When asked “what is sustainability?” we think of recycling, solar panels and planting trees. All are valuable, yet they are inherently symbolic and fail to address the major issue. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability as “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources”, and as something “able to be sustained.” The two are intrinsically linked. To sustain life upon Earth, and our own lives, we need to conserve the equilibria of the ecosystem. How we achieve this is the real challenge.
Sustainability is one of the few issues concerning everyone, regardless of faith, economic status or nationality. For the religious, there is a moral aspect of responsibly stewarding the Earth and life, which is inherently divine in origin. For those of a scientific atheist nature, there is the simply need to balance increased demand against dwindling resources. 2015 saw scientists from Stanford University and Universidad Autónoma de México declare that we had effectively entered the sixth mass extinction: the previous one ended the age of the dinosaurs.
Scientists estimate life began on Earth around 4,000 million years ago; the existence of homo sapiens for the last 200,000 years or so accounts for just 0.005% of that timeframe. Yet our impact is extraordinary. The scope of changes to the planet we have brought forth is even more amazing if you consider that we were essentially tribal, nomadic hunter-gatherers until the rise of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, with cvilisation as we know it, rising out of the deserts some 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley of India and Pakistan.
In this short period of time we have sculpted the land to our needs, eradicated hostile species we saw as threats, destroyed forests for urban jungles and mined the natural resources out of the Earth. The industrial revolution saw the great explosion of homo sapiens’ impact: we consumed resources faster than ever and burnt forests and coal to fuel our machines. Our increase in wealth and technological advancement saw science advance at a pace which surpassed the enlightenment and the scientific revolution.
Driven by these advances, we saw a population boom, fuelled by increased wealth, sustained by increased means to harvest foodstuffs from around the world and advances in medical care. The total population of Earth never exceeded 1 billion people until around 1800; it reached 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960 and then accelerated to over 7.4 billion today, with over 62 million people born in the first half of 20161.
Our growing population is outstripping the Earth’s ability to provide food, water and resources. Yet, the disparity of wealth and resource access is alarming: the number of undernourished people alive today is estimated at around 760 million, yet the number of overweight people is more than twice that, at 1,626 million. We are unable to share existing resources fairly and thus, we have to address distribution before discussing the maximum food yield of the planet.
But food is not the only resource we consume at an outstanding rate. Water, wood, minerals, metals, and animals, are all harvested for our consumer needs. In 2016, over 2.2 million hectares of forest were lost. Driven by mining, farming and logging, the loss of these trees as a carbon capture and oxygen production facility is not the only impact. The rainforest is home to millions of creatures and the loss of these ecosystems is devastating to many species, some undiscovered. Once we reap the land’s raw materials, we typically enter them into an industrial process, often using toxic chemicals; it is estimated that so far this year, over 4.2 million tonnes of toxic chemicals were released into the environment. The WWF estimates we are consuming the planet’s resources at a rate of three times the ability to regenerate them, Europe alone consuming 30% more resources than can be replenished.
Our neo-enlightenment internet age has been instrumental in the open sharing of knowledge. Yet, our technological advances come at a price. The energy consumed by both industry and consumers is increasing, as we add an expanding array of equipment such as computers, tablets, mobile phones, wifi, etc. Over 300 million MWh of energy was used in the first half of 2016, over 83% of that is produced through non-renewable resources. You may have a ‘green’ energy contract, yet you still use the same electricity as everyone else.
Currently, the UK average fuel mix for electricity is only 19.3%3 renewable . There are more cars on the world’s roads than ever before, driving the consumption of oil towards what is likely to be the first worldwide wake-up call on non-renewable fuel consumption. Pollutants emitted by oil burning processes may not concern the average consumer, but cost escalation and oil shortages will: the oil industry estimates that at current consumption rates, less than 38 years of oil is left. By reducing our demand for ‘energy’ from fossil fuels, we reduce the business case for fracking and oil drilling in the Arctic. Protests and legal cases will achieve some things, but money talks, influencing any government. The only way to combat the influence of money is to reduce its value, a value driven by our appetite for fossil fuels.
With an increasing global population and consumer-driven need to harvest resources, even toxic ones, from the Earth, we are on the cusp of disaster. Global temperature rises threaten major changes to sea levels, hence the potential for overcrowding. Changes to weather caused by changes in the saline levels of the seas and levels of gases such as carbon dioxide further threaten inhabitable regions, with the very real risk of resource-driven wars.
Every moment of our lives contributes to, or against, sustainability. Just breathing means we are consuming oxygen, expelling carbon dioxide, giving off body heat and producing bodily waste. Every part of the world with which we interact on a daily basis affects sustainability. Our food has a carbon, energy and chemical footprint; clothes have huge footprints, as does the technology we rely upon. Every choice we make has an impact. It is estimated that for a UK citizen, 75%4 of our carbon footprint is generated by the products we buy and use.
