World Environment Day

Snow Flats, ACT

World Environment Day is a time to reflect on nature's benefits and the actions we can take to reciprocate the gift. We can’t live without air, water, shelter, fibre and food and the natural world provides these ecosystem services, even in a world increasingly sophisticated and ‘virtual’. Canberrans have one of the highest rates of educational achievement and live in the midst of ‘world –class research infrastructure’ -  yet our ecological footprint is an astounding 8.9 hectares per person!

Photo: Mark Jekabsons

Nature - We can't live without it 

Kate Auty 5.6.16

World Environment Day is a time to have a ‘hard chat’ about the benefits of nature and the actions we can take to reciprocate the gift. 

Simply, we can’t live without air, water, shelter, fibre and food, and the natural world provides all of these ecosystem services, even in a world increasingly sophisticated and ‘virtual’.

If you go to a doctor in Finland you are likely to be told to spend a day in a woodland to improve your health.  Kids in Nature and Nature Play organisations all over the world demonstrate the benefits of children spending time in the environment. 

World Environment Day is a time when I take stock of how I am tracking in respect of my environmental footprint.  On this day (and it would be good if every day was World Environment Day) we need to pause to consider many issues. For instance, equity:  as we know women and children in developing countries are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts.  Ecological threats, environmental trends and aspirations and the urgent challenge of addressing climate change demand immediate action.

As I drink coffee from my ‘keep cup’, I consider how I can live more simply, consume less ‘stuff’ and produce less waste.  

On the issue of ‘stuff’, the Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (University of Canberra), tells us that Canberrans have one of the highest rates of educational achievement and live in the midst of ‘world –class research infrastructure’ -  yet our ecological footprint is an astounding 8.9 hectares per person!

So, I and probably you should start a conversation on World Environment Day about how we can improve.

However, we must not forget to celebrate our achievements - big and little, personal, professional, in our offices and beyond. Many of the things we can do will involve climbing molehills, not mountains. This makes things achievable, real and relevant but it can also make us think ‘what’s the point’?

Water refill station

Water refill stations have been installed in well used public spaces in Canberra by the ACT Government. They encourage people to drink water and help reduce rubbish generated from plastic single-use water bottles. Photo: Edwina Robinson

Three bins in the tea room might not seem like a world-saving achievement but these initiatives have ripple effects. Light sensors, LEDs, refillable water bottles and public water stations, a bicycle fleet and encouraging active travel through lunchtime walks may seem small beer, but it adds up.  A community participating in change sends a potentially powerful message to our representatives.

There is a significant reason for us to scale molehills. It is fundamental to intergenerational equity: caring for the young people who we hope will not have to scale mountains because we failed on the smaller hurdles.

In some settings I hear that we need to engage youth more effectively in environmental action and causes so that they can take up the baton.  To this I say two things.  Firstly, I would prefer that we don’t ask a six year old to do the work we fail to do ourselves. 

And in a related way I also ask - do we really need to crank up the pressure on youth?  I am frequently struck by the effort young people are already making in their daily lives.

Young people ride their bikes to school.  I see them milling on the bike paths around Lyneham High every morning.  They are not responsible for the emissions and particulate pollution from vehicles. With their teachers young people establish and tend school gardens (and sometimes make way for grandparents and others to assist). 

In schools all over the country young people monitor their energy, water and waste data. This is encouraging on a number of fronts as they are acquiring the skills they will need for 21st century jobs. They are providing leadership to their peers and are taking messages of change home to family members. Bravo!

I vividly recall being at a school assembly in the Middle Kinglake Primary School – rebuilt after the 2009 Victorian fires. There, shrugging off the trauma, students had rebuilt their decimated school garden and were enthusiastically reciting details about the few grams of waste produced on their ‘nude food’ day, to an avid parental audience.

In a parched landscape in western Victoria, I was privileged to visit a school where students recycled books, bibles, glasses frames, cans and bottles, computers and bicycles – taking the collection to the Rotary Depot in Melbourne from where it was distributed.  They used recycled timber in their woodwork class, maintained a wetland, collected and propagated local native seed and raised stock for the local agricultural show.  They called this ‘agricultural science’. I called it sustainability best practice. When I spoke about their achievements at the Country Women’s Association AGM the audience erupted with applause.

Victorian school children are not alone. Many great sustainability and environmental initiatives happen in Canberra’s schools with the assistance of ACTsmart. http://www.actsmart.act.gov.au/what-can-i-do/schools/actsmart-schools.

This youthful enthusiasm for doing things is playing out in other ways.

My Office, with our focus on sustainability and the environment, has been delighted to be actively involved with the Parliament of Youth since 2013  http://www.see-change.org.au/parliamentofyouth/. This is a youth and sustainability focused project run through SEE-change, a not-for-profit community organisation.

2016 Parliament of Youth

Nearly 300 students from 29 schools attended the Parliament of Youth on Sustainability - the aim was to provide one key action to reduce Canberra's environmental footprint. Suggestions included: improving School's courtyards, installing wind turbines in unused land around Canberra, all schools and universities to have a vegetable garden, Canberra-wide campaign for electricity reduction, a free-bus-Friday and
Introduce a carbon-footprint food product rating system. Photo: SEE-change

In 2015, students presented on climate change actions. Last month, almost 300 students from Kindergarten to Year 12 from 29 schools presented one key action to reduce Canberra’s environmental footprint. Later in the year, a number of these young parliamentarians will present their proposals in front of Members of the Legislative Assembly.  

Young people’s commitment to these ‘hard chats’ suggests to me that we have a deep and willing resource already amongst those who will inherent the earth. We fully expect, as the next Parliaments are convened, to be judging apps, videos and clever infographics, and when this happens we will be the ones playing catch up.

Importantly the message this conveys is that participation gives us cause for quiet celebration. World Environment Day is the day we reflect on this and the day we should all build on the work being done.

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