Live as if there is only one planet earth
“Wake up! There’s no time to lose and it’s not that hard,” is Sue Riddlestone’s impassioned battle cry to all consumers. A self-taught expert in environmental matters, Sue devotes her life to showing people practical ways to use fewer of the world’s limited resources.
I met Sue and Pooran Desai, co-founders of BioRegional, at their offices in BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development), an “Eco-Village” in South London. BioRegional aims to help us live more sustainably through a wide-range of projects. I’m going to come back to Pooran’s story in more detail my next post.
Sue greeted me in what seemed to be the “dining room” of the BioRegional offices. In the middle of the room were two large wooden tables with big bowls of fruit and in a kitchen at the side, a woman was silently shredding mushrooms. It felt like the home of a large family. It was an inviting place to linger, and an illustration of the community living which is an integral part of the BedZED concept. However, Sue suggested we went back to her home, also in the complex. After 30 seconds walk we were at her front door and climbing up the stairs into Sue’s sunny four bed home. All the BedZED homes are South facing and have plenty of glass which makes them naturally warm and light. The homes are just one example of the many practical solutions to our environmental problems which BioRegional have come up with since 1994.
Sue’s story is unusual because she started off her career as a nurse. After a career break to look after her young children, she decided to redirect her efforts to where her passion lay, protecting the environment. Sue says she was always concerned about threatened species like whales and seals and about disappearing habitats. So, while she was at home with the children, she started to take action by selling “real nappies”, establishing a local Greenpeace group and getting involved in the Women’s Environmental Network. As soon as her youngest child started nursery she found a part-time job at the local environmental centre as an information officer.
It was there that Sue met the young Pooran Desai. Sue was trying to develop ideas for sustainable paper production and use, while Pooran was focussed sustainable wood use. Together the two environmentalists inspired each other and eventually, after the centre director suggested they should start something of their own, they set up an organisation called BioRegional. “We gained lots of strength from each other’s enthusiasm”, Sue explained.
That was in 1994. Since then, Sue has created many real-life examples of sustainable living. Part of her work still focuses on paper. Sue established the Local Paper project, which makes it easier for small and medium sized businesses to recycle and reduce their paper use. She has also worked for the past 12 years on developing small-scale, clean technology to allow non-wood fibres like wheat straw to be used to make paper. This technology, known as the MiniMill, has the potential to relieve pressure on the world’s forests and to use agricultural waste to make paper, cleanly. “If someone had told me at the beginning that I would have to raise 3 million pounds, and the technology would take 10 or 12 years and still not be completely there, I might have thought twice about it,” she admits. However, her hard work has led to an industrial scale demonstration plant now operating in Manchester and the potential to reduce pollution from paper, around the world.
For Sue, the need to stop work and raise funds is an on-going frustration. “Everything always takes so much longer than it needs to, because finding finance is such a bureaucratic process. Better leadership from the government would help,” Sue told me.
Sue’s other focus is on One Planet Living. According to BioRegional’s methodology, which measures how much of the earth’s resources we use in our every day lives, the average British person is living at a rate which requires three planets. BioRegional have developed a set of ten principles which can be followed to return to “One Planet Living” and Sue is implementing them in different environments. Currently she is using the One Planet Living framework to help the DIY chain B&Q, Sutton Council and the Chinese Government to return their consumption patterns to a sustainable level. It’s hard to imagine a more diverse set of participants.
Sue is realistic about the size of her task, while optimistic about the possibilities: “We don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we all have to, so we’re going to try.” From the determination in her eyes, I can believe it.
What I love about Sue’s work, is that each of her projects is designed to be a model to be replicated over and over. It’s very satisfying for her to see practical, sustainable, living in action and at the same time, she can say to others, “We’ve done it here, now go and do it for yourself.”
I asked her what her advice would be to others who are trying to make a difference: “There are so many things to do. Read widely, learn, get out and meet people, get involved and once you get inspiration, stick with it. Try and create real-life examples.” Sue has definitely been following her own good advice.