A Strategy for Sustainability

Tony Wrench
Thursday, 1st February 2001

The ethical dimension of sustainability is basically about balance – balancing care for the earth with care for our fellow humans. This involves a consideration of the permaculture principle of 'Fair Shares' – a recognition that at a basic level we are equal and have rights to live peaceably and fruitfully on the earth, and have duties to work towards an equitable use of the earth's resources. There is only so much of land and physical resources, and history teaches us that people, if deprived of their fair share, sooner or later fight for it, trashing nature even more in the process. Fights over water, for example, are on the increase...

The 'sooner or later' brings in the other aspect of sustainability – that we are looking at a very long time scale – longer than any political party has ever remained in power; longer than any one human being has lived. We are looking beyond our simple human concerns to the wellbeing of the whole ecosystem – all life on earth. With these dimensions in mind, therefore, sustainability can be boiled down to four critical essentials:

  • Only using resources that can be replaced or renewed.
  • Only consuming resources at a rate that is renewable.
  • Not using more than our fair share, as individuals and regions, of any resource.
  • Not generating more waste or pollutants than natural processes can deal with.

I pose two questions to myself when viewing an existing or proposed system of things:

What if this was really common – could anybody do/use this?

What are the results of this becoming widespread on future generations, say in 200 years' time?
This is a kind of guide to think through certain things. Often, if something is carried out sustainably, we can see that for anyone to be able to do it in the future would require society to be radically different. As a society, to know how we are doing against the four critical essentials mentioned earlier, we need science and technology to monitor the tangible and measurable effects of our consumption on the environment, such as waste disposal methods, land-use patterns etc.

Over the last 40 years or so, scientists have indeed been monitoring the state of the planet's ecosystem, and now at the beginning of a new century it is clear that without drastic changes in the whole way we live on earth and relate to the natural world, we will drive about half of the entire number of species of creatures on earth into extinction. We are changing the weather patterns to such an extent that the effect will equal any natural disasters in the planet's past. It may already be too late to save a lot of what we take for granted, but the least we can do is to gear up our governing institutions to adapt and then act as forcefully and dynamically as they would to a war, plague or famine. There is no doubt that the writing is on the wall for our species as well as for the thousands of others we are putting on the danger list. The book Tomorrow's World1 sets out clearly the measures across the board that need to be taken to regain balance with nature, and it is a big list.

With this rather urgent backdrop in mind, we have in Wales, as it happens, a golden opportunity, with the establish-ing of a new Assembly with sustainable development stated to be one of its cornerstones. It is an opportunity to take a radical look at what kind of future we would be able to steer for. If we don't change course, things will get worse, for sure, but we humans have great powers of adaptability and organisation. We are not stuck. We can change. Here, in no particular order, are some trends that seem to be emerging and some ways in which a vision of a sustainable Wales could be built up. I don't want to give a long critique of various sectors and what is wrong with them – this is done exhaustively every day of the week in books, TV and newspapers. Rather let us try to form a synergetic picture that extrapolates trends, together with constraints and new directions that we must take in order to be sustainable.


Many, but not all, of these new trends concern land-use: well paid or retired people leaving towns and cities to seek places in the country to live, often depriving locals of affordable housing; rural young leaving the countryside for jobs in towns and cities; traffic stifling all centres of population; commerce being increasingly done electronically; high street banks, estate agents, insurance companies etc. becoming obsolete; shopping by internet; home delivery of electronically bought goods; huge superstores taking over the role of town centres as places for family shopping; industry more decentralised, less dependent on proximity to sources of natural resources such as iron or coal, and more prone to massive changes in ownership, location etc.; computer control of production; robots in manufacture; less demand for meat, therefore a collapse in the traditional meat farming businesses; sheep, dairy, beef and pork farmers going bankrupt, despite owning land that people would love to live on; dramatic decrease in numbers of many wild birds, mammals and amphibians through loss of habitat; increase in leisure and tourism as a source of income; young people increasingly using the internet for education, recreation, business and creativity yet still needing places for social gathering, usually town centres but also large hangars in fields for raves, etc.; a dramatic trend towards organic and away from genetically modified or chemically treated food; housing demand exceeding supply, especially for smaller, cheaper units.

Is it possible to build up a vision of a future in maybe a hundred years' time in which these trends have been married with the urgent need to change quickly to a sustainable way of life? We should bear in mind that sustain-ability must involve cutting our dependence on fossil fuels, in particular, by about 80%, and a concerted attempt to stamp out all pollutants going into the air, land and water. This means a revolution in energy production, transport, housing and manufacturing. We must look to all energy eventually coming from renewable sources. If you have ever tried to heat your house, even for a short period, by renewable means only, you will realise just how difficult a task it is with present standards of insulation and house siting. At present I would argue that two of the big sacred cows of the planning system, housing and agriculture, are two of the most un-thought-out sectors of society. Both are dominated by big business, and both lack holistic thinking. Education in both is pathetic, and both are in strict, mutually exclusive, categories for planning purposes. Thus a field or wood might be worth £1,500 without planning permission for housing, and £100,000 with it. Ne'er the twain shall meet. (If they try to meet, solicitors, planners, barristers and other specialists in rules have a field day). This distorts every-thing. Better to scrap the special status that agriculture has had since 1948, embrace the principles and concept of permaculture, and drop the assumption that human habitation and nature have to be kept apart.

