Why The Environment?

My Mum was what you might call a practical environmentalist. Her parents spent a big part of their life in Tasmania, so from an early age Christmas presents were Wilderness Society diaries and pictures of Tasmanian forests. Through Mum’s influence, I understood very clearly that there’s only one planet. We only get to use natural resources once and the current way of doing things is not sustainable. I actually don’t know if she was a Green voter or not, but the Green ethos was certainly instilled in me from an early age. Another of my earliest memories is of Dad, a social worker from a working-class background, shouting at the television, “Don’t the Liberals understand that not everyone can look after themselves.” Sometimes people fall on hard times, and you have to look after them when they do. And so it’s been the twin drivers of social justice and care for the environment that have propelled me since childhood.

Through Mum’s influence, I understood very clearly that there’s only one planet. We only get to use natural resources once and the current way of doing things is not sustainable.

At university, I studied under the Australian environmental philosopher, Patsy Hallen, who helped to solidify my early influences into an intellectual framework. Underpinning that framework was the realisation that how we relate to the natural world is essential to our understanding of what it means to be human. Why do we instinctively want to take our shoes off when we walk on grass? Why is it that we can innately feel at peace when sitting among trees or next to a river? Why does a visit to the forest near Toolangi or a run with the dogs in Royal Park enrich my soul? These are everyday things, but for me they are the deepest of things. There’s a powerful pull to the natural world. To live in a city and be surrounded by concrete and buildings is to understand that we’ve managed to change the world around us to suit our needs. But human endeavour, and by extension politics, must be about balance. It’s not the natural world that we need to master, it’s our relationship with the natural world. I don’t think we’ve got that one right just yet.

My philosophy is not anti-progress, but it does recognise that it’s wrong to assume that the planet’s resources will be infinitely available to us. It’s not only wrong in a practical sense – someday resources are going to run out – but the problem of living beyond our means warps us as people. Human beings don’t live full lives while believing that the world around them is there solely to chop down or dig up to create products for us to consume. Our relationship to nature can’t just be one of domination. Human creativity, one of the great driving forces of history, has enabled massive advancement of societies, but we must work out a different way of applying creativity to ensure our future is sustainable. Life becomes a constant tussle of societal advancement while understanding our limits; to learn that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Sustainable advancement means believing in creativity but also responsibility, because we’ve become very good at the ‘can do’ but not so good at the ‘should do’.

Why do we instinctively want to take our shoes off when we walk on grass?

Why is it that we can innately feel at peace when sitting among trees or next to a river?

While working as a lawyer in the mid-2000s, representing some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, I began reading deeply about climate change, which became a pivotal issue for me. Previously I’d assumed that although it was a significant problem, there were people working on it and I thought it would get fixed. I focused my attention on other areas, because there were many social justice issues that needed addressing. However, I soon began to understand the scale and urgency of the problem and the comparatively short amount of time left to turn the ship around. I decided to get more deeply involved and in 2007 I quit my job and ran as a Greens candidate for the first time.

I made that choice because we’re at a point in human history that is fragile yet filled with possibility. We’re facing the collapse of entire ecosystems and threats to our way of life in a way that we’ve never faced before. Yet on the other hand, we have the technology, know-how and interconnectedness to be able to deal with those threats in a way we couldn’t possibly have in previous generations. We can turn the sun and wind into light and power. We’ve developed amazing logistical and technological capacities to the point where the solutions to many of the world’s problems are questions of commitment rather than feasibility. We have all the capabilities in our brains and in our machines, but at the same time we face an imminent threat from a changing climate. To address the latter with the former, we need a clear vision of where we want to go and a well thought out roadmap of how we’re going to get there.

People are fed up with their leaders being technocrats and being told that the rules of the game can’t change. They don’t want politicians to become managers on the road to inequality and climate collapse. It’s daunting to be confronted with the science of climate change and to take a coldly analytical look at impending catastrophe. One can’t help but be worried, but the flip side is a fundamental belief that if humanity can get itself into this mess, it can also get itself out. Significant changes have been made in societies before and sometimes the normal order of things will be ‘here today’ and ‘gone tomorrow’. Societies can quickly shift to a different way of thinking and behaving. In the face of collapsing ecosystems and threats to equality, human creativity is boundless. I’m privileged to peak behind a lot of doors in my job, where I get to see social entrepreneurs and scientists working together to solve energy problems in innovative ways. It’s those initiatives that we must encourage and that’s what keeps me optimistic.

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