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Delving deeper into sustainability

Dimensions & definitions  / Problems & development / Change & principles

Why things need to change
The way we use the planet is unsustainable. Large numbers of the world’s population go hungry and don’t have clean water. The way we burn fossil fuels is adding to climate change and we are depleting all sorts of resources and polluting our environment in a variety of ways. Climate change is expected to lead to the spread of deserts, an increase in very large storms as well as increased winter rainfall in coastal areas (including the whole of Britain). It will also lead to changing habitats and landscapes everywhere. Rising sea levels will lead to flooding in low-lying areas where millions of people live and where huge amounts of the world’s food is grown.

Sustainability is not about keeping things as they are - things are not OK now for many people. Sustainability is about ensuring access to energy, healthy food, clean air and water for everyone on the planet both now and in the future. It is about improving the world and then trying to keep it that way for everyone.

The idea of conservation, in the sense of preserving things as they are, does not work. Our ‘normal’ lives in Britain are changing the world, mainly because of our contribution to climate change - we burn fossil fuels to run our cars, heat our houses, power our fridges and transport food from exotic places. If we focus on looking after local habitats and don’t deal with the big issues like climate change, those habitats will be affected, sometimes destroyed, by the impacts of these big issues. If we consume fossil fuel energy in our efforts to preserve the local habitat we just make things worse.

We certainly do not want to preserve things as they are in the economically poorer countries. Most people there need access to more energy to ensure that they can improve their lives. At present:

• About 1000 million people in the world (that’s approx.1 in 5 people) do not receive enough food to lead fully productive lives
• More than 1 in 10 people on our planet consume less than the ‘critical minimum diet’ necessary to stay healthy and maintain body weight
• 40 million people die each year from hunger and hunger-related diseases
• 11 million babies and young children die each year from poverty-related disease
• 25,000 people die each day from using dirty water
• A quarter of the world’s adult population cannot read or write
• There are approximately 10-15 million refugees currently unable to return to their own country due, in almost all cases, to warfare - Half of these are children
• Since 1950 the richest 20% of the world’s population has doubled its consumption of energy, meat, timber, steel and copper per person and quadrupled its car ownership, while the poorest 20% has increased its general consumption hardly at all
• Over-eating and obesity are now so common that, according to the Worldwatch Institute report, the 1.1 billion people in the world who are over-nourished and overweight now almost rival the number who are under-nourished and underweight.

How do we add to the problems?
• Burn fossil fuels directly in cars and to heat our homes, schools etc
• Eat food that has been grown with chemicals and has used a lot of energy in processing and packaging
• Buy food and other goods that have been brought from the other side of the world
• Buy lots of things that use up materials, take energy to make and transport
• Buy products where someone has been paid very little to make them – products that have been produced in ‘sweat shops’, using child labour or people working in unsafe conditions
• Buy products that are immediately desirable, but which have contributed to the loss of traditional technologies, communities or ways of life

What would a sustainable world be like?

A sustainable world would have to be one where the whole of the world’s population:
• had enough healthy food
• had a clean water supply
• had adequate homes to live in
• were free from the threats of poverty, violence, racism or discrimination
• lived in a clean, safe environment
• had access to good health services and education
• could find beauty and fun around them
And where this could continue indefinitely

In order to achieve this we would have to burn less fossil fuel in the industrialised world, consume more locally produced goods, and stop using destructive chemicals in farming and industry. We need to ensure that everyone has an equal share of resources, and seek out more fair trade products. Above all we must consume fewer useless products.

If we focus on the ‘big’ issues in this way then the other problems such as loss of biodiversity, local air and water pollution and poverty will be lessened inevitably in the process.