appropriately.

Then venturing into the real world I lost faith big time. The gloom and doom merchants got to me. I developed an 'oh fu*k it' mentality. Humans could be bright individually but as a mass they'd never agree and unite in the common goal of sustaining this planet. And I gave up trying.

Several years later, I met my chap. I shared my despair but he persisted in his green ways and imposed them on me. When I challenged him (after the honeymoon) his philosophy was simple: he wanted to spend his time on this planet being personally responsible for the minimal amount of damage to this world that he could manage - regardless of what everyone else was doing. What a lovely bloke.

And now I am making up activities for children for an educational website about sustainability and so I have revisited the details of the topic big time. When you read the facts how can you not get depressed?
• Deforestation on a mass scale
• Pollution - air, water, earth
• Heaps of unnecessary waste
• Brutal consumption of natural materials
• Farming methods that add to greenhouse gases, damage soil etc
• And a fast growing and developing population that will just accelerate the amount of damage we are doing
• etc

......with nowhere near enough regard for future generations

And you can see why these things happen. There's a relatively small handful of people making a fortune out of practices that do not have the planet's best interests at heart in developing countries. And there's a lifestyle and a whole way of living that us westerners would have to seriously overhaul if we were to really, really try our best for the environment.

I read that if everyone in the world lived as the Australian or Americans did (and why shouldn't they - the western world has had its turn at luxury and convenience) we would need at least four planets. If everyone's consumption was the same as those in Bangladesh, we would need a third of the planet to sustain us. Such glaring inequality feels unjust in itself. Greedy, messy westerners!

The elephant in the room is shouting that it is almost definitely beyond us to sort out this mess and it will probably be a major catastrophe that might eventually force us to do the drastic things that would need doing - or that might force these drastic things upon us anyway. That's assuming anything is still salvageable and that any significant population is left! I am pretty sure most people at least suspect this and this suspicion contributes to some people not bothering to even try towards sustainability.

The whole world which is far too big, diverse and in different stages of development and awareness to arrive at any kind of consensus - is just so unlikely to get there without the jolt of a disaster. It would take huge attitudinal and actual changes in the way society, lifestyle, equality, community, the economy etc functions to tackle these issues. Changes that would currently seem like an enormous infringement on our basic comfortable western rights. (Imagine the Daily Mail's response if a huge magnet stole all the cars in the UK and left a great public transport system) Any 'power that be' trying to implement the changes needed would be seen as far too maverick to be actually voted in by a democratic country. And who is in position to deliver the huge world-wide re-education that would be needed to ensure such a vision would be voted in or implemented? No we need a huge-green-inspirational-benign-dictator-god to show the world the way but I haven't met one yet.

Aside: One question is though - how long have we got and what, if any, solutions might science come up with to temper our impact?

However. I will add. All this gloom and doom isn't me. For one, what does it really matter if we destroy ourselves - I mean that more positively than it sounds. What will be will be and I happily accept that. I'm not worried. But the main thing I want to say is this. I know I am not a huge-green-inspirational-benign-dictator-god and that I alone cannot save the world from itself but I can do what I can do. I have adopted my chap's ways. My conscience will be as clear as it can be in the way the world is currently set up. I will do my best to keep the dollop I personally add to this mess as small as I possibly can and perhaps eventually I'll get to hang out with with the huge-green-inspirational-benign-dictator-god in the sky!


  1. Was that controversial or just too long to read?

  2. actually is it not crisis enough that 24 000 worldwide die each day from hunger related causes.
    Apparently not!!!

  3. And seeing as I have comment itis, I will add. If the world has not yet worked out how not to kill each other, the environment is not likely to be a priority in many places.

  4. There's a school of thought (and it is not immediately obvious why it is wrong) that whatever planet we leave for future generations, they would not want it any different - at least, they might in a conceptual sense, but not in a real one. Because to do so, would mean that they personally were not alive.

    Take an analogy - do you wish the first world war never happened? Yes, of course you do, it was terrible war. But think for a moment, would you change history if you had the magic wand that could actually do that? Think now, if you did wave that wand then certainly you would not exist, neither would your children. We are all a product of the past and unless our lives are so miserable as to be not worth living, then whatever our history, we would not logically wish it different. The same is true of our planet - whatever state it is left in, future generations would not want it any different, for to do so would mean they do not exist. The claim, therefore, that we are saving the planet for future genrations is flawed?

    That's the argument, and though it may irritate an 'F P' like you, it is incredibly difficult to refute. To do so we have to think in terms of human flourishing, and what conditions would maximise its prospect in a future - conceptual - generation. I think we are obligated to do that. But the odd thing is, the actual genration, would not logically alter the past, whatever legacy we leave.

    Oh and the 'if all the world were like the US... we'd need four planets' argument is fallacious, at least in so far is it is incomplete. If the world had followed the rate of Western population growth during the last century, then we would need only half the world's current resources. What is it they say about lies and statistics?

    For all that Molly, I'm greener, and much much more so, than you might think. I just passionately believe the arguments need to be sound - scientifically, philosophically and morally. And all too often, they are not. Don't get me started on wind farms....

  5. Hi MollyP
    At least everyone is talking greener, and you have to concede that there are inroads into solving the some. It was far gloomier 30 years ago.

    Making a difference through enlightenment and connectivity via modern communication gives me hope. If it rings true, we'll eventually unite en mass and make progress in a way we never were able to before. You can't tell me that the internet didn't have a bearing on what happened in Egypt this week.

    Though, when all is said and done, there is more said than done.

  6. People as a whole usually esteem their impact to the planet as greater than it really is.

    All it will take are a few serious conflicts, and supplies of items taken for granted will dry up (like antibiotics, clean water, and food). We'll have the plague again, starvation, etc, and worst of all, no one will be expecting it.

    So, in my mind's eye, there is a misanthropic flavour of hope for the environmental ice cream cone.

  7. Great post, very thought provoking. I have the thought that we have done too much damage to the planet already. People find it easy to say "well, we're up the creek without a paddle anyway, so why bother?" But, then that's because people are fundamentally lazy.

    I congratulate you on your choice to follow what green practices you can and stuff the rest of them.


  8. I'm with Ken, looking back thirty (oh dear, forty actually) I can remember nothing, not a peep, not a hint, of discussion at home or at school about responsibility for the environment. The nearest I got was 'nature study ' at brownie and guide camps. Awareness can't be measured easily but goodness how times have changed... for the better I'd say. Sandra


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