It is easy to feel discouraged when it comes to the current debate about climate change. Apocalyptic scenarios that are nevertheless based on data and scientific consensus, resistance from policy-makers and big companies and a general sense of hopelessness: these are all factors that shape my perception of the issue. Everything seems too big and the life span of a human is too short, too limited, too scant, right? Making someone feel hopeless is the best way to prevent them from taking action. In this reportage I would like to address the topic of sustainability from a daily life perspective. What does it mean to have a sustainable lifestyle? What can we do as individuals to improve our future as a society?
The concept of sustainability is not new. The fast growth of capitalist western societies made it somehow impossible not to think about this growth and its consequences. According to the USA National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the very goal of sustainability is to “create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations”. Sustainability is about balance, about how our current reality will shape the future, about the direction that technological development and political change should follow.
Even though there is an on-going discussion on the actual possibility of sustainable growth in the current economic context, as the concept of sustainable development is per se a paradox, I will leave this debate aside for the purpose of this reportage. I will not write about policy-makers or big change trends, but about the local impact that individuals can have. Changing small things on your daily life may have a small impact, but it adds up to collective change. What is more: these changes may fast transform into activism at a local level and lead to you acting as a multiplicator and thus inspiring others around you.
How many things do you actually need?
Without diving in clichés, it is safe to assert that our current lifestyle has a lot to do with consumption and almost compulsive buying. We are surrounded by an infinite amount of options and it does not seem to be ever enough. It is not only about material possessions, but also about experiences. The wildest party, the biggest concert, the most adventurous trip. The more, the better, isn´t it? I am not advocating for giving everything up and building a non-consumption society up, because that would be closer to a utopia than it is to reality, but reflecting upon individual choices and buying patterns can help us live a more conscious life.
Start simple. Have a look at the things you use and come in contact with on a daily basis. How cluttered is your wardrobe? How many objects lay around your apartment and how long have they been left there? Start observing your choices and thinking them over. Do you buy more when you are more stressed or when things do not go well at work? Do you feel more relaxed after buying something? Do you sometimes regret buying things afterwards?
Write a list. Write many lists if that helps. Challenge yourself.
Before my volunteer year in Dresden I had already lived in Germany. One of the little things that surprised me the most was the number of people who carried reusable bags around. And it did not stop with the bags. Reusable coffee cups, metal water bottles, silicone lunch boxes, bamboo cutlery, recycled paper. This is not to say that everything in Germany is perfect when it comes to sustainability, but the experience did definitely teach me something about little changes with a big impact on my life and other´s life.
One minute is enough to place a reusable tote bag, my cutlery set (chopsticks and a spoon) and a fabric bag for bread in my backpack. I leave really early in the morning and I am lucky enough to have a place to cook at work, but I also pack lunch if I am traveling or going to an event. That usually takes a bit longer, about five minutes. One + five = six minutes. Six minutes are enough to reduce plastic use and to avoid one-way items that would end otherwise in the rubbish!
Constant change and habit are what counts on the long run. It is perfectly okay to forget lunch and buy something that happens to come in a plastic container. It is perfectly okay to buy some coffee to go that happens to come in a plastic one-way cup. It is perfectly okay to buy a plastic bag if you have left yours at home. But here is the thing. Try to make that the exception, not the norm. Create a daily routine that allows you to make more sustainable choices without even thinking, without even making the effort to remember what you need to do. The more burden you can spare yourself, the better, until you get used to your new habits and carrying a reusable bag around becomes almost second nature.
As author Amy Ballard Rich points out in an article for Everyday Feminism, "While this statement may be controversial, she then suggests that simple steps such as wearing used clothes, recycling and re-using materials as much as possible, and growing as much food as you can, is more gentle on the planet"
The power of individuals
Can we actually change the world? Can we actually impact our surroundings? To which stent do our personal choices matter? Are they really that important and meaningful, these things we do on a daily basis? We could argue about that, about the importance of policy-making, the high-level agreements that must be reached, the obligations different countries commit themselves to. We could argue about that and we would be right to do so. Understanding the structures of power in which we find ourselves living our lives and reflecting upon the limitations of our influence as individuals are important steps towards more purposeful actions.
Making your lifestyle more sustainable does not end with buying less and being more conscious about your choices. You can become an advocate for your ideas and inspire people around you to also support this change: your friends, your family, your partners… You can get active as a citizen and volunteer at a sustainability NGO. You can join a demonstration, start a reflection group, create a fanzine, showcase a documentary film… You have many options. Be concious, be wake, be loud!
Some ressources on sustainability: