Sunday, February 25, 2007

Learn Something New About...Sustainability

Which is more sustainable?

* A cotton diaper (nappy) OR a disposable nappy?
* A diesel compact car OR a Prius?
* A compact fluorescent light bulb OR a regular light bulb?

The answer is...we don't know - it depends on what you do with them.

Nothing is intrinsically sustainable or not. You can easily leave an energy-saving bulb on 24 hours a day every day and have to change it all the time, or you can turn off a regular bulb when you are not using it and make it last much longer. You can drive your Prius to the corner shop 10 times a day, or you can drive your diesel rarely and car pool and take the bus most of the time. You can use cotton diapers, but if you throw them away as soon as they get soiled and buy new ones, you are not too much better off.

This thought exercise was introduced to me by Dennis Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth, who spoke at our institution on Friday. His candor about the state of the world, the imminent impacts of climate change, and the consequences of the global oil peak tended towards the terrifying. Coupled with this is the notion that within our current political structures politicians cannot make the kinds of decisions that they need to for radical change.

Then this simple thought experiment. We talk about the need for behaviour change. We hope for new technologies. And actually what we need is both. We need people to use their Prius for car pooling, and to turn off their energy efficient bulbs when they are not in the room. We might say that anyone who cares enough to buy that Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb, would probably be good enough not to leave it on all the time. But do they? Do you?

Since we already have lots of nifty technology (improvements could always be made) we probably could use a lot more understanding of the behaviour change side of this equation. Technology takes a long time to develop and embed in current processes/systems, but behaviour change can in theory happen over night. Eveyone knows someone who has quit smoking, lost lots of weight, became passionate about a new hobby, or quit a good job and moved to a new city to start a new life. We are capable of radical change. (Of course there is a lot of psychology in here, and it is not so easy - see the previous post on What Do Change and Strip Poker Have in Common.)

Then we need to bring these things together. Learning sits at the heart of this dynamic process. We could usefully strengthen the knowledge to action links for all of us; even for (or even especially for) those of us working in the sustainable development field. Dennis Meadows ended his presentation with a game called the "Sound of one hand clapping" which made the powerful (and even a little painful) point that actions speak louder than words.