This edition continues the lessons learnt from those who are engaged in the practice of sustainable development, sourced from listening to and talking with a group of people who had joined a discussion group aimed at supporting more sustainable living habits. Again they are peppered with some quotes from the participants themselves.

4  Mindfulness
All participants cited the difficulty of keeping sustainable development constantly in mind when making even mundane everyday decisions. So, how do you achieve sustainability?   By keeping it out there all the time. Its education, education, education, I think.  Its reminders  – to ourselves. I’ve got to do better. And it’s doing it everyday.  Its practice and its being mindful.

Failure to do so was seen as a principle factor in current unsustainable lifestyles.  I think that, although you say you care, it’s not using a washing machine efficiently, using lights efficiently.  I feel I have a responsibility to think about, to come up myself with some justification to do what I do, or buy what I buy.

The perceived antidote varied. However, there was an understanding that a continuous engagement through action and reflection was necessary – with this continuous interplay being seen as perhaps more important than simply slipping into doing things by “second nature” given the need, in sustainable development, for continuous improvement.

Mindfulness requires a certain environment:  prompts and irritants; visible connections and obvious causalities; social pressure; and knowledge.  In particular, children – and consideration of the world they will inherit – were seen as important prompts, with the process of rearing a family in effect personalising the future and our considerations.  I seriously worry about the kind of state we are going to leave the planet and my daughter. … She will face the issues first hand. … So I like the feel of anything that means that’s going to stay that way for my children.

5  Knowledge/education

Education is seen as a critical antidote to an unsustainable society  – both as an awareness and specific learned knowledge. What I don’t know is how much energy these processes use. Not having enough information to make the decision. Often you could make a choice, for example supermarkets, electrical white-goods, but there is not enough information available, for example an Australian sponge scourer or an Indonesian one?  I choose Australian because it is not shipped as far. The more you get into it  – embodied energy…  a real can of worms. It’s overwhelming if you think about it too much.

The extent of participants’ lack of knowledge was at times surprising (for example, understanding the difference between stormwater and sewerage systems; the resources involved in bottled water).  But there were also broader realisations: the need to un-learn many habits at the same time as adopting new ones; the difficulty of ascertaining just what might be sustainable (just “how short” does the “string” have to be before my impact is sustainable?); and that increased awareness leads to further realisations of deficiencies in practical knowledges.  While some sought factual, convincing evidence before making changes (a “scientific” approach), others, more instructively I suspect, understood that engagement often required an initial, untested acceptance of some contentions in order to gain further knowledge through practice.

Therefore sustainability… is learning, it is new ways of seeing and doing, I think.  Particularly given that it was also realised that it was probably not possible to ever quantify what is sustainable.  And if it is, you probably can’t quantify it within a lifetime. I take it at face value that this is what is meant to do … What makes you accept it at face value? I do understand and accept some of the impacts … some bits are a comprehensible picture for me.. The umm, the idea that you recycle a product so that you don’t have to use a natural resource, reuse a natural resource rather than go to landfills. I like the feel of that. I’m persuaded by that.

6 Degree of control
There was considerable frustration about the extent to which participants could control their responses to sustainable development. It should be there and should be second nature. I think it should be more basic or more primal. It’s always been taken away from us in a sense. Frustrated. There is a lot of pressure on us these days to be sustainable.. Mothers and households feel so constrained by the limited nature of choices available.

At times the task appeared daunting, and led, in comments, to a deflection of causality from the self to others  – overall societal structures that limit choice and maintain values antithetical to sustainability –  and unwanted pressure to conform to general (but unsustainable) norms. I am quite happy with what is happening at home. But have no control over what is happening outside… Hate having to live in such a plastic world. Use it begrudgingly.

But there were only two mentions of a need for broader societal change: greater political action through the ballot box; and “socialism” on the basis that: how else are we going to give things up? Rather, an understanding of an intrinsic personal responsibility was maintained – actioned through such things as consumer power via purchasing decisions, even if it meant doing without at times; leading by personal example; the manageability of taking things in small steps; transcending personal images based on what others might think; the power of positive thought:

Still that feeling I’ve got is that energy that keeps me moving toward some minimalist ideal.  By using you money you are making your choice  – green-power, or timber for a house.  Everything you do, we are the ones with the power. By setting an example I’m educating others  – and I didn’t have to say a thing.

7  Personal development
Finally, there is the recognition that the practice of sustainable development comprises also a personal journey – that goes beyond mere physical actions. Appearing for me is an overarching need for change in some of my life…Kind of inspired, but also know that I need to set up some sort of practical framework to support myself … rather than running along and doing things as I do.

This realisation in turn confirms the expansiveness and the interconnected nature of sustainable development: Not just politically right. Part of being healthy and whole. It takes a number of forms: personal education and reflection such as that found within mindfulness; engagement with others, both human and non-human as community; eating less processed foods; changed feelings gained through seeing one’s degree of control more positively; satisfaction from new lifestyles based on changed values and new skills.

A Tim Tam is impacting the earth more than if I ate an orange. We are eating more organic food and making our own more. I want my kids to see me doing things… A spiritual dimension as well. We are all we have. I don’t think people believe in this.  And the despair people find themselves in. Not feeling helpless when the car breaks down. I can do that. It makes me feel richer. My parents did that. My mother baked… A huge amount of pride, serenity, confidence comes from knowing how to do things.

It is here also that participants saw an intrinsic ethical dimension to sustainable development, and that it is the lack of certain personal ethics that contributes to unsustainable behaviour. I act in  a way I believe others should act  – do my part in my little corner. … I don’t try and impose my will on others. You can’t convert people. They have to convert themselves through self-awareness.

The experiences of these practitioners of sustainable development’ suggest that each of us need to get these seven things  – time, community, consumption, mindfulness, knowledge, control, and personal development – into some sort of order as an inherent part of any desire to contribute more effectively to the bigger picture of sustainable development.  The need to remain mindful is one of the most intriguing.

Greg Paine is an environmental planner with extensive experience in Government decision-making. These articles draw on a research degree that explored both the concept and the practice of sustainable development from the point of view of a group of people who had “put their hand up” and said “we would like to contribute to sustainability through our own lives”.