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Sustainability: know your limits

Stuart Reigeluth, Founder of REVOLVE

Opinion 20 November 2019

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“No thanks, I’ve had enough” is what we say when asked if we wanted more to eat or drink. But it’s only enough for the time being, and then we want more. Our bodies need more nutrients, water, protein, minerals, carbohydrates to keep going, every single day we need more. 

And every day, there are more people on this planet (7,736 billion and counting) and everyday more of us need more food for sustenance, and more water for survival. And every day more of us are going to cities: nearly 70% of humanity is projected to live in urban areas by 2050. We are on track to go sprint right off the cliff as we pursue the perennial quest of more, for the sake of more. 

Because it’s not just about our daily sustenance. It’s about all the collateral things that accompany the staple goods and all the ways these goods are transported, and shipped, and packaged, and consumed, and discarded, and recycled, and reused, and re-consumed, and wasted. It’s the endless consumption of goods and foods that is problematic: it’s the reality of the Malthusian trap. 

Thomas Malthus (d.1863), the English political economist, suggested that technology would increase the supply of goods, and improve living standards and prolong lifespans, thus augmenting demand for more products; while population numbers continued to swell, natural resources continue to be depleted, until eventually supply no longer meets demand. We are now in the age of ‘overshoot’

So we turn to sustainability as a solution and we find examples where communities are reconnecting with the natural environment, and where municipalities are improving health standards with access for all in order to decrease socioeconomic disparities overall. This ‘triple-win’ of better environment, better health and greater equity is difficult to do, but there are truly effective cases that exist today: 

STOEMP in Ghent and the Food Garden in Rotterdam provide local healthy food with municipal support and volunteers to low-income families in their respective cities. PROVE in Portugal brings together local consumers and farmers to encourage natural food markets. The Malvik Path outside Trondheim in Norway now offers residents a walkway along the coast where a railway used to run. 

Also improving health standards, the Restructuring Residential Outdoor initiative in Sweden fosters access to green areas in more deprived areas for greater social cohesion. In Madrid, 56 public municipal nursery schools introduced Sustainable Food in Public Schools for children. In London, Gardening for Green Gym and Meat Free Monday are hugely successful with students in primary schools.    

Europe is clearly leading in taking climate action with its carbon emission reduction targets, but still lags in implementing UN Sustainable Development Goal #10 on Reducing Inequalities in income as well as those based on age, gender, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic. The struggle continues to reduce inequalities whenever and wherever we can, by knowing our limits. 

This is not about throwing more money at putting out fires, as The Economist preaches, claiming that capital will be rescue us from climate change: more money  means more investment in more technologies that will provide more solutions for us to keep on going the way we have been going since the advent of the industrial revolution and the relentless human demographic explosion. 

But at the same time, this is not about stopping what we are doing as The Guardian asserts: George Monbiot is only half right when he says “what counts is not what you do but what you stop doing” – we cannot be expected to stop driving or flying or eating from one day to the next. We must make small but important changes. We must adapt each time to our changing world. Yes, we can do this. 

We can stop driving diesel cars, and we can stop eating meat, and we can stop using plastic bags, and we can start riding our bikes more, exercising more, eating more local produce, and reusing our coffee mug. Every day we can make such choices. We can say: enough. I’ve had enough to eat. I have enough things in my life. I’m good. I’m at a respectable level in life. I don’t need more. 

And we can be encouraged to stop or slow down or to adapt more quickly. We need strong leaders who are brave enough to plant trees across their cities, who ban cars from city centers, who ban plastic bags in supermarkets, who ban straws in restaurants, who encourage wood construction and who incentivize energy efficiency in buildings and businesses. More renewables please. No more oil. 

We have a responsibility to provide a healthier and more equitable world to our offspring. Each one of us can find the willpower to make more sustainable daily choices. We all have the democratic power to affect decisions for more integrated policies. We can all provide guidance towards a world worthy to be inherited by our children. We just have to say: “no thanks, I’ve had enough.” 

Want to learn more? Join the ‘A Future for All to INHERIT: Taking Action Now’ on 10 December in Brussels with REVOLVE.

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