Sustainability

Recently, we had an insightful meeting with a very experienced management consultant. At a certain point, the conversation took off on a tangent and we were suddenly in a defensive position, not so much defending the potential for the Global Lifestyle Project itself, but travel in general. The red flag to this bull was the word “sustainable”.

The conversation went something like this (M = Me, J = Joe):

M: We’re using ourselves as test pilots for the Global Lifestyle Project. We really believe that we, and thousands more like us can benefit from living from a limited set of carefully chosen nodes around the world. By constantly changing our horizon, we avoid status quo and complacency or taking things for granted. It’s somewhere between being settled and being a nomad. We’re looking at the kids who are now 10-15 years old. They have a global online existence. Online, there are no geographical boundaries. When they are 20-25 and entering the work force, more and more they will want to be able to move freely around the world to the places that help them to feel fulfilled or reach their potential. Changes in mindsets, developments in communication, and the rise of the social-web is making it much easier to organize and realize. We’ve talked about it long enough so now we’re trying it out to test if such a lifestyle is sustainable.

J: With that much travel, how can you even begin to think or claim that such a lifestyle can be sustainable? Travel causes more damage to the environment than any other single activity or factor.

M: We’re not proposing being a global jet-setter. We’re making 2-3 trips per year between nodes. It’s no more travel than most people make for vacation. The people we’re talking about are educated and conscientious. We need to find ways to offset the emissions that are a result of travel.

J: 2-3 trips per year puts you into the top 1% of the population. You talk about the kids that are now 10-15 years old. This group will be so environmentally aware that they won’t be able to justify air travel. There will be new developments in communications and experiential technologies so people won’t need to travel.

M: People will never stop traveling. At least not in our lifetime. If anything, we’ll be traveling more. But we seem to be getting off the point. Environmental sustainability is only one part of the picture.

And so it went on. Sustainability, it seems, has become such a buzz-word only associated with the environment that that’s as far as people are willing to think. Also, as was clearly highlighted in one of our favourite movies, The Story of Stuff, most people are very micro in their view on sustainability – looking only at individual actions or behaviors and/or what’s hot in the media right now rather than considering the big picture. We’ll save this part of the discussion for a later date. Our point is that we use the term sustainability to refer to the Global Lifestyle itself and each of its component parts.
A simple but adequate definition of sustainability is: “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.”

Within the scope of the Global Lifestyle Project, we look at sustainability from three angles: Social, Financial and Environmental.

Social Sustainability

Humans are social creatures. We need to have contact with other humans. Virtual interaction can only take us so far and then we need to make it real. In the personal communications space, video communications tools such as Skype have made it much easier to keep in touch with friends around the world. The meteoric rise of social media has meant that we can virtually live the lives of our friends through tweets, check-ins and profile updates. In the business world, video-conferencing is considered the killer-app in this space. When technologies such as video conferencing were first introduced, there was talk of the end of travel. No longer would big corporations need to send their teams around the world as they could just head for the video-conference room and have real-time meetings with colleagues around the world. We love all of these technologies and make use of them on a daily basis but eventually, because we are humans, we need to get offline and be in close vicinity of other humans.

There are many instances, and cool stories, of people living nomadic existences. Generally they’re stories about individuals or couples who have packed up their ‘regular’ lives and gone on the road. Sometimes with a kitted out RV or camper and sometimes with nothing more than a backpack and a laptop. Although these lifestyles sound (and granted, they are) exciting and adventurous, we don’t believe that they are ‘socially sustainable’. After a period, these individuals will need to build meaningful relationships that are more ‘real’ than encounters over skype and more continuous and long term than fleeting conversations with other travelers in random locations around the world.

Key to the success of living a Global Lifestyle is finding a socially sustainable way to create, build and maintain real relationships with other individuals that are equally strong as those of an individual living in one place.

Financial Sustainability

“So, how do you make money?” is a question put to us on a weekly basis. For the Global Lifestyle Project to be financially sustainable, there must be a reliable and consistent income stream that allows us to live just well as our single-base peers.

