International Women’s Day Lecture: How Shall we Live?

Woman with bike
We must reduce our need to travel. In addition to public transport, we’re going to have to get used to using our feet and bicycles. In the United Kingdom, approximately seven per cent of journeys are made by bike. In Freiberg, Germany – the poster child for green transport – this figure currently rests at approximately 30 per cent. We are going to have to do even better than that.
Joanna Yarrow
There is no doubt that living in a genuinely sustainable manner represents a tall order for humanity. A growing global population is precipitating rising demands for energy, food and water, and these factors are being compounded by the effects of climate change. Consequently, many contend that we will have to become accustomed to living very different lives in order to secure our long-term future.

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2013, writer, broadcaster and sustainability expert Joanna Yarrow addressed an audience at Staffordshire University about the grand environmental challenges that are facing humanity. Throughout her lecture, Yarrow emphasised the need for us to begin living on the Earth ‘as if we intended to stay’. She began by explaining why behavioural change is so important to the future of our planet.

"You might have heard people speak about ‘peak oil’," said Yarrow. "For quite some time, there have been concerns that our oil reserves are reaching their peak and that we could run dry. Actually, those of us who’ve looked at the figures in a bit more detail don’t even believe that this is going to be the most significant challenge. The main problem is going to be the confluence of ‘peak everything’."

According to Yarrow, human behaviour has exacerbated a whole host of aggravating factors, and a projected global population of nine billion people by 2050 will only serve to make matters worse. By that point in time, simply maintaining the efficiencies that we are currently achieving will pose a daunting challenge.

"There’s a simple piece of maths that sums this up," explained Yarrow. "It’s called ‘Factor 10’. Basically, if you look at trends in population growth and you account for economic growth, by 2050 we will have to do everything 10 times more efficiently than we do today, just to have the impact that we’re currently having. The way you got here this evening, the cup of tea you had before you left the house, the jumper you’re wearing; all of these things will have to be delivered or produced 10 times more efficiently to achieve our current level of environmental impact. That’s the scale of the challenge. By 2050, we will have to be living very, very differently in order to avoid trashing our back yard."

After outlining the magnitude of the associated challenges, Yarrow began to make suggestions as to how we might live. Essentially, we must change our thinking on the production and consumption of energy and food.

"We know that we are going to have to massively reduce our energy demand, and the majority of the energy that we do use needs to be generated via renewables," she said. "One way to achieve this situation will be to travel a lot less. We must reduce our need to travel. In addition to public transport, we’re going to have to get used to using our feet and bicycles. In the United Kingdom, approximately seven per cent of journeys are made by bike. In Freiberg, Germany – the poster child for green transport – this figure currently rests at approximately 30 per cent. We are going to have to do even better than that.

"We also need to think differently about how we produce food," continued Yarrow. "Food contributes to about 30 per cent of our total environmental impact, so reducing this figure could have a big overall impact. Eating far less meat would be a start; it would be good for horses and good for the environment…Meat production has been calculated to contribute about 18 per cent of global carbon emissions."

Many people accept that measures such as these are necessary. However, this recognition is not always reflected in behaviour. Yarrow emphasised the need for activists to spell out the benefits that would be gained by such changes. As she later put it, we need to promote ‘the upside of down’.

"UK citizens spend an average of nine days per year sitting in cars, but only three days per year walking," she said. "I don’t need to spell out the benefits of reversing this ratio, whether financial, health or sanity related. Cycling 30 minutes per day will increase your life expectancy by four years. On average, the heart of a regular cyclist is as healthy as that of a non-cyclist who is 10 years younger. Getting out of your car and incorporating walking and cycling into your daily routine is going to save you a lot of money, it’s going to make the place you live in a lot nicer for everyone, and selfishly, it’s going to be pretty good for your health."

Yarrow also addressed the comforting but dubious notion that technology is going to save us from the consequences of manmade climate change. Whilst such advances are obviously beneficial, she warned that they also make people complacent.

"By 2020, it is predicted that worldwide energy demand will be 30 per cent higher than it was just seven years ago," she said. "There is an observation about human behaviour and it has a very fancy name: the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate. In reality, it’s very simple. As energy efficiency increases, we increase our energy consumption…Just assuming that we have the gadgets to solve our problems isn’t enough. We need to look at behaviour as well.

"In 2000, there were about 500 million cars on the world’s roads," she continued. "According to current growth rates, it is predicted that by 2050, there will be about five billion. That’s a lot of congestion…Putting new technology under the bonnet and continuing to drive more cars ad infinitum is unlikely to work. The solution is probably going to involve radical action."

Yarrow went on to discuss 10 lessons that she has learned during her career as a climate activist. In essence, she outlined a how-to guide for anybody hoping to persuade others to change their behaviour. Her suggestions included relating to things people care about, recognising diversity, celebrating the upside of down and making sustainable behaviour easy and attractive. To end the lecture, Yarrow brought the topic back to International Women’s Day. Whilst she reiterated that sustainability is, by its very nature, an issue that concerns us all, she highlighted the important role that women can play in driving change.

"I know from experience that there women are working across all the different levels of sustainability; a disproportionate amount in relation to other sectors," she concluded. "I think this is because we are good at it, and the statistics support this point of view. Companies that empower women are more likely to act sustainably. The sustainability performances of organisations with women in senior positions are measurably better than their counterparts. One can speculate about why this is. Personally, I would say that sustainability is many headed. You need to be thinking about society as a whole rather than about just one little aspect. I’m generalising horribly here, but I believe that women’s strengths include cooperation, communication, thinking about the big picture and multitasking. If you’re going to get sustainability right, you need to ensure that you’ve got those skills covered. Let’s hope that we can get more women to the top of this particular agenda."


To find out more about Yarrow's work, check out beyondgreen.com.


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