The world is facing toady many challenges, some of which are likely to continue and amplify in the future if a response is not sought in the present. Climate change, growing global population, resource depletion and environmental degradation are just a few of them. In this context, changing the way we live under a whole number of aspects, abandoning wasteful practices and adopting a responsible behaviour becomes a necessity. In fact, it will not be enough for an “enthusiast” minority to adhere to this lifestyle change and getting billions of people to do the same is in itself one of the greatest challenges. Therefore, raising awareness about what sustainable living entails is of great importance.
Instead of a definition
In tune with the meaning of sustainability, a sustainable way of living can be seen as one that has the least impact on the environment, therefore being able to continue for a long period of time. This implies a reduction in the consumption of natural resources used to maintain the current living standards and generally not taking anything from the environment that cannot be replaced.
As the consumption of resources generates a carbon output through the daily activities, sustainable living goes hand in hand with the carbon footprint (the amount of greenhouse gases generated by an entity) carried by an individual, household or community. Taking action to reduce the carbon footprint translates in a more sustainable way of life.
Another related concept is that of ecological footprint. Introduced for the first time at the beginning of the nineties by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, the term is used to weigh the demands that humans put on nature through their activities against the Earth’s ability to replace these resources. In other words, it measures how much land and water would be required to sustain the practices of a given population in terms of resources needed and waste absorbed. Not surprisingly, it currently takes the Earth one year and a half to regenerate what humans use in a year. Remediating this dangerous record is imperative and sustainable living can play a very important role in achieving this.
In fact, many communities and individuals have already started to implement sustainable living ideas and the results are likely to convince that this is not just another trendy passing phase. However, in order to reach the change at the needed scale, sustainable behaviours must become normal, easy to take on to and possibly even fun. This would offer anyone an incentive to desire the change. Furthermore, not only individuals are a part of this change, but also the companies. If enough pressure is expressed by their clients, companies will have to recognize these needs and act accordingly, sustainably, to satisfy them.
Dimensions of sustainable living
Since sustainable living is about making lifestyle choices in a modern world, it makes sense to analyse the various possibilities and ideas by breaking down some general categories. For the purpose of this paper five categories have been analysed (shelter and energy, food, transportation, water, and waste), although more dimensions can always be argued. Also, the criteria described under each category have an illustrative character and are not intended to be exclusive in any way.
Shelter and energy
The shelter is often the place where a person spends most of his/her time and it is also one of the basic human needs. Since so many of our activities take place indoors, sustainable practices in this field are very important. Although the considerations below refer mainly to houses, most of them can be extended to other purpose-buildings where people carry out their activity, such as offices or commodity buildings. Some of the most cited features for a sustainable house include:
· Location: Preferably, the house should be placed in proximity to essential services (i.e. work, stores, schools, etc) or should have available sustainable transportation choices;
· Sustainable design: Several design features can help a house in having as little negative impact on the environment as possible. These include: orientation towards the sun and creating temperature buffer zones in order to create a good microclimate; using recycled, reclaimed or environmentally friendly building materials, preferably from local sources; minimizing construction waste; minimizing the use of toxic substances, etc;
· Electricity supply: In sustainable homes electricity may be generated in-house through renewable means (in which case the excess can be sold to a utility company through a grid connection) or it may be procured from a power plant that is using renewable sources. The most commonly used renewable sources of energy are wind, solar, water, biomass, and geothermal;
· Heating and cooling: A sustainable house should have improved, preferably from green materials, wall and loft insulation in order to conserve energy and reduce the amount of heating and cooling needed. Also, roofs should be covered with reflective material that will help diminish the amount of heat they absorb. Roofs covered in living grass are also a popular choice;
· Energy efficiency: The household appliances, lighting systems and all other electronic devices should be energy efficient ones (often they have a special label indicating this). Moreover, avoiding unnecessary consumption by reducing the idle energy use is also common practice.
