We earlier considered the seeming paradox embedded in the joining of the two words: sustainable + development. How can there be both “development” (as generally understood as growth and enlargement) and “sustainability” (as generally understood as a steady state, or indeed reductions in consumption of resources)?

The dilemma lies at the heart of the necessary closing of the gap between the theory of sustainable development and the practice of sustainable development. The theory, the objective, is always the easier. Think of it as the “sustainable” part of the equation. “Sustainable” – that which keeps on.

The idea is easy to grasp. But the practice? Think of it as the “development” part of the equation. That is where it gets hard. Just what sort of development, what sort of actions and day-to-day behaviours do we need to engage in to achieve that now all-important, indeed critical objective? This next series of walks with the elephant in the room that is sustainable development will look at some lessons garnered from a number of people, let’s call them practitioners of sustainable development who have made a decision to tackle the practice, and not just the idea.

There are now a number of programs, often established through local Councils or State Government departments charged with instigating environment change, that work with ordinary people-in-the-street who have put up their hand and said, “I want to change my personal behaviours so that I have a lesser impact on the earth”. In other words, to live more sustainably. Mostly, these programs comprise discussion groups or “learning circles”, supported by knowledgeable convenors and resource kits of best practice.

An early version is the Global Action Plan established in the United States by David Gershon in the 1990s. They can now go by a number of different names – it is worth contacting your local Council or Environment Department if you are interested.

Alas, some see little point in resourcing such programs – after all, they say, aren’t they just preaching to the converted? The response to this is an important no! As we know, the practice of being sustainable is fraught with difficulties. One lesson from such groups is that even the most committed people need support – the comfort of being with like-minded people, the ability to discuss out and share experiences and knowledge, and a certain amount of peer pressure to remain on-track.

A few years ago I sat in on one such group over some months.Listened to their dilemmas, shared their joys of success, and talked with them about aspirations and lessons learnt.Their endeavours formed a satisfying whole for themselves.I also realised that they form valuable insights for those engaged in other aspects of sustainable development.

So what did I find? One could distill seven key themes – all of which are worth thinking hard about by anyone aspiring to the achievement of the larger whole of sustainable development. Living sustainably:

* requires allocation of time

* is about community

* means addressing consumption

* requires a continual mindfulness to the task

* requires new knowledge

* is easier when I have a degree of control over my habits

* is also about personal development.

Here are the first three of these in some more detail, explained with some quotes from the participants themselves.

1. Time

Living sustainably takes more time, and that more time was seen as necessary to achieve more sustainable behaviours.More time is needed to use public transport; to shop at grower’s markets or food coops for healthier food with less packaging (in addition to time still required to go to the supermarket); to consider the relative environmental merits of products, and research alternatives.

Consumption – a symptom of busyness…running out of time, so needing to buy disposables or takeaway food. Time and planning the two big things. And yet who has time to spare? It’s incredibly difficult to get people to stop long enough to contemplate and consider the impact on the earth of their wasteful ways.

“So the hurdle for you is…?” Yeah, time. “And the antidote?” Umm. A part-time job, or not trying to fit so much into life.Sustainable development is therefore about resolving competing time demands.

There are also other perspectives on the matter of time.Some made reference to times past where living arrangements were seen to be more inherently sustainable, memories or knowledge of which were used as prompts for current behaviour.

Another participant wondered about the relative priority that should be given to putting your mind in the future, or still in the present. Another saw patience as a necessity, observing its importance as: …slowing down, spinning out the resources you’ve got.

2. Community

Community – importantly, a regaining of community – is seen as essential to sustainable development.Here, community is about connection – as a way to counteract current limitations resulting from “… too much anonymity.”

I think it’s got to do with being very uninformed, but also a loss of sense of community, more emphasis on globalisation, stockmarkets, bottom line profit, almost an unreal understanding – existing in a vacuum. Separate from eco-sustainability.

Important connections are seen to be with neighbours; others with whom activities or appliances could be shared in a group or communal way (rather than everyone purchasing their own): Living in a unit you cannot be independent. … How could you have your own solar or water supply? Unless the whole place did it – now that’s the way to do it – community.

Like-minded individuals who will give both peer support and wider community pressure (to counteract forgetful, individualistic tendencies) for sustainable behaviours are not yet mainstream: So many more ideas and things can come to fruition if people get together. Pressure is something that underpins all that – not in a direct sense – you need a certain amount of pressure – from society or yourself to action, to take on responsibility; and with wider nature itself: … until we understand this [equal care for all creatures] is of vital importance to the health of us as people … we aren’t going to be able to go on.

3. Consumption

Instructively, all participants were aware of their levels of consumption, regardless of the frugality of individual lifestyles. Worried about having a long shower, or the washing machine gets used a lot.

Some wondered whether the needs of humans were inherently unsustainable in terms of the earth’s resources. Those who had frugal habits invariably thought they needed to reduce consumption still further – that while they consumed less than the norm in our society, their habits were still excessive compared to others less well-off.

Car use is a particular dilemma, but so were (negative) social pressures: ‘Gas guzzler’. No. ‘Freedom’ – to go places. While recycling, composting and worm-farming could partly redress consumption habits: Something else we do to minimise guilt. Compost, grow our own veges. Use mulch in garden and any prunings. Recycle – using the Council bins … – it was also recognised that such actions can also let people …off the hook – first you’ve got to reduce.

The apparent extra cost of more sustainable goods was a cause of further frustration, particularly in relation to solar and wind power – associated with the feeling that to be sustainable, one should be autonomous, at least with respect to energy and water, and to some extent food. Qualified with consideration of costs. A lot of times … you have to pay more, eg. new car, low energy appliances. … Slow for us because we are not going to make wholesale changes just for the environment. This has come out harsher than I wanted … ‘Cost considerations higher priority’ – yeah this makes me feel better.

In turn, such autonomy was also seen as achieving a better connection with nature (addressing the ‘community’ aspects again).

The remaining four lessons will appear in the edition of The Fifth Estate.

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”.