The Future Of Green Is In The Past

Whenever we think of sustainability, we think of innovation. Indeed, technology plays a fundamental role in achieving a greener future. But what is the secret ingredient for these ideas to achieve their full potential? Combining them with the knowledge that we have amassed throughout millennia. 

Global problems call for global solutions, and cultures across the globe have developed and perfected systems that have met their needs for hundreds of years. However, this knowledge, often transmitted orally, has frequently been lost as a result of industrialization, trend changes and standardization. But what if we reconnected with it and used it to inform not just the latest technology, but also our daily habits? 

A new book entitled “The Stuff of Life: Ancient Inspiration for Sustainable Living” (Vulpine Press) suggests doing just that.

Back to Basics

How do we go about recovering the solutions that can be found in natural materials? 

The first step is putting things into perspective: it might seem to us that plastic has always been around, but it only started being broadly used in the second half of the 20th century. Just over half a century later, its poor recyclability and the pollution generated by its production call for a shift from Tupperware to glass jars and clay pots. In chronological terms, the primacy of plastic is almost anecdotical.

Glass pots to store food rather than plastic tupperware

The same applies to paper tissues, napkins, or make-up removal pads, whose roles were previously performed by handkerchiefs, fabric serviettes and flannels. And it truly is not a thing of a distant past, as there are plenty of people still alive who would have spent more of their lives using these instead of their current disposable counterparts.

Once in this mindset, it is easy to realize that organic raw materials, such as those that are earth, plant, or animal derived still form a fundamental part of our surroundings. Across the world, a staggering 3 billion people approximately live in houses made from earth, using traditional ways of building with local materials developed through millennia. Tree roots are still used for engineering bridges across rivers in places like Meghalaya, in India, forming living structures that grow stronger for a certain amount of time and which naturally have a zero-carbon footprint. While it is obvious that these ways of construction are not feasible everywhere, the ideas and principles behind them can be applied to many technological advances.

Naturally, this heritage is threatened daily, and projects such as the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme seek to record and revive the traditional knowledge involved in the manufacturing of products such as textiles and containers.

Developing Green Technology

The main threats to sustainability in our current world are the clothing, building, food, and waste management industries. 

For all these sectors, natural materials can be combined with the latest technological advances to provide solutions to the planet’s present and future problems.

The thermal regulating and flexible properties of earth as a building material make it an excellent architectural solution for both private housing and public buildings. The know-how for achieving the right proportions for the building mixture, for example, has been passed from generation to generation historically. Unfortunately, these traditions have been badly affected by environmental and population pressures. Luckily, there is now technology available that can help calculate these proportions and preempt possible structural problems.

Building materials have been hugely affected by environmental change.

Plants, for their part, are being used in scientific research to provide food alternatives to the consumption of animal meat. Mass production of meat is a primary source of CO2 generation, and other options, such as mushroom-made “bacon” are being researched. Mushrooms, in fact, are proving to be an extremely versatile material able to provide a biodegradable alternative to plastic.

Changing Our Daily Habits

The once famous “3 Rs of sustainability” (reduce, reuse and recycle) have now been expanded to a comprehensive 7 principles by adding redesign, renovate, repair and recover.

It is unrealistic to try to incorporate all these aspects at once into our daily life if we are starting from scratch; instead, small steps are what is needed.

Swapping plastic boxes and cling film for clay containers and wrappers made of beeswax, and choosing garments made of recycled cotton are easy to adapt gestures which in turn have a large impact. 

We cannot control the amount of plastic wrapping companies use in their products, but we can take many steps towards being sustainable even before we make it to the supermarket. Taking our own fabric bags, using refillable containers, or choosing biodegradable packaging all mean producing less hard to handle waste at home, which in turn makes the recycling process more successful. 

When we regulate house temperature using plants, cross ventilation, and natural insulation we are preserving the tools developed by our ancestors in the past and using them not just to make a difference for our current world but also for our pockets, particularly in the face of growing energy prices. 

If we are to repair the damage done to the planet and to build a fairer and more sustainable world, innovation and research will be key. But this must be paired with the recognition, preservation and recording of traditional techniques for food production, building, nature adaptation and general everyday practices. In the era of accessible knowledge, ignorance is no longer an excuse.

Short Author Bio:

María Correas-Amador is the author of “The Stuff of Life: Ancient Inspiration for Sustainable Living”. She holds a PhD in Archaeology from Durham University. Her field of specialism is organic architecture and ethnoarchaeology. She has carried out extensive fieldwork in Egypt, as well as being a university lecturer and a museum guide. She is currently focused on writing and translation in the fields of sustainability and education.

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