The increasing trend in global population has already raised many questions regarding the capacity of the planet to feed all the people in the future. This is a very serious challenge and it will be very hard to find a solution if sustainable practices are not going to be adopted starting in the present. Here are some of the most important aspects in this area:
· Intensive agriculture vs. Organic farming: In order to maximize production and minimize costs the intensive agriculture practiced today all over the world uses methods such as heavy irrigation, various pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer applications, concentrated monoculture production, etc. All of these actions translate into impacts on the environment, which can take several forms, from soil erosion and increased soil salinity to land degradation and biodiversity loss. At the opposite pole, organic farming is based on sustainable techniques, such as crop rotation, composting, green manure and biological pest control. In addition, organic farming strictly limits the use of fertilizers, pesticides and other similar substances;
· Food distribution and availability: Nowadays food can travel very long distances before reaching our table, making it highly unsustainable because transport adds to the carbon footprint. The alternatives are buying locally and preserving food. This not only reduces transport costs, but it also stimulates local economy. Moreover, local, small-scale farming utilizes more sustainable agriculture methods. As a plus, buying the goods in their natural season of growth reduces energy intensive greenhouse production, while storing them outside of the growing season enhances the independence from the supermarket;
· Meat consumption: The large scale production of meat is also a great consumer of natural resources, especially water and fodder. Therefore eating meat is a very carbon-intensive habit. Besides reducing the amount of meat we purchase, we can alleviate this burden by choosing organically raised, free range or grass fed meat.
The oil-dependent transport sector is claiming an increasing share of the carbon emissions pot. In this context, the conventional automobile industry is drifting away from sustainable practices. A few alternatives can be:
· Public transport: Depending on the development needs of a settlement, a combination of underground, rail, bus, tram or trolley networks can be used to reduce the car dependency. Dedicated lanes for public transport vehicles can help in the process;
· Carpooling – sharing a car for a journey with other passengers – is another way to alleviate traffic in busy areas;
· Non-motorized solutions: Bicycles are the most popular choice due to their many advantages: carbon-free travelling, alleviating congestion, lowering air and noise pollution, and increasing physical exercise;
· Electric and hybrid cars: although still in small numbers and not fully assed in terms of sustainable resource use in their production cycle, these vehicles may become popular sustainable transport options in the future.
Water is an essential resource for the humankind and thus one of the most impacted upon. Given the population growth and the increasing water demand, sustainable practices in this field are a necessity. In fact, simple, everyday measures can be taken by anyone to address this issue. Below are a few examples:
· Water conservation: The used water from washing machines, sinks, showers and baths can be reused for irrigation and toilets. Rainwater harvesting is also becoming more frequent in areas dominated by water scarcity. Important quantities of water are used in gardening, so measures taken to prevent water waste are very important: choosing drought resistant and native plants, planting slopes to reduce runoff, grouping plants by watering needs, placing mulch in the proximity of plants to lessen evaporation, watering during early mornings on non-windy days to reduce water evaporation, using drip-irrigation systems and soaker hoses, etc.
· Toilets: The amount of water used when flushing can be reduced by adding in the toilet tank weighs that replace a volume of water. Fixing leaks is another way to save water. If installing a new toilet, sustainable options can be a low flush or composting toilet;
· Showers: Methods to reduce water usage include switching to low-flow showerheads, taking shorter showers or insulating water pipes;
· Dishwashers and sinks: For dishwashers, the best water conservation method is to only run a full machine; if a low-flow setting exists, it should be used regularly. For sinks, a screw-on aerator, fixing existing leaks or rinsing dishes simultaneously represent a few sustainable alternatives.
Sustainable living also entails a responsible waste management. The classical “reduce, reuse, recycle” methods are still the best approach, as they deal with all the phases in the life of a product. For each of them there is a wide span of best practice examples, ranging from reducing paper waste, not buying unnecessary items or choosing long-lasting goods to reusing packaging materials, composting organic matter and recycling as much as possible.
Waste is usually thought to be the responsibility of the final consumer. After all, he buys the product - he is in charge of correctly disposing of the remaining waste. However, much of the product’s life cycle is spent in the “making-of” process, so the producer should also claim a part of the responsibility, especially when it comes to packaging, a feature that the consumer is forced to accept as it comes. The input materials, the production procedure, the distribution of the products are other activities where sustainability can be argued.
Instead of a conclusion
Besides the themes investigated above, sustainable living may be analysed from many other perspectives. Sustainability in sectors such as tourism, education or health are also of great interest. But in order to make sustainable living work, we need to look at them as a whole.
The interconnection of our life choices today is both the friend and the enemy of sustainable practices. As long as we opt for sustainable items and actions, the increasing demand will generate more supply and vice versa. And we already know that the choices we make today will impact on the future generations, so better choose wisely.