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Jon Barrett
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29620 Guimaec, Finistere, France
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Le projet pour une vie durable (The Sustainable Life Project)

Posted by Jon Barrett over 9 years ago

An exploration of what it means to live 'sustainably' in the 21st century...

The concept of ‘sustainability’ is too often misused to suggest that with only minor adjustments to our modern rich-world lifestyles, we can enjoy indefinitely the extraordinary benefits of economic growth and extend these to more and more people in the poor world.

In particular, because economic development is still seen as synonymous with economic growth, the concept of ‘sustainable development’ does not adequately challenge the assumption that we can continue our present culture of consumer capitalism into the future.

But the simple reality is that, for humans to continue to thrive on this finite planet, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and, proportionally, our consumption of energy and material goods – by (at least) 80% in the next thirty to forty years. And we need to do this in a context of rising global population, depleting energy and other natural resources, and ensuing social, political and economic upheavals.

Whether or not we choose to accept it, the evidence of climate science is clear that whatever measures we take now to mitigate climate change, our past consumption has made future climate disruption inevitable. At the same time, unless drastically modified immediately, our global market systems will ensure continued high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and rising competition for increasingly scarce energy, agricultural land and other natural resources. The timescale to respond to these unprecedented challenges is so short that, even if these were already fully developed, new green technologies can nowhere near replace imminent declines in cheap fossil fuel energy and other resources.

Ultimately we have no option but to adopt much more localised lifestyles of much less social complexity. Our immediate choices are to continue to deny the ecological facts until we run hard up against them  - or else to embark immediately on a transition to simpler, less energy intensive and more mindful ways of living that pay close attention to the eco-systems that actually do sustain us on the planet.

So in our efforts to learn about sustainability at our Sustainable Life Project here in Brittany, France, we refer to ecologically sustainable ways of living that, unlike our present industrial culture, could possibly continue into the future. This means differentiating between what is sustainable and unsustainable in our needs and desires to flourish as human beings and using our ingenuity and creativity to compensate for the loss of some accustomed privileges –  which in practice only a small affluent part of the world has enjoyed and which we can no longer ecologically or morally justify. 

Ecological sustainability need not entail reverting to the physical drudgery and harsh impoverished lives of some of our ancestors on the land. Instead it means working towards a synergy of the careful and conservative use of modern technologies, the re-making of our institutions, social systems and communities to operate for mutual benefit rather than elitist gain, and the new learning and re-learning of the ecological and indigenous knowledge we need to live in harmony with the natural world instead of in exploitation of it.

To work towards this goal by a small endeavour such as ours might seem futile when weighed against the hugely improbable shifts in collective behaviour and cultural expectations that are necessary.

But our motivation to act is a simple one. Any species that uses up the non-renewable resources that sustain it ceases to exist. And it surely cannot be that our half a million years of evolution as a species is destined to end because a generation or two could not create more meaning to life than the present culture of dubious celebrity, instant obsolescence, digital distraction, and too-often pointless and trivial employment.

So our approach to sustainable living is neither optimistic nor pessimistic about what difference we can make. We are mostly interested in what is possible for each of us to do.

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