An interview with Pooran Desai, OBE, Co-Founder of Bioregional and International Director of One Planet Communities

Cundall shares the One Planet vision of a sustainable world in which people everywhere can enjoy a high quality of life within the productive capacity of the planet, with ample space remaining for wildlife and wilderness. So what better than to talk to Pooran Desai, the co-founder of Bioregional, to find out how One Planet Living came about?

When did you first become interested in sustainability?

I studied medical sciences and neurosciences at Oxford and Cambridge, and became very interested in how the environment affects health. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to have healthy individuals without having a healthy planet.

Back in the early 1990s, I volunteered for environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and permaculture groups, but realised that sustainable activities could be – and had to be – made into enterprises supporting a paid workforce. My first ventures were into supporting traditional woodland management through building the UK market for local barbecue charcoal and a sustainable forestry in the south east of England. The former business developed throughout the UK supported 70 woodland workers, from Cornwall to the Highlands of Scotland. The second provided employment for six workers, most formerly unemployed, in a rewarding way of life. Processing tree surgeons’ waste into biofuel was an offshoot of that and ultimately we worked in partnership with Croydon Council to set up an operation that processed 10,000 tonnes of waste per year in biomass fuel for projects that includes the combined heat and power plant at the London Olympic Village.

So where did Bioregional begin?

Bioregional was created in 1994. The name comes from a US concept of bio-regions, areas defined by their distinct natural eco-systems. My wife, Bioregional Co-Founder Sue Riddlestone, and I decided this conveyed and reflected the organisation’s links to the land; managing land sustainably and using waste productively, as well as the need to integrate human lives back into their natural eco-systems.

Your office is at BedZED in south London, the first large-scale eco-community in the UK. How did that happen?

We were growing out of our offices in an ecology centre run by Borough of Sutton Council, so I approached the Council to see if there was any land available for a commercial new build. They did not have commercial land available, but did have some they were selling for residential use that could incorporate an element of commercial development. So Bioregional, working with Bill Dunster Architects, ARUP and the Peabody Trust, created what became BedZED – the Beddington Zero Energy Development. And Bioregional is now based in part of the 2,000m2 commercial and community space developed as part of the site.

So how did One Planet Living come about?

We had always thoroughly researched our projects, both before undertaking them and during their running: enterprise and research & development went hand in hand.  This became acute when 27 research projects on the BedZED development produced masses of relevant, useful and exciting data. But the problem was how to put it into a format that would be user friendly. Sustainability was itself a relatively abstract concept, and masses of facts and figures tended to be difficult to present in a way that related to people’s everyday lives. At the time we started to model performance against Ecological Footprint, which matched our demands on the planet with the ability of productive land and sea to meet those demands. So One Planet Living was born.

The challenge grew out of the simple statement: if all people lived like the average European, we would need three planets worth of resources to support us. The solution was the corollary: a world in which people everywhere can lead happy, healthy lives within the means of our one planet. We then led a process to create ten guiding principles of sustainability which have evolved slightly over the past 15 years and comprise:

  • Health & happiness
  • Equity & local economy
  • Culture & community
  • Land & nature
  • Sustainable water
  • Local & sustainable food
  • Travel and transport
  • Sustainable products and materials
  • Zero waste
  • Zero carbon energy

These form the basis of a One Planet Action Plan, which outlines the strategies, targets and actions to achieve One Planet Living – a route map which can be monitored and adapted over time.

Bioregional has helped organisations and communities implement the One Planet Living framework in some 20 countries, with the easy to use online tools that help create and monitor the plans downloaded in 64 countries.

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