Sustainable Living Festival: Melbourne 6-28 Feb.

Looking for some action this February in Melbourne? A smorgasbord of sustainability ideas are served up to you on a platter at the Sustainable Living Festival in and around the streets of Melbourne – can’t wait!

The Sustainable Living Festival aims to accelerate the uptake of sustainable living and seeks solutions to global warming that will return the planet to a safe climate as fast as humanly possible. The Festival raises awareness and provides tools for change by showcasing leading solutions to the ecological and social challenges we face.
The Festival’s three week program engages individuals and communities across Victoria to host and promote sustainability events. Celebrating the very best examples of ecological and social sustainability the event embraces interactive workshops, talks, demonstrations, artworks, exhibits, films and live performances

Waste Mining: The New Boom

The concept of a circular metabolism for our urban society is a fundamental key to creating a vision for a sustainable future. Rather than continuing with the linear model of resource use that western society has historically followed, we can create a model that values far more highly the materials we use and the resources required to produce them. This in turn reduces the need for new inputs, by reusing and recycling what we’ve already produced and which is freely available as waste.

Circular Vs. Linear Metabolism (

This concept of waste mining was championed by Jane Jacobs, who believed that economies of scale particularly within cities allowed for significant environmental and economic potential. She created the “metaphor of cities being the ‘urban mines’ of the future…Rather than extracting resources from finite natural resources she envisages a future where we will mine urban waste for many of the raw materials we need” (Rudlin & Falk 1999, 164).

Rudlin and Falk’s book ‘Building the 21st Century Home: The Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood’ identifies how this is already happening in so many ways, from the ubiquitous recycling of paper, glass and aluminium to Op-Shops, second hand clothing and furniture stores, and scrap yards. Further, old newspaper is used for home insulation and power station ash for concrete manufacture. All of these are key examples of waste mining, and as is highlighted, these activities are not driven by “environmental consciousness but by commercial principles”(Rudlin & Falk 1999, 164). The whole idea is that you create employment and economic activity that benefits the local community and is sustainable for the foreseeable future.

Personal electronic waste. Photo: S. Powell

All of this theory was reflected in my own needs this week. I had a box load of electronic ‘waste’ in the cupboard that was doing nothing but collect dust. An old laptop, DVD players, camera’s, an mp3, cables etc, that either don’t work or are now surplus to requirements. What to do with them? Determined not to see them go into landfill, I started to look for a local solution. My first stop was Officeworks, but their interest goes only so far as recycling computers and laptops, and whilst they recommended I call other larger stores who may be more accommodating the story was the same – nobody wanted to take everything that I had. Being inherently lazy I was looking for a one stop solution, and as chance would have it, I found it. The first hint was a page on Moreland Councils website about a trial program for electrical appliance reuse and repair. It mentioned a donation bin was available at the Moreland Civic Centre, so I whipped down on my bike for a reconnoissance mission. Unfortunately the bin also wouldn’t take all that I had (so many rules) but finally I had narrowed down my options – I could deliver my box load of electrical goodies to the good people at Bright Sparks Australia, only a hop-skip and a jump away in Hadfield.

Bright Sparks Australia encapsulate perfectly this concept of a circular metabolism, of creating economic prosperity and environmental good by mining the waste we produce in truckloads and keeping it out of landfill. As a social enterprise and registered charity, they focus on reuse and repair, but responsibly recycle anything beyond help. For the time being they are funded through to March 2016, but by using their services you support the project and hopefully its longterm existence within our local area. How much storage space is taken up in your home by electronics you don’t need or use? Lets give them a new life.

October is Food Month

How we produce, consume and dispose of food is critical to creating a sustainable future for cities.

image courtesy of
image courtesy of

October is a hotbed of foody action for you to explore, with anything from organics, nutrition, carbon footprints and food security all getting an opportunity to promote their value. Jump on-line to explore in more detail:

Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?

My Mum passed on a book she thought I’d be interested in the last time we caught up, which is a pretty simple act in the context of a modern and technologically sophisticated world, but remains a powerful method for sharing ideas and challenging the status quo.

