Every day, environmental organisations and others use social media and conventional media to call for a transition to green energy, tout new attempts at cleaning up the oceans or propose replacement materials for plastics — and many are eager to support these efforts.
But often individuals struggle to understand what their personal choices mean for global environmental, social and financial sustainability, or to grasp how their contribution can make (or hinder) systemic change. A look into the ever-evolving concept of sustainability shows us the need for new lifestyles, narratives and societal frameworks.
For many centuries, humans were sustainable out of necessity, growing food close to where they lived and building with local resources. But, environmental sustainability did not always coincide with economic or social sustainability. On the large North American tobacco plantations in Virginia, buildings were made of local materials, but tobacco-growing for export was not a local economy, and the social structure — with a foundation of slave labor — emphatically neither local nor sustainable.
With the Industrial Revolution, cheap energy allowed businesses to carry goods over long distances and to promote replacement rather than reuse. This, along with quick turnovers helped expand the oil industry. Plastic, a very durable oil-based material, has become a product for the least permanent purposes, from wrapping, to furniture and building components. Economic growth for businesses and governments has gone hand in hand with unsustainable social and environmental practices.
Many people have grown weary of petroleum-based economies and the cost that they bring in terms of global warming, sea-level rise or species extinction and they valiantly aim to be sustainable by desire. As consumers, we can make choices, and that is an important first step in trying to fight consumption-induced petroleum economies. Trying to change the system through frugal innovation is hard, time consuming, often individually not sustainable, and for many not fun. Despite their good intentions, people may fall into the trap of ‘green washing’, as companies try to co-opt people’s desire to make ‘green’ and ‘organic’ another choice in the marketplace, counting on consumers and regulators to not check that the products are actually sustainable.
To facilitate the transition to green energy and a more careful use of petroleum for important uses-for example, in medicine-we need both individual action and systemic change. Regulations that allow for more spatially integrated production and consumption can help consumers become ‘prosumers’ engaged in reconstructing our society and our economy.
Systemic changes can help us overcome an energy-intensive lifestyle that creates environmental pollution and social inequalities — they can foster individual efforts to create and use sustainable technologies that preserve (even repair) the environment and bring equality (and even justice). The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution can benefit the greater public and help promote new creative practices.
To create systemic change, we need to engage with the global economic forces that are shaping our environment, to direct the technological changes that are transforming our work and leisure, and to steer ongoing societal transitions for the greater good. We need reliable societal systems that are sustainable by design and that can help channel individual actions. Buildings, cities and landscapes have structured human behaviour for decades, if not centuries. Policies, technologies and lifestyles for environmental, social and economic sustainability that are embedded into the built environment can make the transition systemic and part of daily life so that no one is left behind. In order to build community support, people need platforms such as The Beam where they can find reliable information, opportunities to collaborate, and strong visions for systemic change.
Carola Hein, Professor and Head, History of Architecture and Urban Planning Chair, Delft University of Technology