Live Within Your Means

Around 1,000 years ago a group of Polynesian people sailed across the Pacific to the ‘land of the long white cloud’ and reached a place of plenty.

This virgin territory, which we now call New Zealand, had a unique ecology - a lack of predators had resulted in the evolution of large flightless birds. These birds, which had no reason to fear man, were a wonderful and seemingly endless supply of food. The new human population, who would become known as Maori, could simply walk up to them and club them to death.

Across New Zealand archaeologists have found large middens of bird bones - this bird, called the moa, is long extinct.

There are no written records, so the impact of this loss on the Maori people can only be surmised. Anthropologists have speculated that one of the reasons the Maori developed a reputation for being such fearsome warriors is because the loss of the moa resulted in starvation which led to ongoing battles between tribal groups for resources.

What happened in New Zealand is being played out across the world today. We are treating the worlds’ resources as though they are limitless and we think economic growth can be sustained forever. They aren’t and it can’t, but we don’t want to recognise this truth.

The opportunity created by the economic downturn mustn’t be squandered by political leaders on quick fixes that return us to another artificial boom. Something radically different needs to be proposed that will capture our imaginations and make saving the planet - and ourselves - a central proposition that needs to be wholeheartedly supported and not just be a peripheral activity supported by enthusiastic ‘eco-warriors’.

This is not just about carbon emissions and climate change. This is about learning to live within the earth’s means. We all need to work out how to make our lives sustainable so we don’t rob the next generation.

As housing organisations with a social purpose and access to around 10 million people, social landlords can take the lead on this issue. For a start, I think we should all get our organisations assessed in terms of sustainability so we have some baseline information from which to improve.

The Sustainable Homes Index for Tomorrow has been developed as an assessment tool for housing associations that takes into account not only performance on new build housing, but also existing housing, procurement, office sustainability, and overall strategy and management of sustainability.

West Kent Housing Association is a member of SHIFT and perhaps the most important lesson we learned from our assessment in 2008 is the need to communicate and engage with staff and residents, encouraging environmental enthusiasts to become ‘green’ champions.

We must also get board-level endorsement of our sustainability strategy, so that the actions needed are given sufficient priority and profile within the organisation.

Sustainability is not one person’s job. It is about a behavioural change that needs to become part of the culture of the whole organisation and indeed the whole country. We can engage with and influence the behaviour or our residents, stakeholders and staff and give our politicians the backbone they need to enforce ‘unpopular’ measures that result in change. Already there is a move back towards self-sufficiency and localism, as demonstrated by long waiting lists for allotments and increasing support for local institutions.

The government has just published a consultation document which sets out its aim to ensure the carbon emissions from existing buildings approach zero by 2050.

This will need a substantial increase in energy-saving measures and efforts to reduce carbon emissions around the generation and supply of heat and power.

I can hear the cries of anguish about the extra cost now, but the real price of not acting is losing our ability to sustain human life.

My hope for the future is that as a species we will not behave like another large flightless bird, the ostrich, and stick our heads in the sand. This is our problem and we must take responsibility.

I think great leadership now would be to have the courage to put long-term sustainability first, and ensure that a useful by-product of these policies would be economic recovery. We are not selfish children, we do know what is right. We must respect the environment, use resources efficiently and effectively, and plan for the long term.

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