Image courtesy of Penguin Australia
Image courtesy of Penguin Australia

In this case the book was an essay by Luke Slattery – ‘Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?’, published by Penguin Specials in 2012. To place him historically, Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who predated Christ by three centuries, and it was fascinating to read that centuries later the movement remained robust, active and relevant. So much so that it was in direct competition with the evolving Christian religion for the spiritual hearts and minds of the local populace, perhaps even had the better of, before it was overtaken and largely forgotten. One of those sliding door moments that could, perhaps, have led to a radically different world to the one we inhabit today.

The essence of Slattery’s writing is that Epicurus’ teachings suggested happiness can only be achieved through a simplification of our lives, to want less, to need less, to find joy and fulfilment through friendship, simple pleasures and living in the present. He also, radically, rejected the Gods, the concept of fate or an after life, extolling to his followers the capacity they had for personal agency within their own lives and communities, and that nothing mattered but the here and now – no paradise came after.

Slattery takes these ideas and transposes them onto the biggest challenge we face today, unsustainable development. Relentless, exponentially increasing consumption is at the heart of our global economic system, constant growth as a necessary force for attaining prosperity, for social justice and equity. The question is, can we decouple human development, fulfilment and happiness from this desire for more stuff? Because if we can’t, our future appears to be very bleak, both for the civilisation we have created and our species as a whole.

What fascinates me about this book is the timeless quality of human frailty. Almost 2,500 years ago the people of ancient Greece were worried about the impact on our wellbeing of a propensity for greed, of striving for power, of desire for wealth and material goods. These concerns are not unique to our time, to our own manifestation of neoliberalism, consumerism, globalisation, industrialisation and free markets. We aren’t special in that regard, as Epicurus’ concern is both deeply spiritual and enduring – how do we achieve human happiness? What is unique about our modern world is that greed and desire on a global industrial scale has the capacity to significantly alter or destroy the eco-system services we rely upon to supply our life giving needs – air, food and water.

The key question for me is how do we create the required transformation of our socio-economic system? How do we shift billions of people away from a life based upon material aspirations? My sense is that this is not about a search for answers. Epicurus, amongst other philosophical traditions, has provided a sound basis for living our lives sustainably. Similarly, climate change as an issue could be largely resolved with the technology and knowledge we already have available, it is only the political will that is fundamentally lacking. We have to want to change, we have to be motivated to change, we have to be given a positive vision of what change will mean and look like. Perhaps most of all, we need to know that we are not on this journey alone, that we are part of a broad community movement. I’m not a practitioner of any organised religion, but I recognise the urgent need to emotionally engage and unite society with the biggest challenge it has ever faced, and the potential of religion to teach us how to bring people together for a common moral/ethical cause. It’s a funky collaboration, science and religion, but if the process isn’t collaborative and inclusive what chance do we stand?

Walking to School Month

I don’t read my local newspaper with too many expectations. Stories seem to sit on the extreme ends of a spectrum – either outrage and indignation (think local government planning decisions) or sugary sweet (remarkable escape and return of family pet from tree/stormwater drain/garbage truck). There must be a tried and tested formula because its been done this way for as long as I can recall, across the numerous suburbs I’ve called home. But they do come into their own sharing community information that isn’t going to make the headlines anywhere else. Case in point, I was flipping through the pages of a recent edition and came across a story from our local Council promoting an event I’d never heard of, Walk to School Month. As a parent of a Grade 2 and soon to be Prep, I thought I had my finger on the pulse regard the complete range of available events and activities for children, assisting me in either avoiding them at all costs or to donate my own children for experimentation.

Its a straight forward program, VicHealth encourages students to walk, scoot or ride to school throughout October to help them achieve their 60 minutes of physical exercise per day. As its 2015 there’s a website and an app, and competitions and prizes to engage and motivate the participation of the kids and parents, which say’s something fairly significant about our current relationship with the original method of human transportation. More interesting to me are the benefits associated with participation. Improved health outcomes are obvious, and with rising levels of obesity in the developed world, as opposed to the malnutrition prevalent in many developing countries, its a community and social issue we need to be right on top of. From a sustainability standpoint I was immediately hooked by the opportunity to take cars off the streets, the reduced congestion leading to easier and safer access to the school, and the associated reduction in air and noise pollution. Lastly, the potential to improve parent/child relationships is also promoted, a very different and unique dynamic being in play when you walk or ride alongside each other as opposed to the inherent distractions of driving.

