On The Hunt

So here I am saying I want to visit one innovative sustainability project after another as I ride up the east coast of Australia. What do I even mean by an ‘innovative sustainability project’, and how do I go about identifying these places to visit? The hunt for these projects starts now, as I begin to plan my route.

Sustainability means different things to different people, such as recycling, growing your own veges, solar panels on your roof, or riding a bicycle. Personally, it’s a word I get tired of hearing. At its most basic, the word is defined as reducing the depletion of natural resources to a rate that can be sustained for the long term. But it’s become a marketing buzzword that’s often used to sell us more stuff that we don’t really need, or as green-washing by large corporations and industry.

I have a particular interest in sustainability projects that aim to tackle the wicked environmental problems of our time — those environmental problems that are complex, large-scale, with many stakeholders, and notoriously difficult to solve — such as climate change, pollution, land degradation, and ecosystem collapse.

As I understand it, there are several theories for what direction our society needs to take if we’re to succeed. One idea is that we all need to revert to a simpler, more agrarian lifestyle where we all consume far less. Another is that we need to engineer our way to a sustainable future by developing sophisticated eco-friendly technologies for all facets of our society. The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

It will likely involve a mix of education, government legislation and technological innovation. For example, solar panels only saw mass take up when they had been developed enough to become cheaper than buying electricity from the grid. Fluorescent light bulbs became the norm only after our government banned the less efficient incandescent bulbs. They say that cultural change happens before political or corporate change, not the other way around, and this requires widespread education and advocacy.

As awareness of these sustainability problems spreads, more people are putting their efforts into solving them, with a huge range of ideas being trialled. Many of the ideas I hear about seem destined to remain on the fringe. Personally, I find it hard to imagine all of us going off-the-grid, growing all our own food and making all our own clothes and other necessities. But then maybe I’m not imagining hard enough. I’m sure we’d all benefit from moving part of the way in that direction, simplifying our lives and getting more in touch with where our food and resources come from. Either way, with each of these ideas people are pioneering new ways of living and being, exploring just what is possible.

I’m interested in all these ideas and innovations, but I’m particularly interested in those that have scope for widespread implementation by the mainstream of society. I think that for a long while to come people will continue to get their self-worth and identity from owning more stuff, and will continue to opt for convenience or a cheaper price. We’ll continue to drive cars and fly in planes if we can afford it. Industry will continue to be wasteful and polluting if it’s cheaper and they can get away with it. How are people tackling this? What ideas are being trialled that might change mainstream behaviour or make these activities more sustainable?

There will need to be changes in many areas of our lives, such as the way we produce our energy, food, water and shelter; the way we deal with our waste and sewerage; and other domestic activities such as cleaning and personal hygiene. We’ll also need to address areas of our society such as transport, entertainment, health and medicine, schooling, building construction, community support, and more. What sustainability innovations are happening in these fields?

These are all things I hope to explore.

Talking about environmental problems and sustainability can get pretty depressing. I’m searching for good-news-stories and hoping to get inspired. I want to hear about that guy who is building tiny houses out of upcycled materials; or the sewerage treatment plant that is capturing methane to generate electricity; or the supermarket that’s moved towards zero waste. I want to check out the freight company that is powering their fleet of trucks on renewable electricity; or the art gallery that’s cleaning up heavy metals in the river using oysters; or the school where they’ve transformed the way they do sustainability education.

I’ve started my search by reaching out to old contacts of mine from when I worked in renewable energy as an engineer and later as a community organiser. Slowly I’m getting a feel for what’s out there and generating a list of potential projects to visit. Some of these contacts have put me in touch with other people who are providing even more ideas. And so my list grows.

I would also love your help! If you’ve heard of an innovative sustainability project that you think I should check out, or if you know someone who could provide some ideas, then please get in touch!