Get your hands dirty and stick at it
As I came into Hackbridge station by train from London Victoria, I was thrilled to see the multicolour ventilation shafts of the BedZED development come into view. Strange as that may sound, I had heard much about this eco village in South London which opened in 2002 and had not had a chance to visit. I was also really looking forward to meeting one of the instigators behind the project, Pooran Desai.
Pooran is a co-founder of BioRegional, an entrepreneurial charity which aims to show us how to live more sustainably. I wrote about Sue Riddlestone, the other co-founder, two weeks ago. One of Pooran’s most visible achievements since he and Sue set up BioRegional is the completion of BedZED which comprises 100 environmentally friendly homes, some community facilities and work spaces for 100 people.
It’s about five minutes walk from Hackbridge station to the eco-development through unremarkable suburban streets. So, as the large glass expanses on the Southern side of BedZED come into view, they seem all the more impressive. The houses are almost woven together by a maze of bridges and pathways. Parking is limited and residents are encouraged to walk or use public transport. Possibly as a result of the design of the buildings, which are quite close together with open-plan garden spaces, residents know each others names and the community spirit is strong.
I talked to Pooran across the kitchen table in his own BedZED home, just a minute or so from his desk in the BioRegional Offices. He told me that now that BedZED is complete, he realises that the impact of housing on an individual’s overall environmental footprint is sometimes over estimated. Choices which people make about transport, food and waste are all very important. Consequently, Bioregional Quintain, the property company which Pooran established in 2004 and where he now works 50% of the time, is focussed as much on long-term management of properties as their initial construction. One Brighton, is their latest development of 170 apartments. By simplifying the environmental specifications, they have managed to complete the building at the same cost of a conventional development. Now they are focussing on how they can foster community living and encourage the residents to have a low environmental impact through their lifestyles.
As a child, Pooran told me he loved animals and wildlife. When he was about 10 years old a lesson on population growth had a big impact on him. He’s been concerned about the environment ever since. At university he studied physiology and neuroscience and then medicine for a year and a half. But Pooran questioned his career path and decided to leave. “I realised so much of health was down to lifestyle and environment, that I decided to try and make a contribution to people’s health by protecting the environment, rather than becoming a doctor.”
After leaving university Pooran spent a year “reading and working in a garden centre part-time.” He then went to work at the local environment centre, which is where he met Sue. Together they informally set up BioRegional in 1992 in a room in the local Ecology Centre and then two years later, the charity was formally established.
One of Pooran’s early successes was the BioRegional Charcoal Company. This company coordinates small British producers of charcoal so that they can supply big chains like B&Q and be competitive with imported charcoal. Their system allows local producers to supply their local stores and reduces the carbon emissions from transportation to store by 85%. The creation of a market for British charcoal also encourages sustainable management of woods in the UK.
Pooran is working on a vast number of other sustainability projects and in 2004 he was awarded an OBE for his contribution to Sustainable Development. He seemed like a good person to ask about how to make a difference and he had two key messages:
Firstly, “theories are important but in the end you need to know if things work. Practical experience is important. Get your hands dirty.” And secondly, “stick at it! If you want to make a difference you need to work at the same thing for at least 10 years to a life time. I think that people who change jobs all the time, can’t have as much of an impact.”
I expect that BioRegional will be coming up with practical solutions to our environmental crisis for some time to come.
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.