Lessons on going green

GORD STEWART
Last updated 13:00 05/10/2012

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If I were king, I'd require every elected official to study and pass a paper we'll call "Sustainability 101" before taking office. Out of fairness, I'd ask the same of all business owners, managers and entrepreneurs.

The paper will impart knowledge, skills and understanding for thoughtful and realistic living in the 21st century, so, heck, I'll make it mandatory for everyone. It will be so interesting - even inspiring - there will be a lineup to take it even if it isn't required.

New Zealand is blessed with talented academics and practitioners in the topics to be covered, so it will be easy to assemble the core faculty.

We'll have a freshwater biologist from this university, an energy policy specialist from that one . . . we'll have business leaders who know from experience - and will teach - that sustainable business practices are clearly good for the bottom line.

Enlightened politicians will instruct on public policy. Environmental activists and community organisers will show there is a role for each of us if we are to meet the sustainability challenge. We'll add in some overseas guest speakers to ensure an international perspective.

We'll start with the basics. Sustainability has environmental, economic, and social/cultural components, but we'll argue that if we don't get the “environment” part of it right over the long term none of the rest of it matters.

We'll accept the time-honoured definition of sustainable development from the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development publication, Our Common Future, which says: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A second definition from the 1991 World Conservation Union publication, Caring for the Earth, notes: “Sustainable development means improving the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.”

And notice use of the term “needs”. Marketers are relentless in trying to turn our “wants” into “needs” and in the process the sustainability message of “enough” is drowned out by the message of “more”.

This leads on to the part about carrying capacity, which encompasses the idea of “limits”. This is where Sustainability 101 turns to science for direction.

Ecological footprint data tells us we have been overshooting the planet's resources to provide for us since the mid-1980s.

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We'd need nearly three planets to support the world's population if everyone lived like we do in New Zealand.

The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that, with growing worldwide demand for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel, 15 of 24 (nearly 60 percent) of the planet's ecosystem services examined were being degraded or used unsustainably.

After establishing the magnitude of the challenge, the paper would turn to solutions and actions.

We'd confirm the fallacy of “sustainable economic growth” and propose using the genuine progress indicator (GPI) instead of GDP as a measure of economic health.

We'll then look at green buildings and green jobs, sustainable business innovation, community supported agriculture, Transition Towns, and the role of technology.

We'll finish with a panel, including some noted writers, to reflect on roles, responsibilities and attitudes necessary for sustainability success. We'd get conservationist and activist Terry Tempest Williams to come along and remind us that: “We can no longer look for leadership outside ourselves.”

Barbara Kingsolver will be asked to wrap it up with words from her essays on sustainability and the environment.

“Rather grandly, we have overdrawn our accounts,” she has written, “Our task is to work out reasonable ways to survive inside the Earth's boundaries. We'd be wise to fix our sights on some new stars. The gentle nudge of evidence, the guidance of science, and a heart for protecting the commons. These are the tools of a new century.”

  • Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profit organisations.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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