Sustainable development: Sustainable development has been defined in a number of ways. Two of the most well-known are:-

  1. Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Our Common Future: Bruntland, 1987)
  2. Sustainable development is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems. (Caring for the Earth: IUCN, 1991)

The first is about present society being fair to to future generations, a relatively soft target. The second is about living within the constraints of our planet, a much tougher call. This entails: –

  • Restricting the warming of the planet to less than 2°C warmer than its temperature in pre-industrial times
  • Preventing thermal runaway of the temperature of the planet, due to the release of methane, 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, from melting Arctic permafrost peatlands

Restricting warming will slow the increases in weather extremes, which we are already seeing, even though warming is only 0.7°C above the pre-industrial level .

Thermal runaway is cataclysmic. Methane release from permafrost could  increase global temperatures well above 2°C.  We are engaged in an experiment, where our children or grandchildren could be the unlucky victims.

Society’s resistance to change: In our interconnected society, reducing the UK’s environmental footprint meets opposition at every turn. Car salesmen may be concerned about the environment, but large, gas guzzling cars sell for more than small cars so yield greater income. Energy companies obey government requirements to promote energy saving measures, but make their main income from selling more energy; so their main effort is devoted to sales. The chancellor gains taxes to fund running the country from sales of goods and services. The greater the Gross National Product, the more he gets. Our pensions rely on investments in successful businesses, which thrive when economic activity is strong. Commerce and government tend to pay lip service to reducing carbon footprints, as no absolute targets are set. To keep global temperatures from exceeding a 2°C rise, we need to shrink our fossil fuel use, which really means shrinking the fossil fuel based component of our economy, as well as developing our renewable energy generation. This is where individual action comes to the fore.

Individual action: Individuals who own their own homes are free agents regarding their own lives. Choosing to insulate their own house, not to buy that 4×4 or second car, or searching for less packaged food is their decision alone. The normal barriers towards moving to a low energy society are not there. The task becomes not one of persuading commercial companies, pension funds and government to be greener but of attracting fellow individuals to see the value of consuming less and conserving more. The individual has the ultimate power to green society.

Reduced spending through simpler living can reduce stress and reduce the need to work long hours. Reducing from two to one wage earner may allow downsizing from two cars to one, more time on the golf course and a belief that one is doing something for society and the planet. A move to a more leisurely society may become a trend.