Trimming the Green: How We Are Failing Sustainability

When I was looking into potential University degrees a decade ago, what sold it for me was the promise that the twenty-first century would be the green century; whole new fields of green jobs are just beyond the horizon, begging for graduates in the coming years.

So far, my career has had little to do with my field of study. If anything, I’ve tried to make the most of my ecological and natural resource training within chemical analyst and technical roles.

Of course, I haven’t let this stop me. Back in Adelaide, I communicated with anyone whom had a similar field of interest and gained some valuable experience from it. For instance, I undertook a training seminar provided by the SA EPA for businesses in Eco-mapping and developed a proposal for a joint business and state government development venture called “Young Professionals for Climate Protection”  which I submitted to the Department of Premier and Cabinet whilst contributing to The State of the Environment report for SA, 2008.

However, time and time again, over the following years these networks returned the same response to my desire to push my career towards what drives me, namely sustainability to human activity; “There is no money for future roles. If anything, we need to cut back.”

How, if green jobs are the future and we are continually told of the numerous green industries growing, is this sentiment so persistent? Moreover, why are we cutting back on efficiency and sustainability roles across the board ever more so over the past four years of economic uncertainty? After all, the aim of such practices is to lower overheads. Sustainability is not about luxury items.

I would argue that the green movement was quickly usurped by various façades and rendered mute at best.

Greenwashing is perhaps the best known example of this, where shelf items make claims that really do not provide the environmental benefits being suggested. The dedicated initiatives aimed to discredit the science behind anthropogenic climate change is yet another.

Over all, I find a lot of people now treat sustainability like they do politics and religion over the dinner table. It is simply taboo.

So now we are at a point, a decade into the “green” twenty first century, where the sustainability groups within large private and public bodies are the first and hardest hit when the belt needs to be tightened and, apart from the supermarket shelves, it is no longer “cool” to talk or advocate any point on resilience, environmentalism, sustainability or decarbonizing our energy supply. Often, such work is discredited as slightly evangelical.

I think we professionals have failed to articulate the message meaningfully. I also suspect that our aims have often translated to being less humanistic than we would like them to be.

In truth, we are not talking about saving species for species sake, but because we understand the value ecosystems provide us and that species form the nuts, bolts and cogs of ecosystems that allow it to function.

We are also talking about mitigation and adaptation with climate change not because we are anti-progress, but because we can see the only real avenue for long-term prosperity comes from buttressing up our human environments against storm surges and to ensure that the climate does not shift too far outside of the Holocene; which has been of immense value to the development of our species.

We may even speak of finite resources or resource renewal rates and the obvious limits to growth and thus concerns over population.

What we are trying to sell is the good deal and instead it has been treated with scepticism, some of which is expected – it is a relatively new theory after all, regardless how well researched – but not all of it is merited.

Like any revolutionary change, it will be fringe and so we should be happy to treat it as such – market it in the same way we would nanotechnology, robotics, space exploration etc, for all these topics come from the same place; our future. We should be excited. Case studies too set the scene.

Yet all of this requires ambition, long-term vision, creativity and, most importantly the entrepreneurial spirit willing to take a chance.

I like to think of cities where streetscapes are used to advertise just how astonishing we can be, if we allow ourselves to be. Think of vertical gardens or of a gutted building turned into a park. How about fruit trees down open walking malls or an unexpected ecosystem oasis in the middle of four million people. Even artists, willing to work with biology to produce strange new forms of expression. Or how about radical ways to handle water capture, treatment use for improved water security.

I have a few ideas of my own.

Everything we do should be placed in a humanistic way. It is about lowering our energy and water bills. It is about providing good quality fresh fruit and vegetables for our children. It is about improving our way of life so that we can enjoy it as much as possible. This is the fringing view we offer as the alternative to business as usual and we have yet to convince the general public of its worth.

If we want to see real change, it starts by setting the scene and selling a realistic future that is obtainable and more desirable than that we currently know.

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