For centuries, people have migrated to where work was plentiful. ‘Seasonal work’ has helped many a traveler create a sufficient base of funds to be able to travel on to the next adventure. Be it fruit picking in New Zealand or cafe/bar work in busy summer tourist towns, this work is much more a means than the end. It’s simply an opportunity to work hard and save hard to pay for the next part of the adventure.

At another level are those professions that lend themselves to travel. Also often closely aligned to the seasons, thousands of individuals around the world travel with their work or profession, doing what they love. From scuba-diving to ski instructors, language teachers to baristas, thousands of individuals roam the world, doing what they know best.

Finally, there is the international freelance community that is able to travel with their trade. From fashion photographers to designers, architects to travel journalists, there are many professions where an expert in a particular field is called upon to solve a problem or fill a gap.

Common to all of the above examples is that an external factor is the fundamental reason for travel. That is, you go to where the work is.
The main difference with the Global Lifestyle that we are proposing is that there is a way to leverage your experience in some of the nodes in which you exist against the others, thereby creating a new layer of value and disengaging yourself from seasonality. Achieving this will mean that you are more flexible to divide your time between your nodes as you see fit.

Eco Sustainability

Joe is correct. Travel is pretty damaging to the environment. However, we would argue a couple of things. Firstly, we can’t fight progress. People are curious and will continue to travel – for work and for pleasure. Rather than saying travel = bad so let’s stop traveling, we can also say travel = here to stay so let’s look for more carbon-friendly modes of transportation and if air travel is the only option, let’s educate ourselves as to how we can start to offset the damage we cause.

In a recent conversation with good friend and former Global Lifestyler Craig Hjorring, he proposed the Hjorring Eco Footprint Measurement which is actually very simple and makes a lot of sense.

Eco Footprint = Consumption Spend
F = S

That is, your footprint on the planet is directly proportional to the amount you spend on consuming ‘stuff’. Of course this issue is a lot more complex and there are many factors that will sway or skew this figure (for example, if you spent all of your money buying trees to plant, or the fact that locally grown ‘organic’ produce is more expensive than mass produced imported produce) but in general terms, it does provide a quick and accurate indication. For example, the bigger your home, the more energy you’ll use and the more you’ll subsequently spend on heating or cooling it. The bigger your car, the more you’ll spend on gas. The more ‘stuff’ you buy, the more ‘stuff’ you’re going to throw out and hence add to the world’s trash heaps.

There are two other factors that we think are worth adding or considering. The first we refer to as the “distance quotient” which is a rough indication of the distance that a particular product, or the sum of its component parts, has travelled to get to you. This goes some way towards accounting for the environmental cost of freight and compensating for the fact that things produced locally are often more expensive. Recycling, or more accurately, repurposing is also an important factor to consider. The equation then becomes (where D= distance and R = amount recycled or repurposed):

F = S x D
 R

Productivity

One final note to add that relates in part to all three forms of sustainability is the notion of productivity which is key to the creation of a successful Global Lifestyle. A nomadic existence can be fun and fulfilling in a number of ways but we would argue that the human brain has limited problem solving capacity. A nomadic existence by definition means that you don’t know where your next bed will be or where your next meal will come from. If you are too tied up in the solving of such daily/survival problems, you will not have maximum attention or capacity for the solving of other more meaningful (and revenue generating) problems.

Summary

In summary then, referring to sustainability, what we’d like to propose are the following points:

  1. Sustainability is not simply limited to ‘Eco’ sustainability. Social and Financial sustainability are equally important.
  2. We are social creatures and will always require offline, face-to-face interactions with others.
  3. Our social connections must go deeper than fleeting encounters with random individuals.
  4. Living a Global Lifestyle does not by default mean that we are traveling considerably more than a person earning a medium income that takes a couple of vacations a year. It is not about a new form of jet-set existence.
  5. Travel is here to stay so let’s not try to fight that but rather, let’s find alternatives to air travel and/or acceptable ways to offset it.
  6. Travel alone is not a good indicator of a person’s eco-footprint.
  7. Maximum productivity can only be achieved once one has an established series of carefully chosen and fully developed nodes from which s/he lives.