Our consumption patterns are at the heart of the challenge to provide our grandchildren with the same opportunities that we enjoyed, writes Dara Lynott.

THE State of the Environment report published recently by the Environmental Protection Agency provides us with an opportunity to assess our longer-term societal goals and their sustainability, particularly as the economy begins to recover.

If we want a clean environment that supports a competitive economy and a climate resilient society then we have to figure out how to live better while using less.

This means using innovative ways to decarbonise our society, manage our resources, and restore our biodiversity.

We have a long road ahead of us when currently:

  • We consume resources equivalent to three times those available on Earth;
  • Only 15% of the energy in our fuel tanks gets used to move our cars;
  • We discard 80% of what we produce after one use;
  • We recycle only 1% of the valuable rare earths that we use in products.

Our consumption patterns are at the heart of the challenge to live better and use less. To provide our grandchildren with the same opportunities we have had we need to fundamentally change how our everyday needs are created and met.

EPA funded research is helping us to figure out the drivers for how we consume transport, energy, water and food and to develop the type of social and technical interventions required to change our consumption patterns and embed sustainable behaviour in the everyday.

Our research is telling us what we intuitively know that our communities are at the heart of this transition.

We do not live in isolation; all of us are part of a community, whether or not we choose to engage. It is in our nature to commune with each other, and we have a long history of successful public volunteerism.

Communities are built around residential, urban, rural, parish, business or educational, spiritual, sporting, artistic or social activities.

We must learn innovative ways to use less and live better

A vibrant, inclusive and engaged community yields better health and environmental outcomes for all its residents and endeavours.

This is because communities set the social norms and it is these social norms that can change a society. We have a uniquely Irish advantage of building on our existing frameworks for mobilising communities and our rich experience with community enterprise.

The benchmark of our success in developing the type of sustainable society we want for our family, present and future will be how much we support and invest in these communities as they:

  • Determine their vision and objectives for community adaptation to climate change;
  • Create initiatives for social change like mend and recycle movements like the Community Resource Network;
  • Manage social resources like community energy schemes.

Seems a little “alternative”? Then read the World Economic Forum’s view put forward in its Global Competitiveness report: “As environmental and social tipping points become more palpable, economies that have been investing and planning for the long run, balancing economic progress with social inclusion and good and effective environmental stewardship, will be in a better position to maintain high prosperity for their citizens, even in presence of external shocks.”

The World Economic Forum sees value in producing the kind of society in which we want to live as a precursor to growth over the medium and long term. These statements reflect a growing acknowledgement internationally that our current consumption behaviour cannot be sustained.

The required rapid decarbonisation of energy, transport, and settlement in Ireland will also offers opportunities to deliver:

  • Sustainable local food production and the elimination of food waste and food poverty;
  • A transformation of our housing stock to eliminate energy poverty;
  • Renewable energy generation from the micro to the macro level;
  • Zero waste and maximum reuse;
  • Green and blue spaces that are safe, attractive and accessible.

The National Economic and Social Council put it as a “sharper articulation of a specifically Irish vision of sustainable development in a successful Ireland”.

Ban Ki-moon called it “a promise by leaders to all people everywhere... an agenda for the planet, our common home” launching the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development by 2030, Transforming Our World.

This agenda sets out the path to wipe out poverty, fight inequality, and tackle climate change over the next 15 years.

We need to rethink, and redesign, what we mean by social and economic prosperity in order to deliver the resilience essential for us to prevail.

In other words we need to think globally and act sustainably at local level. You can start today by checking out www.livegreen.ie.

Dara Lynott is deputy director general of the Environment Protection Agency


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