At this point I should put up my hand and declare that we are serial walkers/riders to school. As a one-car-family it is partly born of necessity, but more influential is my own experience as a student. Going to school on the Northern Beaches of Sydney in the 1970’s and 80’s meant a return walk of 5km’s on my little legs with Mum, and when there was enough money and I was deemed responsible enough, I got a bike and was on my own. Eventually a bus option became available, but we were feral and frequently in trouble, and being driven to school was a rare and exotic treat. So riding (or walking when the bike was either intermittently broken, missing or stolen) was always the best option. It meant being responsible enough to be on your own and the personal freedom that entails, it meant meandering conversations with my group of friends as we collected each other along the way, it meant uncountable bike races, bike crashes, and the freewheeling glide down the hill from my house, before the long climb back up in the afternoon.

Its sounds idyllic but lets face it, life was different. There was more time, more space, less material things, less organised activities and lessons to improve and advance your children. I wanted my boys to experience a little bit of my own childhood, perhaps in meek response to them growing up as Victorians and AFL obsessives. We’re certainly not the only family that walks or rides to school, there are a number of die-hards who we regularly meet or pass on the way regardless of the weather or season, but the traffic congestion on the streets surrounding our school at drop off and pickup times is increasingly intense, a battlefield to find a parking spot while passing traffic builds up and makes increasingly hazardous attempts to squeeze past.

I might be lucky but my eldest son loves to ride his bike, picture Elliot in E.T., without E.T. in a basket on the handle bars.

Image courtesy of Sean Powell
Image courtesy of Sean Powell

It’s an extension of his body and his personality – always smiling, always contemplative, always finding a way to beat Dad at something. We take our time to and from school, we feel the heat, the cold, the wind, the rain, and make appropriate complaints and recriminations to the weather gods. We stop and temporarily supervise road works and trench digging, memorise the make of vehicles by their badges, check out for sale signs on houses and fight over who’d get the biggest bedroom, pick up sticks and run them along fences, or pinch flowers overhanging footpaths and growing on nature strips to bring home to Mum. Nothing very deep or consequential, just hanging out and watching the world go by together.

If anything is going to successfully motivate necessary change in the 21st century its going to be the inherent joy and happiness felt through experiences and activities like this. As a motivator for walking or riding to school, its good to know that its helping to keep us healthy, and my personal sense of superiority is enhanced by the environmental do-gooding but none of these are in themselves motivating enough to make it part of our every day lives. We’re too short sighted, too busy, too lazy, too easily distracted or led astray. We do it because it makes us happy, because it clears the head after a day of toil and gives some precious personal time with my children whilst they’re still young enough to think thats a good thing. We do it because in combination, factors like this make it the best option. Instilling the necessary attitudes and habits to ensure that many of todays challenges are stabilised, reduced and even eliminated in the future is best done at an early age. It worked for me.

People’s Climate March November 27-29 2015

Coming up in November is the world wide ‘Peoples Climate March’ event. With momentum building towards the Paris Climate Conference, what better way to get involved in your nearest city (and way cheaper than a ticket to Paris). From what I can ascertain on the web and the airwaves, every group you can imagine engaged with the environment or issues of social justice and equality is facilitating participation at the event.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Check for your local arrangements, put the date in your calendar, and if you’re in Melbourne (November 27th, 5.30pm) I hope we’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder.

World Cities Day October 31st 2015

Is it coincidence that the UN’s World Cities Day falls on the same day as Halloween? I’m imagining a zombie apocalypse tearing through the streets of New York as a fantastic awareness raiser.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

This years theme is based on promoting togetherness and harmony, making our cities and neighbourhoods inclusive and liveable (definitely not Zombies then).