17 Jan 11 News Global

The definition of Sustainability

In conversation with a leading banker last week the subject of sustainability was raised. He asked me “what do you understand by sustainability?”

Sustainability is about living in the now.

It is about not borrowing the environment from our grand children and exhausting its potency in a couple of human lifetimes.

It will be about not destroying everything we have been given by the past. What has been given by the past can be used, as it must be to allow the world to grow. However in all this use of the natural resources we inherit, we have to realise that they are limited and that one day there will be no more gold, no more copper, no more phosphates to be dug up.

Living in the now entails making use of what we have to hand already. There are a huge number of ways this thought can influence our thinking. The most obvious is energy. The sun shines and the wind blows, and we have the technology to capture them. Of course there are issues with getting our energy from the natural, recurring, forces of nature. Issues like “the wind is variable” or “the sun doesn’t shine at night”. There are many more unseen issues associated from moving from an all fossil fuel based electricity supply to an all sustainable one. The most important way of solving them is the all important decision that we should begin to live in the now.

The point about living in the now is intuitively correct. It speaks to me about being efficient about our use of natural resources; not wasting them. Our houses and factories should be thermally very efficient. It speaks about recycling. Most metals and chemicals have limited mineable tonnages and at some time in the future we will have to recycle the quantity that is in circulation.

No matter how good we are at recycling, the laws of physics tell us that there is an inevitable ” greying out” of matter and energy. Think of phosphates for instance. Used as fertilisers, they are all soluble. About 30% are used to make crops grow. The rest finishes up in water cources and eventually the oceans. They are as good as irrecoverable there. Living sustainable means that we must do as much R + D as is required to compensate for the inevitable loss of certain raw materials.

When thinking about living in the now, there is one truth that strikes us. Having enough energy compensates for almost everything that we run out of. Take water for instance. Many areas of the world suffer water deficits already, a problem that is being exaggerated by global warming. With enough sustainable energy we can desalinate the sea to create fresh water.

Living in the now does not limit human kind. It allows us to flourish without denying succeeding generations their right to a great life. Whether Gaya, the God in nature exists or not, the value of respect for the earth, the sun, and our environment makes sense, if only to ensure our own survival.