Sustainability is hot. Many brands are launching ‘sustainable product ranges’ and we seem increasingly willing to buy the eco-edition of our favourite item. We diligently recycle our waste and turn off the lights when we leave a room. The hippies under us might even say goodbye to meat and sell their cars in favour their shank’s pony. But how do we know when we are doing enough?
What is sustainable?
Sustainable development is traditionally defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This contains three broad aspects, namely social, economic and environmental sustainability. Although all aspects are important, environmental sustainability is the one aspect most often undermined. For the purpose of this article, sustainability will thus mean environmental sustainability. Of course, this takes issues such as fuel poverty, the economic rights of developing countries and the indigenous’ rights to their land out of the equation. However, for simplicity’s sake (not due to unimportance!), it will be brushed aside here.
How can we, as individual citizens, be sustainable? Again, it depends on your definition of sustainability. Recycling, for example, doesn’t do that much for climate change, but obviously helps to avoid the big plastic soup in our oceans. Okay, so if we narrow our definition of sustainability even further down to ‘the impact on climate change’, there are four main things we can do to make an impact, according to a study by the Swedish University of Lund:
- Eat a plant-based diet
- Avoid long-haul air travel
- Go car-free
- Do not have children
This should be easy enough to do, right? Reality shows a different picture and very few people make these lifestyle choices. One reason for this is that we are herd animals and mirror the behaviour of others. If nobody else gives up their luxury holidays and breeding habits, then why should we. We also look at the government (as a form of herd authority) and are reluctant to take individual action if our governments stay complacent. The other reason is that we feel like we are giving up something by living sustainably. It might make us feel good to know that we are making a positive impact, but giving up our comfortable lifestyle will still feel like a loss.
Looking at the Lund University study revealed some interesting facts. As an ardent vegan of four years, I was surprised to see that eating plant-based ‘only’ saves 0.8 tonnes of CO2E, whereas avoiding one (1!) long-haul flight saves between 1.6 and 2.9 tonnes. Being child-free even saves 58.6 tonnes per year per child. I know many vegans who preach the sustainability of veganism that have several children. Most preachy vegans also fly around the world in the search of exotic locations. Pointing the finger at myself, I also fly around the world on a regular (if not yearly) basis and plan to have kids someday. Of course, veganism encompasses more than just the environment, but the critical voice of some vegans does come off as a tad hypocritical when looking at the figures.
A new happy
Is it possible to be truly happy living a sustainable life? I am not talking about becoming vegan when you don’t like meat anyway (moi!). Or avoiding long-haul flights when are you scared of flying. Or not having kids when you have never wanted them anyway. Can we be happy incorporating all those aspects of sustainability that feel like a sacrifice to us? According to research by the British thinktank New Economic Foundation, we should be.
The research found that there are five ways we can improve our personal well-being:
- Giving back
- Continuing to learn
- Living mindfully
Happiness = sustainable
In reality, we are thus just victims of our own minds when we think that consumerism is making us happy. Luckily, the drivers of true happiness are intimately tied to sustainability. Our need for movement ties in nicely with a car-free life. Mindful living will make us aware of our consumption patterns and decrease our need for excessive spending (on materials items, food or holidays). When we pay attention to what truly makes us happy, we will find that sustainable living will come easier. Yet living this way is not easy. Overcoming our psychological instincts is surely difficult, which is why most of us are not hardened eco-warriors yet.
As we collectively work towards a greener world, we will often have to choose between immediate pleasure and long-term sustainable happiness. Some long-term forms of happiness (such as having children) might still be terribly bad for the environment. We will have to make choices and not every choice will be perfect. But knowing that we can be happy and sustainable (at least in theory) makes a better world possible. Imperfect decisions or not trying our best is all we can strive for.
What are your thoughts on this matter?