2nd Prize Undergraduate Category, "Making a Difference" Essay Contest, 2011

By William Lord

February 10, 2011

William Lord

William Lord, 19, is studying modern history and international relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is originally from Leeds, England.

Essay Question: What does sustainability mean to you?

For a word that entered our public discourse with such determination and hope, "sustainability" has become something of a meaningless tag. If anything, it seems to be the policy wonk's version of the word "awesome:" a previously grand phrase that has been used to the point of mediocrity. It is deployed by all manner of public and business related bodies seeking to highlight green credentials, tangible or not. It is used by everyone but barely means anything to anyone. When an oil company can claim sustainability whilst shutting down its renewable energy HQ (as BP did in 2009), we know that the word has become corrupted.

Some may look at all this and claim that it is time for us to move on from sustainability and look towards a new "green" concept. I disagree. With an exploding global population, rapid industrialisation in the developing world, and massive depletion of the Earth's natural resources, there has never been a more important time to put it at the heart of almost everything we as a species do. This is no time to abandon sustainability, but to take the word back from those who would use it to hide distinctly unsustainable behaviour. In this essay, I will explore what the word means and then ask whether it can be applied with reference to my home city, Leeds.

When we look at sustainability as a concept, images of wind turbines and impeccable countryside often come to mind. "Green" notions such as support for renewable energy and respect for the environment are of course essential to our understanding of the term. However, environmental behaviour cannot be the only part of a sustainable society. The key notion of the term sustainability is indeed to "sustain," to keep things in a permanent and stable state so they may be passed on to the next generation. Cutting carbon emissions and protecting natural spaces are essential for preserving the world, but maintaining these things requires the support and consent of those affected by policy, namely the general public. Safeguarding the environment should of course be central to the economic, energy, and foreign policies of governments, but if this is not approved by those they aim to serve, then there is little to stop another political group with little regard for the environment from taking the reigns of power. A government that erects wind turbines with no consultation or consent from those affected may be "green," but if they are ousted from power and the turbines taken down, then they cannot claim to have a "sustainable" legacy. So rather than being just about green policy, I believe sustainability has a more complex meaning. Instead, it is a state of being in a society where the protection of the natural environment is married to the economic and social needs of its inhabitants.

To explore what this particular interpretation of sustainability means and how it can be achieved, I want to focus on the community of my birth: the city of Leeds. As an urban area, it is fairly typical of many cities in the United Kingdom. It is the biggest city in Yorkshire and the fifth biggest in Britain, with a growing population of around 800,000. The economy was once dominated by manufacturing but is now more focused on finance and business services. It is home to areas of impressive wealth, shameful poverty and everything in between. The city's urban sprawl is surrounded by the Yorkshire Dales, a landscape of true beauty that in many ways makes the struggle for our natural heritage worth fighting for.

It is places like Leeds where the problems of climate change and environmental damage must be tackled head on. The government of the United Kingdom in 2008 set itself ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. If the country is to succeed in fulfilling this, then new green industries will have to be established and there will need to be a marked change in the nature and objects of British household consumption.

However, if Leeds is an example of the kind of place that is pivotal to the struggle against climate change, it is also one that shows the problems of fighting this battle in the first place. Going green may well provide opportunities for the people of the city, but it is crucial to recognise there are several ways in which it could cause social and economic unrest. Perhaps the most notable of these is the effects on the city's economy. Naturally, any carbon reduction strategy requires regulation and restrictions on the manufacturing sector, which contributes significantly to climate change. But what effect might that have on a city that relies heavily on such businesses? Leeds' manufacturing sector accounts for 10.8 percent of its GDP and some 36,000 jobs; if this was to be constricted by ill-thought out environmental laws, there is a real potential for jobs to go in a place already disproportionately affected by unemployment. It is also important to consider fuel poverty, which affects an estimated 11 percent of Leeds households. If environmental initiatives add to the already steep energy bills of the city's residents, is there not a risk that more will slip into fuel poverty and support for such initiatives will fall?

Leeds is of course one example in the wider debate about sustainability, but the lesson we can learn from it applies to almost every city from Boston to Bangalore: How do we sustain support for sustainable behaviour? The best way to do this is to create opportunities out of the transition to a green society, which will require an alliance between government, business and civil society to provide it. The former should provide incentives such as the feed-in tariff, tax cuts and competitive energy markets to encourage green enterprise. Businesses should take up these opportunities and live up to the environmental reputation they claim for themselves. Community groups should advise local residents on how to cut their 'carbon footprint' whilst receiving real assistance from local government and businesses. Out of all this will need to be a wider recognition that living sustainably is not the same as doing someone a favour, but is performing a civic duty akin to casting a vote. To ensure this happens, we need to guarantee that people's rights to economic security and warm houses are also respected. If we cannot, then there will be no hope of achieving a sustainable society.

This may sound very ambitious, and indeed it is, but there is one European example that offers hope for a sustainable consensus in society: recycling. The trend for its increasing presence in European society demonstrates how environmental behaviour can be normalised if encouraged in the right way. Recycling rates have risen rapidly in Britain, reaching 39.7 percent this year. In the industrial giant Germany, the rate is around 48 percent and in Austria it is 70 percent. Recycling may once have been the preserve of a few "eco-warrior" households, but a combination of efforts from different societal groups brought it into the mainstream. Local governments provided its infrastructure, businesses adopted it and households increasingly saw it as the norm. This painless and cooperative approach will be essential in the adoption of other kinds of sustainable behavior.

In conclusion, my view of sustainability is that it is a vital but corrupted term. If we are to put it at the heart of our economic and political settlement, then we need to ensure that is accepted by those who will bear the biggest burden in the transition. Only by creating a new environmental consensus can we sustain the journey we all must make to a world that can be safely passed on to further generations. This essay has focused on one city in one particular country, but I hope and believe that the issues I have explored have meaning to people right across the planet.

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