The path to averting the climate crisis can create a future we want to run towards. Sue Riddlestone – co-founder and CEO of Bioregional, initiator of the famous eco-village BedZED, one of the architects of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – talks to Pip Wheaton, Ashoka’s European Venture Director, about what that future looks like.
You’ve spent your career showing how everyone can live happy, healthy lives while still leaving space for wildlife and wilderness.
Yes – looking back, our work has been a series of demonstrations that prove that it can be done – that people can live well while also living within the natural limits of the planet. More than that, we show that the future is something to run towards, not hide from. Because I think ultimately, if I say to you, you’ve got to cut your footprint by two thirds or cut your carbon footprint to zero, you’re going to think “absolutely not!” But if instead I can say, “and this is what it’s going to be like, and it’s actually better,” then you’re much more likely to run towards it.
So a sustainable future isn’t a sacrifice, it’s actually something attractive and appealing.
What does the future of climate action look like?
Obviously we need to go zero carbon as soon as possible, especially in the wealthier nations. But it’s not just carbon emissions, it is how many resources are wasted, and the fact that there’s so many of us on the planet. It has to be about our whole economy, and there’s also something very, very important about equity and justice, about citizens having ownership and proper democracy where people feel empowered to choose the future they want. The best possible future is what we would call one planet living: where everyone is able to live a happy, healthy, sustainable life, within the means of our one planet.
“One Planet Living” – tell me more.
If everyone lived like we do, if everyone consumed and polluted like we do, we would need three planets. So we need one planet living; living within the natural limits. The idea behind our One Planet Living framework is to try and make sustainability simple to understand and to give people guidance for co-creating around it. It consists of 10 principles and a process where we engage decision-makers and stakeholders to co-create an implementation plan.
What does this look like practically?
We now have examples of how new homes can be built in line with our One Planet Living framework. There are cities taking a One Planet Living approach, and there are companies, schools, cities and regions – all committing to acting within the limits of the planet. These demonstrations really change people’s minds about what can be done. That’s a powerful way of getting the industry to change. And it’s also a powerful route to get policy change, because governments will only go for the policy change if you can point to examples, with facts and figures.
How does Covid-19 impact your work?
I certainly see a massive emergency, the whole world has scrambled in different ways to address it, and there’s amazing human ingenuity and commitment and pulling together to address Covid. But the climate and ecological emergency is off the scale. And while some people are aware of it, most people don’t fully realize that yet. A lot of people are talking about a green recovery and building back better, but everyone has their own idea of what ‘better’ means to them.
I think there’s an acknowledgement that we’re not going back to the old carbon-guzzling ways. But in the hurry to put some things in place to create jobs, and for government to be seen to be doing something, there’s a risk that we miss the opportunity. After all the experiences I’ve had working to help guide policy I realized at some point that decisions just get made in a hurry – politicians just make things up in a taxi or in a corridor, because suddenly it’s on the agenda and they’re overwhelmed. So it’s really, really important that we have a united voice and some clear things that we’re asking to be done, to make it easier for decision-makers to do the right thing.
How do we prevent defeatism?
Well, we have to show that we have the solutions. Things are bad, but we’ve got the solutions, so let’s do it. If it’s our family, ourselves, our home or our exact locality, then we’re much more likely to react properly, but it’s very hard to work on something that’s in 2050 or affects people on a different continent or something. I think that has been one reason why it’s been easier to get people to notice recently, because we’ve started to actually perceive climate change happening and Extinction Rebellion have forced the media to talk about it.
I think we all get used to climate change like the frog in the saucepan of water not jumping out because it is gradually heating up. It’s been going on for so long, we all kind of accept it, and then we start thinking about other things. But we have to keep coming back to the task. It’s the task of our generation. Those of us who live on this planet right now, we have just got to get this sorted out. It’s for the benefit of, well, everything on the Earth really. All these years it’s taken to build up this myriad of species and it’s our job to get things back on a sustainable track for future generations.
Sue Riddlestone OBE is chief executive and co-founder of Bioregional, an award-winning organisation which develops real-life solutions for sustainability, including the BedZED eco-village in London where Bioregional are based. Bioregional established One Planet Living, a global initiative to help anyone, anywhere to plan, communicate and deliver sustainability. Sue led Bioregional’s efforts in lobbying international governments to create what became the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Sue is a Skoll and Schwab World Economic Forum award winning social entrepreneur and was awarded an OBE in 2013 for her work on the Olympics and sustainable business. Sue became a Senior Ashoka Fellow in 2019.
Pip Wheaton leads the search for new Ashoka Fellows in Europe, looking for exceptional systems changing social entrepreneurs, and is part of the Next Now/Planet & Climate team. Australian by birth, she has worked in social innovation and social finance in both Africa and Europe. Prior to joining Ashoka, Pip founded the South African youth-leadership organisation, enke: Make Your Mark, for which she became an Ashoka Fellow in 2014.
Next Now: Ashoka is mobilizing the strength of its community on climate action. Next Now/Planet & Climate connects unlikely allies around shared visions of the future that bring people and planet to a new equilibrium. This Ashoka series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders guiding the field. Read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 of our series.