Environmental Ponderings No 3: Does Sustainable Living Come Naturally to Human Beings?

Does sustainable living come naturally to human beings?  I was sitting on a long haul flight recently, (I spend a great deal of time on these types of flights and yes, I know, my carbon footprint must be enormous…) looking at the plastic supper tray in front of me, thinking about the enormous amounts of effort, energy and resources used to put this together, the equally enormous wastes involved when the remnants are disposed of, and then I multiplied this by the millions of people who routinely fly long distances around the world.

Flying is just one part of the whole picture. Next thing to do is to apply your mind to the fast food business. Most of us, at some time or other, make use of the “convenience” of fast foods, especially when we are feeling lazy or just cannot face standing in the kitchen to cook. Think about the packaging involved in fast food….by design, it is costly because it must keep the food hot, copy the role of plates, come with disposable plastic utensils, and be covered in costly printing and fancy, expensive design to reinforce the brand….which is often what makes us subconsciously buy it through the millions spent in subliminal advertising, reinforcing our “need” to purchase the product.

What about the enormous amounts of money, fuel, and carbon that is used to fly out-of-season products around the world so that we can have these “fresh” products all the year around?  When British lamb is out of season, New Zealand lamb is imported to the UK and in New Zealand, when their lamb is out of season, they import British lamb. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out who gets the better end out of that deal, does it?)

Try something else out. The next time you buy your loved one(s) a box of chocolates, count how many different layers of packaging there are. Depending upon how generous or not you are with the chocolates, that number could vary between five and ten layers. How many of those are REALLY necessary?  You can try the same exercise on other products you use and you will see that practicality is not always the best driver of design….and you are the one paying for all of this too!

Have I answered my opening question?  Yes, of course I have and we all knew what the answer would be. No, sustainable living does not come naturally to human beings because we continue to live in a Society that is driven by economic growth, driven by consumerism, and driven by consumption for the sake of consumption. We can talk about sustainability, sustainable living and sustainable development but underlying the key success factors to achieve this is a fundamental change in Society’s priorities. Environmental economics has started to make changes in thinking but the heart of our economic philosophies are still the drive to make financial profit. Until Society can make a major mind shift in everything to do with our monetary system, it is going to take a long, long time before we can say with our hands on our hearts, “Sustainable living comes naturally to human beings.”

Arend Hoogervorst is an environmental scientist with some 30 years of experience in South Africa in environmental management and sustainable development in local and central government, commerce and industry and private practice.

© Arend Hoogervorst, 2013.