There are some terms that mean everything and nothing, all at the same time. “Save the Planet” is one. “Sustainable” is definitely another.
On the one hand, it’s obvious what “sustainability” means. It’s the idea that there’s a way of living that could be sustained indefinitely without enabling the gradual degradation of the complex web of life on our remarkable, living, spinning rock.
But then when you dig any deeper, and you witness its use, it suddenly loses all its meaning.
What is it we’re actually trying to sustain? Life has gotten by for a long time without us sustaining it, so it’s not that. Is it western lifestyles maybe? But that can’t be sustained. Is it the status quo, whatever that means?
Shell Oil can maybe help. Their website, explains that “Sustainability is integrated across our business in three ways.”
How so, you ask?
“By running a safe, efficient, responsible and profitable business”, “by helping to shape a more sustainable energy future” and “by sharing benefits where we operate and making a positive contribution to society”.
No, it turns out they can’t help.
Heathrow airport are no better, surprisingly… They say they have a “plan for sustainable growth [which] sets out how we will … help to tackle global challenges such as climate change.” But it doesn’t seem to involve them closing down.
So, in any applied sense, “sustainability” seems to be meaningless.
It’s not just that terms like these are so broad as to lose all meaning. Or that they are so often found in the marketing of mass-produced brands, which is rarely a good sign.
It’s also that, for the individual, they tend to be associated with an incoherent and mind-boggling list of specific, individual lifestyle actions we can take, to achieve this sustainability.
Lists that tend to focus less on understanding how the fundamentals of our lifestyles need to change and more on adopting a few helpful actions, whilst simultaneously continuing with plenty of other less helpful ones.
Just google “How to live sustainably” and you’ll find a generous list of seemingly almost randomly selected, mostly very positive, activities you can undertake.
The Guardian lists 50 ways to get greener whilst Country Life pips them at 60. Top marks though go to the ironically-named “Minimalist Vegan” which smothers you with no less than “100+ simple tips to live a more sustainable lifestyle”.
It’s hard to argue that these are not mostly very good tips. And it’s certainly good click-bait, given that according to Forbes, 77% of people (in the USA and Australia) want to learn how to live more sustainably.
Note the word “learn” there.
It’s easy to carry a re-useable bag to the corporate supermarket. It’s tempting to buy organic cotton when shopping on Amazon. It’s attractive to fly to an eco-resort for a holiday in Indonesia, maybe supping some fair-trade wine on the plane. It feels right that our single-use throw-away bottle will biodegrade one day.
All of these things are better than doing the same action with the less environmentally-friendly alternative.
Better ways to live, not better things to do
But perhaps what many of us are really hankering for is ways for how to live our lives better, to genuinely reduce our ongoing and overall impact. Deep down we don’t feel so helped by a confusing and overwhelming set of lifestyle actions presented through the lens of consumerism.
We are hungry instead for a fuller framework to live within. One that’s different to the ultimately unsatisfying and “unsustainable” framework we currently live within.
In other words, better ways to live, not better things to do.
The most destructive way to live is Western consumerism. To escape it, we in the West, for whom this is an everyday norm, have to find practical ways to replace that framework with a different way to live. One that can be applied and one that is attractive.
Not so many years ago, the UK was known as a nation of shop-keepers. Not strictly true perhaps, but not totally wrong either. My grandparents owned their own little local shop in London and with that came pride, independence and a degree of resilience. It was common to shop in a local grocer’s owned by someone who lived locally, and who got his or her produce from local farmers. The garage, the cinema, the pub, the bakers were mostly owned and run by local people who employed local people.
The money stayed locally, the community created work, people were bound together, there was a degree of resilience to that area. It wasn’t perfect, because perfect isn’t a thing. But it had a lot of strengths.
Now, that world is presented to us as quaint, out of date, old-fashioned. We’re taught to believe that the future is one in which a small collection of billionaires continue to scoop up so much of the world’s resources that they own more than whole countries. A world in which the big corporations own the high street, the internet, the means of production, the food chain and some of the governments. A world in which robots take our jobs and we just lump it because, well, it’s the way it’s going.
But of course it doesn’t have to be that way. Not if we stop believing it.
We only have to stop believing it, and it crumbles.
That world of my grandparents is to a degree, a description of localisation. Localisation, in short, is probably the best answer there is to globalisation.
It means creating areas in which, as far as possible, resources, supply chains, money, ownership and decision-making are all focused in and around that area.
That means that the people – the ordinary people – own their community and live and work, independently within it. It doesn’t mean everything is perfect, but when people have greater autonomy over their lives, are invested in their local area, have their voices heard locally and have a personal interest in the state, health and welfare of their area, everyone – almost everyone anyway – has a greater chance of benefitting.
When the assets are owned by people far away – usually very wealthy people – and the money flows out to their pockets and only back in as wages that can soon enough be stopped or cut; when the decisions that affect that area are taken by people that are not affected by those decisions; when an area is just a row on a spreadsheet in an office in a city far away; then the people of that community have far less chance of creating their future together and far less reason to work together to make that happen.
Localisation itself focuses on the economy and the human state of affairs. It doesn’t automatically offer a framework that embeds a care for the natural world alongside a care for the human community. A consequence of it is that it’s certainly a more environmentally-sound way of operating than globalisation. But on its own it doesn’t automatically address the ecological crisis.