Feel good about your organic cotton? The reality is that cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet, grown in regions that typically have water shortages; so farmers divert scarce water supplies towards their cotton fields, causing drought. It takes up to 10,000 litres of water to grow the cotton in one pair of jeans, which may seem pedantic, but this is sustainability – detail is key. And that without even touching on ethical sourcing, and the very real ‘human cost’ of those who produce the goods we consume.
Some of us may be pantheistic, others see the Earth as Gaia and others, simply Mother Nature. Regardless of specific belief, the vast majority of Pagans hold nature in reverence either as deity, or for the spirits and wights with which we share it, and as a creation of deity gifted to our care. There is no doubting the reverence we feel when out amongst nature. Escape from the city provides a direct link with the energies of these natural ecosystems: nature is the ultimate temple for any rite.
Truly sustainable living would regress towards the socio-commercial models of antiquity, yet a complete abandonment of the capitalist model is unlikely. Whilst we are not all able to embrace an ‘off-grid’ lifestyle, without mains electricity and water etc, we can integrate components into our everyday lives.
Transparency is crucial; knowing where our products and services come from and ensuring they meet our criteria. As mentioned above, organic cotton is great in terms of reduced pesticides and water pollution, so we have to source it responsibly, such as through the Better Cotton Initiative, which helps train cotton farmers to reduce their impact.
If you choose to remove meat from your diet, for ethical and/or sustainability reasons, you might substitute it with soy. However, traceability issues make it highly likely your soy is sourced from South America, where it is linked with deforestation for farming. There are responsibly sourced soy options with certification by either the RTRS (Round Table on Responsible Soy) or ProTerra. If you eat meat, the impact of large scale farming has moral and sustainability issues.
One basic step towards more sustainable consumption is to adopt a local sourcing policy. Strawberries in February are enjoyable, but importing fruits from South Africa is not sustainable. Some are lucky enough to have a local farm shop or farmers’ market selling seasonal, locally-produced produce. Where this is not an option, a basic selection of British produce negates some of the import issues. Local produce is at least subject to environmental controls imposed by UK law: you can pressure your MP to push for change, whereas you have no say how something is produced on the other side of the world. You don’t have to live near the sea to source fish from UK waters, instead of Alaskan cod, opting for fish caught by sustainable and regulated fishing methods.
Think waste and we think recycling. But, while recycling is a great, it does not reduce the impact of waste in the first place. By not buying more than we need, we reset the supply and demand ratio so that production quantities decline in response to reduced demand. Minimising waste is key. France recently made it illegal for supermarkets to throw away unsold food, driving a behavioural change to minimise over-stocking. As well as sourcing local produce, if possible, you could grow your own. No food is more sustainable than that which you grow yourself, ensuring it is as organic and pesticide free as you wish, with the small scale of your production having a minimal ecological impact. You can even provide your own fertiliser and compost with a wormery.
There is no need to adopt a vegan diet: a balanced diet is increasingly favoured by the likes of Simon Fairlie. Whilst large scale cattle farming has a huge impact upon the environment, livestock do play a role in the ecosystem and in supporting biodiversity. Balance, as with so many things, is the key. By reducing the amount of meat you eat, you reduce meat demand, reducing livestock levels and their negative impacts. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations defines a sustainable diet as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition… protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems… economically fair and affordable…”5 The Eatwell6 guide plate offers guidance as to a nutritionally-balanced diet, which also helps reduce greenhouse emissions.
It’s not just food, though. How many of us choose a new mobile phone, even if the old one was still functional, without thought to the massive impact of the toxic metals used in mobile phones? The same applies to tablets, computers, new cars. Our capitalist society runs on the proliferation of a fashionable consumer mentality. Cessation of the impulse to obtain the latest technology or trend is a great first step.
Make your home more efficient with insulation, double-glazing and energy-saving lighting. Make use of daylight rather than artificial light, reducing electricity consumption. Solar panels are viable if your roof direction and pitch is suitable. Repair and reuse furniture – a coat of paint can renew an old set of drawers, and the impact of the paint (water-based or low-VOC for sustainability) is far less than that of new furniture. Walk or cycle if you are physically able, and the impact of a peak-time train is infinitely smaller than that of a car journey.
We all have more clothes and accessories than we need. Fashion is just following what everyone else is wearing. As Pagans, we shouldn’t fear being ‘different’ or ‘individual’. Find your style, refine your wardrobe (responsibly sourced), and reduce your new purchases to items that are truly required. Reduce the impact of your clothes; research suggests that as much as 39% of the environmental impact of clothing lies in the way it is washed and ironed.
Wash only as needed, at a lower temperature, line dry and iron only as necessary. Some great tips are available at: http://www.clevercare.info/en. Repair and alter your clothes rather than replacing them, or make sure that they go into a recycling scheme. With companies such as I:CO (http://www.ico-spirit.com/en/homepage/) running textile recycling for companies like H&M and Puma, the drive to reuse textiles is gaining pace. The benefit of such a scheme is that they are also pushing for the separation and reuse of fibres from old clothing, which can then be woven into new garments.
2 https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/annual-world-population-since-10000-bce-ourworldindata-series.png?size=1000×700 and https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth/