Sustainable Ways of Living Issue Brief Series

In the face of the severe impacts of anthropogenic climate change, recognition of the climate crisis has been largely shared worldwide. The climate crisis is just one symptom of ecological overshoot; humans are currently using more resources and producing more waste than Earth can sustain. Biodiversity loss and resource depletion have also been
recognised as urgent issues that need to be addressed.

As everyone contributes to the ever-growing causes of these threats through greenhouse gas and resource use associated with daily practices it is imperative to mitigate the impact of our lives on the environment, economy and society. However, it should be borne in mind that many people globally cannot reliably satisfy their basic needs and are
exposed to precarious conditions as regards food, water, housing, energy, health care, education, and employment.
The topics of ‘sustainable everyday living’ and ‘livelihoods’ are often considered as being separate or independent, with the former seen as the problem of industrialised societies and the latter as a key concern for ‘underdeveloped’ societies. However, it is essential to note that many people in prosperous societies are forced to live precarious lives.
Moreover, the vulnerability of certain groups of people jeopardises sustainability both at the local and national scale, just as people with insufficient access to basic needs such as energy often create more negative impacts on the environment in order to survive. In addition, sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods are often interlinked, with highly
consumptive lifestyles being supported by those whose livelihoods are tied to producing the goods and services therefor, or vulnerable populations recycling materials and living off the waste of wasteful consumption practices of unsustainable lifestyles.

Our lives are shaped by an entanglement of elements, such as natural resources and infrastructure that support us, available products and services, and the norms and rules shared in our communities and other social groups. We organise our day-to-day practices consciously and unconsciously guided by these conditions and driven by our needs as individuals, families and social groups.

There is, therefore, no universal path to sustainable living. We need to adopt unique approaches to meet the needs of specific communities and other social groups and to address the barriers and leverage the opportunities surrounding them. 

Launched in 2014 and led by the governments of Japan and Sweden, the Sustainable Lifestyles and Education Programme of the One-Planet Network promotes sustainable lifestyles globally. As one of its key initiatives, it supported 24 projects aimed at enabling sustainable lifestyles in cities and communities based on their unique needs and opportunities. By working with projects in different countries, much was learnt about the nature and conditions of sustainable living. 

The key elements guiding sustainable living initiatives are as follows:

  1. Focus on both sustainable everyday living and sustainable livelihoods, and their interconnections. Sustainable ways of living need to cover both of the two interconnected challenges, namely, Responsible Living and Reliable Livelihoods. The former turns our attention to mitigating the negative impacts of our daily lives on the environment and society. The latter addresses the vulnerability of livelihoods and creates secure and reliable means of meeting basic needs in ways that are sustainable. The two issues are inextricably linked and thus should both be addressed as one.
  2. Reinforce alternative ways of meeting needs that greatly reduce negative environmental and social impacts. To address the two challenges of sustainable living and livelihoods, it is imperative to revisit the current dominant ways of meeting needs. Assessing the environmental and socioeconomic impacts caused by such practices can help us create alternative means by applying different resources, skills and knowledge. Such alternatives can be developed by effectively using local natural resources, human knowledge, organisations and networks. 
  3. Shift from a focus on individual choice to building inclusive community capacities that are fair. Sustainable ways of living are not just about orienting our daily lives and individual choices to ensure fewer negative ecological and social impacts, they are created through various processes that foster the capacity of communities and groups to create and share alternative living conditions. Inclusiveness of the processes and fair distribution of the costs and benefits of changes are critical to ensuring the reach and effectiveness of these processes.

The above points are even more pertinent in light of the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its very heavy and often challenging impacts on people. Those who were already in precarious situations are the most severely affected. Moreover, the pandemic has spurred drastic changes in socioeconomic systems, infrastructures, the availability of goods and services, and rules and norms. While these widespread changes in all aspects of our living conditions provide an opportunity to revisit our ways of living, they also exert pressures on vulnerable groups. The pandemic has impacted on many initiatives around the world aimed at achieving sustainable communities and livelihoods. The economies and societies at the national or local level have been severely affected and the regular
activities of these initiatives were hindered by the restrictive measures introduced by governments. Looking ahead, efforts to advance sustainable living will need to include recognition of both the risks and opportunities arising from the pandemic, such as the exacerbated vulnerability among the people these initiatives work with and the new rules
and norms introduced in response to the pandemic.
In the context of planning, implementing and externally supporting efforts to achieve sustainable living in the post-COVID world, the authors believe it is critical to pay attention to the following three issues:

  1. Leveraging Untapped Resources—Local Renewable Energies as Catalysts for Sustainable Living
    Locally available resources such as natural assets, community and group knowledge, and social networks can be fully taken advantage of and enable sustainable living. Among them, identification and utilisation of local renewable energy sources enable local societies to reduce their dependence on external resources and technologies that cause environmental impacts, create viable local economies, and strengthen the knowledge and capacities of local people in collaborating to address sustainability challenges.
  2. Value Creation through Bridging Diverse Types of Knowledge and Skills
    Sustainable ways of living require us to create and strengthen alternative ways of
    meeting needs than those offered by the currently dominant unsustainable provisioning systems. It is very useful to demonstrate the benefits of these alternatives to local people in terms of how they can enhance their lifestyles, in order to ensure their proactive engagement. Local initiatives can bring together different
    types of resources and knowledge to produce new knowledge with which societies create, as well as enable the sharing of multiple values and benefits. It is also worth considering creating viable models for business or income generation, though these are not necessarily the main foci of local initiatives for sustainable living.
  3. Collaborative Learning & Creation
    Initiatives do not usually identify the “right answer” for creating sustainable living conditions right from the beginning of the initiative. To enable alternative means of living to work in real-world contexts, people need to combine different types of knowledge and skills, test them with a sense of perseverance, and learn and adapt. Moreover, unexpected difficulties are always encountered, which is why collaborative learning and co-creation are crucial in efforts toward sustainable living.

This Issue Brief Series aims to provide a concise introduction to the three issues outlined above based on the experiences and learning from the 24 projects. The issues are interrelated but can be read together or separately. For further information on the One-Planet SLE programme and projects, please refer to the synthesis report Co-creating
Sustainable Ways of Living: 24 Stories of on-the-ground Innovations.

Rodríguez Jiménez
Bernardo B. Gochoco III,