A Sustainable Future

I invite you to imagine a landscape of hills and valleys. It is 2100. The effects of global warming are really starting to bite, despite a drastic sustainability programme. Much of Southern Europe is windswept desert. Huge social change has taken place. London and Cardiff are regularly flooded. Here in Wales it rains more, and is hotter and stormier than it used to be, but it is very green – forest stretches in every direction. There are no more roads than in the year 2000, and there are fewer vehicles on them. These vehicles are mainly electric and fuel cell powered, with zero emissions. They are mostly delivery vehicles, servicing all households on computer-optimised routes, delivering internet-ordered products, picking up home produced food surpluses and frozen home cooking, and taking people on short local journeys to social centres, markets or train terminals. Public transport serves every area, and is partly underground. It is cheap, publicly subsidised, quick and efficient. Houses cannot at first be seen, because the area of forest is ten times what it was in 2000. When you get used to spotting them, you see houses and clusters of dwelling units everywhere, but are built into the landscape. Most are partially underground, with south facing windows, surrounded by orchard or agroforest. Cows graze under the fruit trees. Some houses are totally underground, lit by optic tubes collecting sunlight from above and illuminating all parts of the houses with warm natural light. Some homes are autonomous, and have their own waste composting units and generate all the small amounts of electric power they need from solar cells. Others, in larger groupings, are warmed and powered by community heat and power schemes, burning biomass such as willow grown in the lower lying flood plains, which are also havens for teeming wildlife. Most old towns are social and heritage centres, glassed over, with masses of semi-tropical vegetation and fruiting trees breaking up the pedestrian patios and parks. The old banks, building societies and offices are now single, efficient housing units. Restaurants, pubs and play places are everywhere. All manufacture that would once have taken place in 'industrial estates' is underground. These underground factories sometimes stretch for miles, and are constantly being improved and updated by intelligent computer networks (although the word 'computer' has long since passed into history) that optimise raw material usage, recycle waste products for other uses, and conserve any unwanted by-products as resources for future use. Thus these underground complexes emit no wastes to the environment and consume society's wastes to recycle as their raw materials. They run on renewable energy from windfarms, water turbines, solar cells and energy derived from processing unused waste. Social centres, tourist centres, water sport and leisure centres are as varied as human imagination can make them.

In a sustainable society, work is a creative pleasure, and evolution in arts, sport and all other creative areas continues. Many people live more simply than in the 20th century, keeping a permaculture plot in the extensive woodlands, and making a living by crafts, or servicing some need or demand that might have come from the other side of the world – maybe playing music in a band that has only met once or twice in the flesh, but practise regularly together by video link-up and sell their products via the internet. Money comes as credits at the local resource centre and home produce freezer bank, in LETS2, or in Euros. Shopping is almost totally electronic. Office jobs have almost disappeared, replaced by individual or group enterprises aided by computer technology. Most people have mobile video phones linked to the internet, and politics is transformed into a process of intelligent networking in which all decisions affecting the public good are accessible to all, and decisions are aided by spiritual, ethical and environmental guidelines. News and current affairs have decentralised to anyone who wishes to tell others about anything, although you can choose to tune in to an agency which selects information about world or local events, to your chosen format, or even randomly. Rights, including rights of wildlife, are entrenched in the constitution.

OK, that's enough. There will be plenty of future to play in, so long as we don't destroy the biosphere in the meantime. If we can relate enough to this vision of a future in which respect for nature and technology live side by side, we must, I suggest, start making some changes right now, to allow such a vision to grow. These changes must all have sustainability as their foundation, so that gradually we educate ourselves and our grandchildren as to what sustainability really means.

Suggested First Steps

Dismantle the entire teetering fabric of planning law, separating out different physical zones of activity, to replace it with stringent, holistic, sustainability criteria.

So: Say yes to a firm that wishes to set up a new factory – anywhere – so long as it is underground, produces no pollutants and does not increase road traffic.

Say yes to me who wishes to build my own house on an organic farm and live as a wood turner and permaculturalist – so long as my house is autonomous (solar passive, solar electricity, etc.), is made of local natural materials, is earth sheltered, is surrounded by trees and does not generate extra traffic etc. They could say yes now, of course, and start a very useful ball rolling. (Did they do that, oh reader, in my future?).

Say yes to the struggling hill farmer who wants to sell off 100 acres (40 hectares) to a group wanting to form an eco-village – providing the whole project is sustainable, in terms of energy, transport, wastes, construction, etc

Put large amounts of public money into a new public transport system for the whole of Wales, to equal that of, say, Switzerland.

Fund generous research and development into sustainable building techniques, including underground and earth sheltered housing and factories.

Ban now the production of noxious or unsustainable materials. No tax on biodegradable materials. Phase out all unbiodegradable plastic packaging.

Set a time limit, as in California, for a certain proportion of all vehicles sold in Wales to be zero emission.

Increase subsidies for organic conversion and tree planting.

Another social change that I would like to see established is for the principle of the sabbatical year to be applicable to all office jobs. Mental flexibility is the only way for our institutions and infrastructure to gear themselves to sustainability – the lack of which has got us stuck. All people holding down a steady job should sooner or later be given the space to widen their horizons and to think the unthinkable without fear. If this means a year off on full pay, so be it.

Hwyl fawr.

Tony Wrench

Tony Wrench is the author of Building a Low Impact Roundhouse.

1 Tomorrow's World; Duncan McClaren, Simon Bullock & Nursrat Yousaf; Earthscan, 1998.

2 Local Exchange Trading Scheme,or a trading unit of credit in a LETScheme.

Image thanks to www.hockertonhousingproject.org.uk