What is sustainable living, and why do it?

Sustainable living is complicated, but the rewards are rich and varied, and so it is definitely worth pursuing.

tasmania_from_space.jpg'Sustainable' means able to be kept going. Simple, right? Yet somehow it has become one of the most misused and abused terms of all time. Misappropriation by commercial and political interests certainly hasn't helped, but there is plenty of confusion for other reasons.

Allow me to illustrate with a question: Is a hybrid car sustainable? This is actually a trick question. It doesn't make sense to ask if an object is sustainable; we need to look at the system it is part of.

So, the question should be something more like this: Would it be sustainable for a billion people to each travel 10,000km per year in hybrid electric cars? The answer is that it could be sustained for some years before running into any of a number of terminal and dire consequences, including running out of affordable fuel and causing catastrophic climate change.

Even that question is problematic as it ignores many factors including the materials the cars are made from, and how they are produced, and how they are dealt with at the end of their life (e.g. dumped or recycled), and the same for the roads, and the fuel, and other things that use that fuel, and, and, and… It gets complicated very quickly.

These days everything is so globally interconnected that it's difficult to isolate any one thing. The only thing we can truly assess as sustainable or otherwise is global society as a whole. Depleting finite resources (e.g. crude oil) and renewable resources (e.g. fish, fertile soil), increasing pollution, loss of biodiversity, extinction rates, and natural system disruption (e.g. climate change) tell us plainly and clearly that global society is far from sustainable right now.

But that doesn't really help us decide what to do as individuals, households, or communities.

Enter the old adage "think global, act local". By developing a broad understanding of what affects global sustainability, we can find our part in bringing it about. That quest is at the very heart of sustainable living.

family_harvest.jpgSo, what is our part? You would not be alone if you started to list off a bunch of products like solar panels, solar hot water, double glazing, insulation, electric vehicles, water tanks, organic vegetables, etc. Our supporter survey asked people what hinders them from living sustainably. The most common answer was money – a lack of it. Presumably they felt they needed to own those things to live sustainably.

Contrast that with the results of a fascinating study by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) in 2007 called Consuming Australia. It found that "direct household and person use accounts for just 10 percent of our total eco-footprint." The remaining 90 percent is embodied in the stuff we consume. The more money we have, the more likely we are to consume more stuff and cause worse environmental impacts.

If you can afford it, then you should definitely spend it on those things above - and our social enterprise Eco Home Guide can help you work out how to do that best. Better still, donate to charities like us. Not only does this reduce environmental impacts directly, it also avoids the environmental impacts of the stuff you’d spend your money on otherwise!

But if you don't have enough money to do these things, you'll do better by our planet by being resourceful and frugal than by accumulating more financial wealth – better for the environment and (unless you're really struggling) for your own well-being...

Sustainable living substantially reduces costs of living, allowing you to work less and spend more time doing what you love with the people you love.

This is just one of the co-benefits of sustainable living. The list is endless. Some examples:

Commuting by foot or bicycle improves your physical and mental health through regular exercise, and reduces transport and health costs.

Growing your own vegetables gets you out in the sun and your hands in the soil, reduces food costs, often produces higher quality and definitely fresher produce, helps you to avoid junk food, often connects you with neighbours as you share the surplus, and gives you a sense of accomplishment in meeting your own basic needs. Even the simplest of meals tastes amazing when you've grown just some of the ingredients yourself. If you haven’t experienced that sensation then you are seriously missing out. Get into it!

There is an overwhelming amount of information out there on how to live sustainably. If, like us, you’d prefer to gain knowledge, skills and motivation with and from peers, then join Tasmania's sustainable living movement by becoming a member.

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