6.9 Editor's Pick
August 29, 2021

I was Committed to Sustainability & then I Stopped Recycling.

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This is a standard photo of me as a toddler in the 80s. I am usually covered in dirt next to my favourite animal of the moment.

For a kid growing up in suburbia, I found myself amongst more animals than most. My dad always made sure we had a bunch of chickens, and my mum indulged my desperate need for rodents, fish, birds, dogs.

There was a time when my pet duck, Wally, followed me around the neighbourhood wherever I went. We were allowed anything but cats.

My Dutch next-door neighbours lived on a large block of land and had a personal zoo of exotic animals. This included colourful parrots that from memory surpassed my size and masses of tiny, unusual quails. Looking back, I now realize that owning most of this bird life was no doubt illegal. Nevertheless, I would spend every afternoon gleefully feeding these strange birds and cleaning their cages for free, for fun.

I naturally synched with science at school, and by the end of my schooling, I had a full load of natural studies. I took University of Sydney’s first Environmental Science bachelor, rolling soil boluses and analysing mollusk structures. Along the way, I was told if I wanted a job, I was in the wrong course.

I learnt about climate change for the first time and was horrified. I marvelled that people had known about it since the 70s and done little. I volunteered for years in government and not-for-profit to improve my chances of getting a “real job.” I visited the South Pacific and researched the impact of domestic violence on social fabric and then traversed across South America, working on reforestation and water sanitisation projects.

After applying for hundreds of jobs, I remember running around the house squealing when I secured my first one. It was in local government—an Environmental Projects Officer. I spent years in love with my work, running community programs on recycling and worm farming, and trying to influence greener property development processes and more funding for urban biodiversity corridors. I made natural cleaning products and cosmetics and lived and breathed the basics of an environmentally friendly existence.

In my mid-20s, I wanted to make a “bigger” difference and moved into campaigning for climate change policy. After a long few days of meeting politicians, I scored a lift home with some of my senior colleagues. They stopped to get fast food; I was horrified. I mentioned how important I thought composting was as an example of micro versus macro efforts and was met with laughter. I was told that policy and politics were where it was at; all the other stuff was piecemeal, cute even.

Once dropped off outside my apartment, I dragged my heels inside, tears stinging my tired eyes, embarrassed, and surprised. I was left questioning my sustainability ideals.

In my mind, the holy grail of campaigning wasn’t what I had made it out to be. I left not-for-profit and went headfirst into what my friends described as the “dark side”—the private sector. I convinced myself I could make more of an impact if I could speak the “right” language.

So I learnt what sustainability meant to corporations. I learnt how to persuade and to sell. Years later, I found myself burnt out from roles based on influencing. I watched the advances the world was making in technology and jumped into software development. In the end, I cordoned off my passion for sustainability to my private life in the everyday activities that I could control.

I recall one evening watching a popular Australian show called “War on Waste.” The host uncovers a waste bin in a well-to-do suburb and finds recyclables that will go to landfill. I shook my head in disgust; I wondered what type of person couldn’t be bothered to recycle.

Then my life took an almighty turn. I was 36-weeks pregnant, and I found out my unborn baby had a serious heart condition. What followed was months of trauma and anxiety. I returned to work well before I was ready as a full-time-working-single-mum. Then my sister was diagnosed with leukaemia, and I dealt with the divorce from hell.

One day, on autopilot, I noticed I was throwing my recyclable plastics into my waste bin. And I did it anyway. I was exhausted and distracted. My priority was speed, getting the garbage out quickly to minimise the time my son was left alone. And it kept happening. I felt remorse at the beginning but not enough to stop. I just didn’t have the bandwidth; I was barely keeping myself above water, physically, sleep-deprived, and mentally and emotionally stretched beyond what I imagined possible.

This behaviour began spilling out into other areas like using the clothes dryer constantly and buying far more single use options. Small things in the scheme of things, “cute” even, but big deals to what I saw as the previous me.

This difficult time in my life gave me many epiphanies. I had learnt early on in my career that knowledge didn’t equal behavioural change, but I had never truly empathised with the importance of everyone thriving to keeping our planet safe. I recognised that my situation, though difficult, was hardly the worst. I had financial means. But my need for speed and convenience was essential, given the pressure I was under even with my deep sustainability convictions.

Since this time, I have realised that the only way we can achieve sustainability is to lift everyone well above survival mode. Everyone. And survival not just being food, water, shelter; in my case it included sleep, safety, and support. Once my life evened out to include these again, my previous behaviours returned to my sustainability status quo.

The concept of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) is embedded in the idea of lifting everyone in our society up to thrive and to making the “green transition” feasible. However, the jury is out on the impact UBI could have on individual well-being and global sustainability.

I get more excited by what has emerged from this discussion—the idea of Universal Basic Services. As Anna Coote, author and Principal Fellow at the New Economics Foundation preaches, strengthening the welfare state includes essentials other than money that must be considered for people to thrive. Essentials like mental health, safety, and community connection.

I have learnt there is no division in the importance of a sustainable world and initiatives, such as welcoming refugees, increasing individual mental health, supporting a neighbour who is struggling, or global climate policy. I now appreciate, if you or I are not okay, if you are not thriving, we are all going to suffer and so is the environment.

I now see a whole range of new efforts that add up to a sustainable future that I never recognised before, and this leaves me hopeful. If we are bettering one another’s lives to thrive, then we are bettering that of the planets.

There is literally so much each of us can do to build one another up, to build connection and support across our communities.

This vastness of possibility to help buoys me, especially in times when I am feeling unsure of this planets future.

~

 

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