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Do We Really Want To Sustain Our Current Lifestyles?

07 March 2011

At the end of October 2010, the NSW State Government announced changes to its policy on the feed-in tariffs for solar electric systems installed in people's homes. Previously, adopters received sixty cents rebate per kilowatt-hour. The electricity fed back into the national grid from their solar installation. Following policy change, it has been reduced to twenty cents rebate per kilowatt-hour. A flurry of last minute activity resulted with people wishing to get their applications in before the cut off period. Applications after this period would only receive the lower rebated amount of twenty cents as opposed to cents. Is this a demonstration that we, as a society, are missing an important piece in the sustainability puzzle?

Adopters of solar installations are often well meaning people wanting to do their part in living more sustainably and responsibly? However, creating a sustainable lifestyle and society involves much more than putting solar panels on our roofs. If done in isolation with no or little change to our daily behaviour, then it is like putting a band-aid on arterial bleeding. The problem is only temporarily assuaged and will appear somewhere else to a greater degree.

It is a myth that changes made in isolation with scant regard to the required wider changes in our behaviour and attitudes have any real positive, yet alone lasting impact on our individual and collective sustainability. The question we must ask is 'Do we actually want to 'sustain' our current lifestyles or is a paradigm shift required in our approach to sustainability?

The following examples from my client experiences influence our answer:

A client who does four wash loads per day because she believes good mothering involves providing children with several daily changes of clothes. She can afford the electricity and water at a financial level but what are the environmental and societal costs?

A client working in excess of fifty hours per week, doing a part-time masters degree and trying to be a good parent. Her expert project and time management skills might allow her schedule to be sustained but what are the hidden costs to her long-term health, family harmony and society?

A client seeking a better quality of life and attempting to 'green' his behaviour by moving out of the city. He is still required to spend four hours per day commuting to work in the city office for five days a week when his job would allow him to work 70% of the time from home. He has a hybrid car but the real cost is the wear and tear to him and his family.

Each of these examples are currently sustainable i.e. the individuals have found ways to make their situations work. The hidden costs only become apparent over time. Is it a myth that we will have better lives and future for our children if we attempt to 'green' a system that is inherently dysfunctional? The myth we must dispel is that we are separate from the environment as a whole. The fact that someone is doing four loads of washing per day indicates scant awareness that they are living on one of the driest continents on the planet. The person outsourcing their health and childcare comes whilst juggling onerous work and study hours might be adhering to the myth that other women do this so they should be able to do it as well. The man who genuinely wants to exercise his green preferences with a hybrid car is still trapped in a system that doesn't allow him flexible working arrangements.

I believe a paradigm shift is needed in how we live, work, consume and travel. As women leaders, we have an important role to play in creating novel, collaborative systems of sustainability in our workplaces, homes and society. We see examples of what changes are required by the efforts of pioneers in systemic organisational and environmental models. For example, Zipcar in the US is the world's largest car-sharing system, leveraging the convergence of technology and sharing of resources, which are intrinsically environmentally and financially expensive. By combining the intellectual resources of a number of experts in truly collaborative models of leadership, novel solutions can be found to everyday problems. In this way, we can all enjoy a rich and modern lifestyle with real accountability of the impact on our personal, environmental and societal sustainability.