Yet we have to solve that ecological crisis. Sooner or later, if we don’t kill ourselves off, we’re going to have to find a way to live as part of the natural world.
I prefer sooner.
To do that, we can intertwine localisation with ecology.
Ecology means considering the relationships between living things to each other, and to their surroundings. We are living things and much as we sometimes forget, we live within and as part of a vast web of other living things.
As I see it, one of the fundamental problems we people have is that we – most of us anyway – have come to see ourselves as distinct from the rest of the natural world. We see the world as ours. Designated spaces are set aside for the rest of the wild things – nature reserves, ocean reserves and the like. The rest is people-zone, which is heavily managed, in which things grow only where they are allowed and animals come only when invited.
It’s become so normal that it doesn’t look odd to look down a high street and see lights, concrete, glass, plastic, cars, tarmac and people, an occasional pigeon and maybe one or two “street trees” hemmed into little soil squares by black metal cages. But that is a bit odd really.
If you ever want to get a sense of how bizarre the world we’ve created is, try this thought experiment, which I do a lot and find enormously entertaining. It’s very simple.
Take a moment to remind yourself that we are apes. Consider us as the animal – just a mostly hairless ape not a million miles away from a chimpanzee. Consider our ape features. Then go to a road and watch us driving.
Watch the apes closely – watch them sitting behind the wheel, with the clothes on, driving these big metal boxes around on wheels. Watch the apes get out interact with another ape and then wander off into their woodland of shops or houses. It takes a bit of practice, but if you can see through the veil that we’ve created, you’ll suddenly see that our world is utterly bizarre and wildly at odds with all of the other living things around.
There is a simple change we need to make, which despite its simplicity is wildly difficult to make happen until we see past the veil. It’s simply to re-understand ourselves as an animal – one of many that live together with the rest of life.
Once we clock that again, we can start to see our local area as hosting a diverse and wonderful web of life, of which we are a part.
From then, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to starting to design our local area cognisant not just of the interests of the local people, but of the local living web.
We people like to plan. Planning our projects, our towns, our businesses, our resource-gathering, our activities and our behaviour mindful of and in the interests of the local living web builds a thriving ecolocalised area, which operates in the interests of all of the life there.
That’s a different framework for us to operate within.
Ecolocalisation takes the emphasis of localisation from a primarily people-centred framework to thinking in terms of our place within the wider natural world. Thinking in terms of ecology.
By localising our resources, re-learning to live with and enjoy what we can produce locally, enjoying life more locally, and operating in ways that are sensitive to the plants, animals and other life that live locally alongside us, we can start to behave like a part of the natural world again.
By considering our impacts locally not just in terms of the economy and community, but in terms of our impact on the natural world around us too, we can design ways of behaving and living that place us within a complex web of life in our area, not just as the single dominant species.
Globally-connected but maybe not globally-minded
At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds a bit like a case for local isolationism – closing the shutters on the wider world; disconnecting from institutions like the United Nations, discarding the case for national government or battening down the hatches, surviving climate change as best we can and leaving others to suffer whatever comes.
Far from it. At its heart, localisation comes from a firm belief in the power of community and society. It doesn’t work without that. Individualism and ecolocalisation are mutually exclusive. Just like the complex web of life in the wider natural world, we are all bound up together.
We are a globally-connected species now, and our impacts here have historically had impacts far and wide. There is surely a solid place for government of larger areas, like nations, and for structured, respected and fair international cooperation. Only with that can we as a global, inter-connected and vastly numerous, intelligent species have a hope of making the world any fairer or of managing any of our worst excesses*. Ecolocalisation doesn’t conflict with the idea of cooperation between areas.
Whilst we may now be a globally-connected animal though, we are not really a global-thinking animal. Nothing** could argue for that crown. We are an ape, who thinks in terms of the fairly small and the fairly local.
Experimenting with ecolocalisation
Localising our activity, focus and resources, embedding local ownership, devolving power and understanding our place locally as that of one living thing amongst many others, does not mean no longer connecting with the wider world, or the wider country.
But it does provide us with a different focus for our activity – a fresh guiding framework – which focuses on a thriving, smaller, local, empowered hub, not an unimaginable and impenetrable global whole.
With that, we and the natural world of which we are a part, can thrive together because we are all invested in our shared future.
When we can start to act like that – acting as just one species in a network of other species, with all species investing their time, their resources and their minds into their shared local community – then maybe we can start to see off our particular species’ modern predicament.
This is all very abstract perhaps, but at Patch of the Planet we’ll be investigating these ideas a lot more as the future unfolds, and we hope to start to test and apply all manner of very practical ways that ecolocalisation could be applied in our lives. We’ll write and film about it as we do.
* Whether there is a case or need for these countries to trade with each other at the scale they do now is more questionable. However, although autarky – the idea that a defined area should aim to be self-sufficient and to trade within that area, not beyond it – is a position that’s consistent with ecolocalisation, it’s not a position that’s necessary.
** Ok, there may be a few contenders. The Arctic Tern, Albatross or Monarch Butterfly perhaps, with their impressive migrations. Or the Grey Whale or Leatherback Turtle, which travel vast distances around the Earth. But even then, they’re probably not thinking globally so much as travelling globally. Feel free to make a case otherwise…