• Akhila Balasubramaniam

What is an individual’s role in cultivating a sustainable society?

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Photo by Durga

What is sustainable living?

Let's extend the definition of sustainable development, to describe sustainable living as a way of life that meets our needs, without compromising on the needs of future generations.

In simple terms, it can be understood as making efforts to deliberate our consumption. It means bringing your own bag to the grocery store, choosing to take the train instead of flight when possible, opting to eat local food over imported food as often as you can.

There are plenty of actionable steps to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, and I hope to address a few of them in the articles I write in due course. I am taking this opportunity instead to speak about the mindset shifts that abet sustainable living.

Present situation

Whether you are naturally motivated to be an environmental enthusiast or not, the fact remains that current consumption patterns are not in favour of our sustenance on earth. If each one of us were to live like an average American we need 4.1 Earths, and if we were to live like the average European, we need 2.8 Earths. However, at the moment, we only have one. To subsist on this planet, we have no choice but to be responsible global citizens.

An international group of Earth scientists led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen defined 9 planetary boundaries and defined them as the ecological ceiling, if and when crossed, pushes the Earth to an unknown state. Four of the boundaries have already been surpassed. The concentration of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 414 ppm and rising, wherein the defined planetary boundary is 350 ppm.

Despite this, I acknowledge that the notion of sustainability has gained more traction than ever before. Many countries and industries have started to prioritise it, albeit with vast differences in adoption. The reasons for the differences cannot be confined to technicalities. It is layered with political, economical, and cultural complexities. On the bright side, analysing the situation at an individual scale is not as involved.

How important is the individual's role?

At the rate at which the planetary boundaries are approaching (or being crossed), it might appear to be more prudent to make changes top-down, from the governing body. Admittedly, when I began this journey, I was convinced that to get the maximum impact, this shift needs to be engineered from the state. Altering individual behaviour tends to be a tedious process. However, as we discussed earlier, there are colossal geopolitical and economic constraints for that. Consider the following to understand why an individual's contribution is imperative in any case:

  • Position of power in a state is volatile, the extent of which changes from one country to another. If there is a bill passed for the carbon tax/subsidies on eco-friendly goods, it could be prematurely withdrawn, as the power shifts. For instance, Donald Trump is not as enthusiastic about renewable energy as his predecessor, Barack Obama.

  • Corruption can creep into every nook and corner when the state's policies are not congruent to the values of the citizens.

  • State-enforced policies are not always long term, but people's mindsets and behaviours surely are. An example of this is cycling in Europe. I wonder if kids there learn to cycle before they start walking. It has become such an intrinsic part of their culture, that even without external incentives, it persists.

  • Moreover, only when individuals are inclined to this mindset will they elect the candidate who promises and prioritises these values.

Now that we've established that change has to stem from the grassroots level, what are the areas we ought to introspect?

Sufficiency over efficiency

If only we get that dress, that bag, that phone, that subscription, that car, we can be content. Just kidding! 🤡 As we get what we long for, our mind is already generating creative ideas to feel miserable and insufficient again.

Efficiency is crucial in our journey towards sustainability. Just not at the cost of sufficiency.

With the culture of overconsumption, it doesn’t matter how efficient the products are, eventually, we will cross limits and dwindle the resources.

Occasionally indulging in luxury, is human nature. But realising that no amounts of products or services can ever lead us to contentment, and espousing an essentialist mindset, can do us more good than we reckon.

What gets measured, gets managed

When we aren't even aware of how much we consume and own, it is unlikely that we moderate it. Observe how much waste you generate, how much clothes you buy, how often you get packaged goods, how often you take the flight to travel. Even if you think you don't live like an average American or European, you might be surprised by the results. You can begin by getting a tentative estimation of your carbon footprint.

Measuring your consumption will give you the perspective required to decide what reasonable changes you can make to your lifestyle.

Empowerment over guilt

I am not a fan of inducing guilt to drive positive behaviour, but living in denial is hardly the right way to go about it.

We can choose this information to empower us rather than inducing guilt. Guilt can serve as the activation energy required to get us started, but over time, it exhausts us. If we want to make this journey "sustainable", empowerment has to overshadow guilt. All of us experience some amount of guilt and that is healthy to initiate change. Beware of the point it starts draining you and pushing you to relapse into your old ways. Let's take it upon ourselves to communicate this message with respect and without morally criticising anyone.

All of these measures are not mutually exclusive from the actions taken by the government and other private organisations. Alternately, they are complementary. When these bodies adapt to being more sustainable, we would already be miles ahead.

Does that mean we need to be drastic about it? Not at all. The changes that we make to our life also has to be sustainable, which means we need to take realistic measures. As our mindset shifts, our actions will follow. Our power lies in our agency to make choices. We vote each time we make a purchase (or not).

If you argue for your limitations you get to keep them. But if you argue for your possibilities you get to create them! Kelly Lee Phipps

Let this article empower you and not burden you with guilt. By playing our part in accommodating simple yet impactful habits, we let our collective power as a community, compound.

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