Monthly Archives: May 2016

Taking sustainability personally

Robert Mostyn

Robert is the immediate-past Chair of TiK. He is planning another blog post that builds upon this one, which presents how citizens can become potent change-makers in achieving sustainability.


I have been reading in the news over the last 24 years how human activity, principally by burning fossil fuels, has contributed to a new phenomenon, global warming. Now a warmer Britain may sound appealing, very appealing in fact, but that is just looking at the issue from a personal convenience perspective. The thing is, global warming is a global issue that is much bigger than me and much bigger than Britain.

Observation number 1: perspective is everything
As a young man, I attended a seminar where it was suggested that we create “A world that worked for everyone, with no one left out”. This idea rocked my world. It struck a chord so deep that I still feel its reverberations in my heart 34 years later. Through various other conversations I had during that time I learned that so many people lived in the world with seriously diminished means and with that, a diminished dignity. This was the beginning of me shifting my personal perspective from “how do I get ahead in the world?” to “how do I get to live in the world with everyone else?”.

It was also around this time that I became fascinated with economics. In trying to understand how the world worked, I was compelled to understand the nature of the economy. This was an elusive subject…deeply personal yet profoundly global. I never studied it formally but I would devour articles that came my way about the nature of money. In short, I was discovering that the world mattered to me. I wanted to make a difference in the world. Could I do that?

So many issues would pass through my thoughts: fairness, being remunerated for hard work, valuing others, my own sense of being short of money, I deserve more, people who “make things happen” should be rewarded, and so on. I am a Libran, able to see both sides of a situation. No matter which perspective I took, there was always a tussle between equity, justice and freedom. What is right? What is fair? Who am I in the matter? What difference can I make?

Observation number 2: the only thing I have a complete say in is my own life
What I choose to study, what conversations I wish to engage in, the partner I choose and what opinion I want to express. Each one may have consequences I did not anticipate further down the line, but each one is of my own making.

While I was enquiring into what would make the world work, I could not help but be confronted with… daunted by… the innumerable things that weren’t working! Polluted rivers; oceans full of plastic; air thick with smog; chemicals in the water to keep it “clean”; pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics in food… I was (still am) being poisoned, both physically and spiritually! It is easy to be overwhelmed by the complexities of life. Surely someone would fix all this!

Waiting for that someone, I became quite despondent. Surely this someone would explain what the specific problems were and how to solve them. If not someone, then the government. No?

Inherent tensions / conflicts of interest within the system
It occurred to me that there was an unending, unwholesome loop in managing the affairs of the economy and state. It goes roughly like this:

  • politicians are not there to impose their will, they are there to reflect the will of the people
  • politicians like to be in power and for that they have to be popular
  • politicians have to be popular with voters (for their vote) and businesses owners (for financial support)
  • it would be difficult for any political party to implement a sustainability regime if there was anything unpopular about it – with either grouping above
  • a buoyant economy helps us all
  • even a steady economy is considered stagnant and therefore undesirable
  • economic incentives (the pursuit of efficiency), by its very definition, is geared towards taking people out of the production flow (therefore, out of the economy).

Invisibility is masking urgency
Over the last 100 years, extracting fossil fuels from the earth and burning them has resulted in a massive transition of carbon out of the earth’s crust into the atmosphere. It’s real, it’s seriously going to threaten our existence, but it’s invisible and the effects are not immediate. And out of sight has a tendency to be out of mind.

Several years ago I was reading a “State of the Planet” report published by the World Wildlife Fund. It said that if everyone on earth led an average British lifestyle, we would need three planets to sustain everyone. This was a *jolt* moment for me. Here I was, leading what I thought was a modest lifestyle, and discovering it required three planets (if I believe everyone on earth should have access to resources on an equitable basis)! My lifestyle is destroying the planet! Since then I have implemented a number of eco enhancements to our house.

Who do I turn to?
I need the government to tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. If I am a good citizen, I will comply and everything will be OK. Right? Tell me this then:

  • Which government will introduce laws that will curb my lifestyle by a factor of 3? That is 2/3 less travel to work, 2/3 less heating of the home in winter, 2/3 less food.
  • Which business owners will support a political party that reduces their business flows by 2/3?

For these reasons alone, I believe solving the sustainability problem will not be implemented by a government. And there isn’t much incentive for business to solve the problem either.

I am the key
The implementation of sustainability practice is not going to be implemented by government – it is too risky for politicians. And it’s not going to be implemented directly by industry.

If industry is simply a reflection of what the market wants, and I am part of that market, then my purchases (my consumption choices) are what shapes industry. This is the elegance of supply versus demand theory. I could criticise a battery manufacturer for using nasty chemicals in their manufacture, or producing a product that does not recycle easily, but if I am the one buying their product (and I do), I cannot blame the company. The company is simply an expression of me!

The shape of our sustainable future cannot be determined by government or industry. It is being shaped now. I can start determining sustainability implementation with my next purchase. And the next one. And the one after that…