Friday, 3 February 2012

Defining Sustainability Matters

Different concepts and interpretations of sustainability abound. Some of which can be so different as to be fundamentally at odds with each other, as recent firsthand experience brought home to me:

Cornwall Council Planning Officer: “But y’see, it all comes down to the sustainability of the thing.”

Me: “Isn’t that a little ironic?” 

Cornwall Council Planning Officer: “Well, yes, I suppose it is...”

That was the conclusion of the first of a fair few slightly bizarre conversations with Cornwall Council Planning Department back in June 2011 when our first planning application was being considered.

We set up our yurt homes in Mabe because we wanted to find a more sustainable (low impact, ecologically friendly, low carbon) alternative to traditional student housing. However, the biggest obstacle to us doing this has been that, in terms of planning policy, what we’re doing has been deemed unsustainable (sporadic uncontrolled development in a rural area).

Seven months down the line from that first conversation, and a whole host of planning hoops jumped through and wishes complied with, and we’ve now just had the decision on our second application:

Refusal of the application will be recommended on the grounds of sustainability and adverse visual impact.”

How we define sustainability matters.

It matters because we, as a species, are comprehensively failing to live sustainably. In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that all of the ecosystem services that support life on earth are currently in a state of actual or potential collapse, and humanity has now pushed the biosphere to the point where it’s “potential to support future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

Weak sustainability will not be enough to change this and prevent the imminent collapse of our life support systems. Our current consumer society and growth addicted economic system is what has led us to this point. A sustainability concept that can sit comfortably with the current status quo will not deliver the changes required.

In the long term strong sustainability is the only viable option – and long term is what sustainability is all about.

A huge amount is riding on this for all of us - on whether we will have the courage and vision necessary to step outside the mainstream and call for the fundamental revisions to our society and economic system that are required to deliver long lasting strong sustainability.

To humanity as a whole, how we choose to define and implement sustainability really could make all the difference in the world. And for me, here and now, it could well determine whether I get to keep my home or not.

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