Sunday, April 20, 2008

green 2nd impressions

This is the first in a series of posts about my deeper impressions of Melbourne and Australian culture. I don’t claim to be an expert: we’ve only been here for two months now, and I know I have a lot to learn. But I find what I see around me to be fascinating, and y’all keep asking about this place, so here’s what I’ve noticed.


There is a country-wide environmental ethic here. Everyone's well-informed about environmental issues, every local government and company is doing everything they can (or seeming to) to be more green.

Environmentally-friendly products are all the rage: organic is quite common, even for clothing cotton. Half the booths at the food market are exclusively organic. Trendy t-shirts that say "Listen to your mother" with a picture of the earth, "Respect Planet Earth," "I love the planet," "stop killing whales," and the like are the most popular for hip kiddos. The biggest department store in the city, Myers (like Macys) currently has filled all of their display windows with their newest line of eco-friendly clothing. You can find 100% post-consumer recycled toilet paper at any grocery store, tiny inner-city convenience stores stock all-natural dish soap and laundry detergent… you get the idea. And the best part: these products are only a tiny bit more expensive than their non-organic counterparts.

It’s not just products that are above the eco-norm: Everyone uses cloth shopping bags, and you get a dirty look if you forget yours. Public transit's great, and is the norm for getting around. Lots of people, even professionals, bike. There's a lot less paper used, everything's electronic instead. People are quite keen to buy local items if they’re available, and they know why that matters. Their water conservation techniques are quite innovative, and the average bloke’s understanding of natural watershed filtration systems is impressive. Petra’s favorite graffiti in the city is a big one that says “stop logging our water cachements!” Even the vandals (“hoons”) care.

It's not perfect--they have a lot of British infrastructure (external plumbing, single-pane windows, high ceilings, etc) to undo. The only eco-bad practice that’s common here is that shopkeepers seem to think it’s a great idea to air condition the city: shops will blast the air or heat and leave their doors wide open, and it’s very common for restaurants to use those free-standing sidewalk heaters even on pretty warm nights. But in general everyone really really cares and is trying to think outside of the box and make fast and effective change to save the environment.

I knew they’ve had a really good governmental eco-history since the late 1980s, but I’ve been fascinated to learn about the amazingly astute stewardship sensibilities of some (though certainly not all) of the early European settlers. Some of the world’s first conservation efforts were undertaken by the leaders of the young colonies here, often with the intent to protect natural resources (timber, seals, etc.) from being used up by the eager new residents. The more astute farmers among the ‘transported’ inmates cautioned against swift livestock breeding and overgrazing, saying the seemingly-endless plains here were too dry to grow back quickly enough to replenish themselves. A mayor here and there tried to protect all of the trees surrounding the little proto-cities to ensure a lasting firewood supply, good drainage, and soil retention. A few of the more aesthetically-minded prisoners even got some pretty gullies and hills protected just because they were nice to look at. These were ideas hundreds of years ahead of their times.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the colonies didn’t have much control over what the residents did, so a lot of the timber, seals, grasslands, pretty bits, etc. did get wiped out anyways, with predictable results. Some blame the current imbalance in the Australian climate entirely on this early damage: this view is oversimplified, but it’s interesting how they’re very aware of their forbearers’ effect on the landscape and their culpability in the current water cycle and all. How many Americans have ever thought what the landscape of our country looked like before white people arrived?

I think Australia’s recent enthusiasm for all things green is not only because of this historical awareness, but also because of the big whopping hole in the ozone layer that's sitting over their heads PLUS the drastic effects of global warming that are already being seen here: 13th year of drought here in the south, devastating flooding in the north, and Antarctica and it's collapse are right on the doorstep here. With all that, it's hard to ignore our responsibility.

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