The topic sustainable development has been theorised and kicked around more often than most in the last 10 years. If one researches sustainable development and tries to find a conclusive definition one ventures into a quagmire of differing definitions. Two popular definitions include:

WWF’s definition: “Improvement of the quality of human life within the carrying capacity of ecosystems”

Brundtland Commission: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

What we are seeing more and more is that current definitions of sustainable development no longer include the concept of “growth”. The aim is that the scale of the economy must be kept within the capacity of the overall system on which it depends. An economy that is able to sustain GDP growth without having a negative impact on environmental conditions, is said to be decoupled.

Different sustainable development theories abound and include complex names like Systems Theory, Deep Ecology, Eco-Feminism, Social Ecology, Bioregionalism, Ecological Modernisation, Gaia Theory and Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Believe me there are others that do not have the level of acceptance that these do but all do have their value and appeal.

Many of us today realise that the way we are living is not sustainable and that as our human population reaches 10 billion, the world as we know it will change for the worse. One only needs to watch the latest Judge DRED movie to get a glimpse of what our world might look like in the not so distant future. The question that hangs in the air like a weightless elephant is how do we change our world and achieve growth that is truly sustainable?

Having evaluated most of the theories I think there is only one real tangible solution that will allow decoupling. DECENTRALISATION of all services. Let’s take for examples electricity in South Africa. We first use fossil fuel to dig out coal which is then washed and transported with more fossil fuel to power stations which then burn this fuel to create electricity which is then sent many kilometres to the End Users! This is a crazy process that uses masses of fossil fuel and water and results in significant loses of electricity as it is transported down the electricity lines. The solution in a decentralised model is to generate electricity where it is needed most and to use natural resources to do this. For example, the generation of electricity should not be the responsibility of Eskom. Rather electricity should be generated in the communities or areas where it is needed. Technology like solar, wind, waste to energy, geothermal and tidal energy should be common. Can you imagine the jobs this type of decentralised, renewable energy grid would create? Regulations would be put in place allowing adjacent communities to sell power to one another which would allow one community that has wind energy to sell to another that has solar or geothermal energy.

In the same way water supply should be decentralised reducing the need for electrical pumps that today are used to pump water from a central station to users. Benefits would include reduction in the loss of water through poor infrastructure and leaks. One would rely on ones community to create jobs that would ensure water is not wasted and that all available water is captured, be that water from rain, boreholes or solar desalination (as on the West Coast). Communities that have more water than others might be able to trade water for electricity or food.

This brings me to the next pillar of decentralisation which is decentralisation of food supplies. Of late we have seen that the large supermarket chains have moved towards centralisation of all of their food distribution to cut costs and further enhance their profits. We have long in this country been at the mercy of large scale food retailers who have destroyed the butcher, baker and candle stick maker by undercutting them on price and availability. As these smaller food retailers have died off so the supermarkets have increased their prices to the point where we are captive to our food suppliers. We need to break these chains and decentralise food supply. Every community needs to start growing its own food and we need to become scholars of agriculture. For instance, in my own community we have large recreational parks that could double as the communities’ bread basket. In the more urban environments roofs and walls can be utilised as green spaces to generate food. Every weekend you and your neighbours could then go to a central place and buy or barter for your food. What a wonderful community generating activity. One fantastic offshoot from this strategy would be the end of plastic packaging as people could come along with a basket, fill it up and take it home without the need for any packaging.

While decentralisation impacts all service supply positively I will only focus on electricity, water, food and waste. This brings me to my last topic for this article and that is waste. A wise man once told me “show me your waste and I will show you something you have paid for but see no value in”. Organic waste is the lifeblood of compost which is the basis of a healthy garden. All organic waste would be brought to the food gardens and used to generate food. All non-organic waste that is not recyclable would be used to generate electricity with a central biogas digester creating methane which would then be fed into a biogas generator which would create electricity. All non-organic waste that is recyclable would be categorised, used for building material or other community needs and any leftovers would then be sold to your neighbouring communities.

Each of these decentralised systems would create hundreds of thousands of jobs country wide and help alleviate poverty in many communities. This is a brave new world that is going to need visionaries and leaders but it’s also going to need rules, regulations and incentives to make getting started easier.

It really is time for the government to step in and up! We want a decentralised sustainable services network and we need to start changing now as this change will take time and planning. Bring on the legislation and incentives that can kick start true sustainable development through decentralisation!