The biggest lesson of sustainability

The biggest lesson of sustainability

What has been my biggest lesson learning sustainability?

Studying sustainability at master’s level has changed me. I often catch myself automatically thinking green before anything else, subconsciously posing the question: how can my actions be mutually beneficial to me and the systems that surround me? Of course, I often side with the selfish option, I would be kidding myself if I claim anything otherwise. But what has led me to this automated way of thinking?

Let us take a step back. The term sustainability is one hastily associated with the environment, and rightly so. But it is much much more than that. One of the first things I learnt studying sustainability is that the term applies to all aspects of life.

Sustainability is often represented through three pillars: the environment, the economy, and society. These three systems, as we know, overlap and it is the resultant interconnections that make tackling sustainability a challenging process.

I studied MSc Sustainability & Consultancy at the University of Leeds, so sustainability was often put into an organisational context. This practical approach meant I, as a ‘sustainability practitioner’, had to think contextually. For a project to succeed each stakeholder has to be considered with their needs met at differing levels with justification depending on their level of importance and influence. I quickly understood that one need couldn’t fully be met without compromising another’s and it’s that trade-off that forms the foundation of sustainability discussion.

For example, building a windfarm in the British countryside sounds ideal for helping alleviate the UK’s emissions and diversifying its energy mix. But where are you going to put this windfarm? Who or what is it going to affect whilst constructing it or when it is in operation? Is the location accessible for construction vehicles? Will it damage local wildlife or heritage? These are just some factors that have to be considered.

A much more complicated topic than it first seems! But this wasn’t the biggest lesson I learnt when studying sustainability. The lightbulb moment didn’t come until my final month whilst completing my thesis on placement at a construction consultancy company.

As part of my dissertation I had to interview a number of senior sustainability managers in charge of large-scale infrastructure projects. And in my last interview, during her concluding remarks, one candidate stated:  

“people look for a solution before trying to remove themselves from the problem and subsequently become part of the problem”

What this statement means is that people are too quick to come up with a sustainable solution before considering how they could first remove themselves from the problem and therefore remove the problem itself. It sounds so simple, but this statement blew my mind! Lets illustrated it through an example.

On a national scale, windfarms are a great sustainable solution to increased energy demands at a low environmental cost. But what would be even more sustainable is if energy demand were not to increase in the first place. By removing the need for extra electricity production nothing needs to be done and doing nothing is more sustainable than building a new windfarm.

The most sustainable solution is one where nothing is done at all.

This way of thinking can be applied at a personal level too. We as consumers are too quick to think of ways we can be more sustainable without taking a step back first. Often, I see people claiming to be sustainable whilst at Starbucks or Costa with their reusable coffee cup in line for their oat milk latte. Yes, taking your reusable cup is more sustainable than using a single use one, and, yes, oat milk is much more environmentally friendly than regular milk. However, if those people (and I include myself in this) were to remove themselves from the problem and not drink coffee altogether that would be the most sustainable approach to the wasteful nature of coffee consumption.

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone should just stop doing things. If that were the case, I’d be arguing that we as humans shouldn’t exist at all (although that would solve a lot of issues). If we solved issues with that attitude, then life would be pretty miserable and that’s just socially unsustainable.

So, you see, sustainability is all about trade-offs to find the mutually beneficial solution. But, too often do people get engrossed by trade-off discussion that they overlook the option of first removing themselves from the problem altogether.  

Chris Hazell

MSc Sustainability & Consultancy

profile chris 1 | 28/05/2020

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