Sustainable growth is the key to our future
By Sally Williams
Sustainability is the buzz word for the Green movement. Here two environment campaigners look at the issues surrounding sustainable energy and transport
NO DISCUSSION of sustainable consumption can ignore the concept of “peak oil”. This is the situation where we reach the maximum possible rate of oil exploitation.
Then, as oil becomes scarcer, so its price rises, with all manner of implications.
The environmental consequences of using up our precious oil resources are already severe.
But the social effects might have even a greater impact on our lives.
Many experts believe we have already reached “peak oil”. Others think it will occur as far away as the 2030s.
There are even writers who believe that the whole concept of “peak oil” is a conspiracy hatched by Opec to ensure the price of oil remains high.
For the record, the US Geological Survey estimated in 2000 that the world possesses 3,000 billion barrels of oil, while new technology means that previously unusable mineral resources, such as oil tars, are now exploitable.
But what’s not contestable is that we are using our remaining oil at an incredibly profligate rate.
Because of massive population growth, oil production per person was maximised as far back as the 1970s. As our planet’s population is forecast to double between 1980 and 2030, the reliance of more and more people on an ever-shrinking resource might well prove calamitous.
Senior environmentalists in Wales such as Patrick Holden (director of the Soil Association) and Martin Fitton (former chairman of the Brecon Beacons National Park) understand this instinctively.
They believe all of us – and especially schoolchildren – must be taught to anticipate a world very different from the present.
Thus profound changes must be made in how we see our own futures.
For instance, Holden believes we should learn how to grow some of our own food. And then how to cook it. Such basic skills, once widespread, are rare today. But they will help us survive in a world where the social and environmental impacts of climate change and resource depletion are still unimaginable for most people.
Surely such thinkers are correct.
That a child can leave primary school in 2007 not knowing the names of fruits and vegetables, or where milk and cheese come from, is ridiculous. If that same child leaves secondary school ignorant of basic gardening and cookery skills, it will not be merely a failure of the education system. It will be possibly dangerous.
Many people, stuck in traffic jams and overcrowded airports, or labouring in call-centres built on town margins, might welcome this. It seems a return to basic human behaviour and values. However sophisticated we think we are, all of our activities are dependent on three inches of topsoil!
Despite the once fashionable concepts of job-share and working from home, too many people’s lives are now artificially divided between work and family. This is a fundamental cause of stress, especially for women.
However, the possibility of “sustainable consumption” in a world whose population is increasing so quickly, is hotly disputed. Many note that if everyone on earth lived as the average Welsh citizen, we would need three planets to accommodate our depletion rate of resources. They add that if everyone lived in the style of a US citizen, we would require five planets!
In a recent report the New Economics Foundation (NEF) highlighted our dependence on China as a workshop of the planet, and what that means for world trade.
NEF states that that country has become the “environmental laundry for the Western world”.
China is increasingly blamed for its levels of pollution in general, and its rising greenhouse gas emissions in particular. But it is demand from countries like the UK which leads to smoke from Chinese factories entering the atmosphere.
The report says, “Because China’s energy mix is more fossil-fuel intensive than those of Europe, Japan or the USA, it also means that outsourcing to China creates more greenhouse gas emissions for each product made.”
The report outlines some of the short-term thinking behind global trade.
In 2006 the UK exported 21 tonnes of mineral water to Australia but imported 20 tonnes;
The huge two-way traffic of beers, such as John Smith’s and San Miguel, between Spain and the UK, is also almost identical in quantity;
In 2006, we imported 60,000 tonnes of Christmas decorations.
Such statistics show how far from any form of meaningful sustainable consumption we are. Taken on their own, they might indicate we are irretrievably mired in bad practice. But this is not so.
Individual and local action have important parts to play here.
Farmers’ markets, the new popularity in allotments, and diversification in agriculture all exemplify the importance of home-grown foods, and of the unique value of our own “locale”.
Across Wales, areas of derelict land and brownfield sites – down to the tiniest unconcreted corners of our towns – can be utilised for new community green spaces and for growing vegetables. Such areas would be good for local health and general wellbeing.
But local growers will only prosper if they are encouraged – and not ignored or squeezed out – by the power of the supermarkets.
Such multinationals, plus local councils and the Assembly can help nurture fledgling or small scale businesses. This is especially vital in Wales which suffers from low levels of local entrepreneurship, and a historical lack of good business models.
For instance, traditionally in Wales our industry has created “produce” such as milk or wool or coal or slate, but rarely “products” made from that produce. We have left it to others to exploit our wealth.
Thus the new concept of the “transition town” enthuses many. This involves the population of a distinctive town, such as Lampeter, encouraging individuals to produce local foodstuffs, urging consumers to purchase those foods, whilst appealing to supermarkets in the area to stock these local goods.
The message is clear; there is more to life than being just another punter in the bright aisles of Tesco.
More of us need to become more inquisitive about the provenance of the foods we eat.
The growth of the Fairtrade movement is testament that consumers will not forever be satisfied with a “cheapest possible food” policy.
For our own health, happiness and sense of purpose, we need to be taking these local steps towards “sustainable consumption” now.
Here at Sustainable Wales all our work is geared towards helping change consumer behaviour.
Our latest project helps towards making the good, green choice possible for busy shoppers. The shop, Sussed, in John Street, Porthcawl, is a “window on the world”.
Every product we sell – from chocolate to fashion items, cleaning products to handmade toys, gifts, books to jewellery – has a story to tell.
Some are fairly traded, and/or environment-friendly, still others the work of local small businesses.
In creating Sussed, we are putting our money where our principles are. In the process we have created a lovely individual space for truly guilt-free shopping. Our slogan – shopping for a change!
Indulgent? Don’t be absurd. The facts are, if we do not do it willingly, climate change and the possible ramifications of peak oil might well necessitate a return to old skills, local knowledge and self-sufficiency.
And talking of which – let John Seymour, author of The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency have a word here.
“Self-sufficiency is going forward to a new and better sort of life, a life which is more fun than the over-specialised round of office or factory, a life that brings challenge and the use of daily initiative back to work… It means the acceptance of complete responsibility for what you do or do not do, and one of its greatest rewards is the joy of seeing each job right through...”
It sounds tough. Yet attractive. But take it from me, anyone who has ever grown potatoes for sustenance and sunflowers for pure pleasure would surely agree.