Rosario Marin

There is something supremely galvanising and sticky about Rosario Marin.

She gets under your skin in a way that resonates for weeks, her words coming back to inform and strengthen a way of thinking that is extraordinary as much for its power as its simplicity.

We saw Marin in action at the Urban Development Institute of Australia’s national congress in Sydney late last month. Chief executive of UDIA NSW Stephen Albin, who was also MC for the event, tipped us off that it would be worth coming back early from Green Cities 2015 in Melbourne for this event and to hear Marin in particular.

The UDIA? Not usually the hotbed of green thinking and forward marching on climate action, we thought.

Yet we know they had a star in Darren Pearson, a member whose development at Kellyville has won huge accolades for its audacious sustainability challenge to conventional cardboard houses thrown up by most of the rest of the industry. (We also noticed the speakers list included Terry Leckie of Flow Systems, who was a key part of our Sustainable Precincts ebook and salon.)

It was Pearson, a friend of Marin’s, who encouraged her to visit Australia.

She did not disappoint. Not on the personal front nor on the matter of green strategies, which is especially surprising since Marin is a Republican, another item of great interest to observers charting the course of the planet-saving agenda.

But then this woman clearly has something very special in her DNA if you look at her track record.

There’s a background in extremely poverty in Mexico, a shift to the US so her family could have a chance at feeding its five kids, full-time work after finishing high school so she could pay her way through the lowliest colleges because that was all she could afford, an MBA and then a senior, highly paid work as a banker.

You need to have something special to get that far. But for Marin the stars ordained much more.

At the peak of her financial and career success, married to an adored husband with similar high qualifications and life-work success, living in a beautiful house, Marin finally fell pregnant.

“We wanted a baby and everyone knows that babies come from France so we booked our trip… and placed the order. Sometimes we sent the order several times a day, just to be sure,” she told the audience.

But when the baby was born it had Down’s Syndrome. Never mind, this baby was hers to love. But the baby came perilously close to death six times. Then more tragedy struck and the couple’s second child died.

Marin gave up her work, the mortgage came under stress. She hit rock bottom.

In the midst of despair, praying for her first child’s survival, she made a pledge. She promised God that if her child lived she would dedicate her life to making the world a better place.

She became a campaigner for disabled people, ended up working for the Californian government and then finally became Treasurer of the United States under George W Bush, the first immigrant to hold that title and delighted to tell the audience that it was her signature on the US’s dollar bills.

But maybe the biggest challenge of all was how Marin led the move to mandated minimum sustainable standards in California’s buildings under governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

How she did this should be a case study in high strategy.

And given her membership of the Republican Party, not exactly known for its green agenda, Marin could also be an education in how to weave our way out of the cross-party political antagonism that’s come to plague climate action, taking sustainability and environmental protection in its wake.

In an interview with The Fifth Estate after her speech, Marin shared some of her thinking.

The first thing we wanted to ask this woman who has worked as treasurer in the world’s still most powerful democracy, is a member of the Republican Party and also understands the green agenda in California, was how she rated the planet’s chances for survival given the radical shifts necessary.

“I believe there is a growing awareness and I believe there will be a growing embracement not just of green technology but the green mentality,” she said.

The awareness is growing and more so with children and the way they are educated.

“If they understand the impact of their footprint on their environment then 20 years from now we’ll have citizens who will be fully capable of embracing what we’re doing now.”

So a generational change is our biggest hope?

Pretty much, Marin says.

“The older generation doesn’t quite get it. They’ve been raised in a different philosophy. Our job is to wrangle for the future, that’s our job. We’re working for today.

“The more enlightened people are already doing that. The less enlightened way will take longer.”

There’s not much enlightening going on at the top echelons of politics in Canberra, we say.

Marin chooses to be positive.

“There are always more good people than not,” she says. “Always more people getting concerned about the environment and their footprint.

“We can debate the science. What is not debatable is the fact that having an interest in greening our environment is good thing. That’s not debatable.

“We may debate the causes but we can not debate the effect.”

What about the party political divides on the issue?

“I’m seeing a growing number of people adapt to a new thinking. Maybe they don’t totally embrace it just yet. But there’s nothing wrong with protecting the environment.

“So whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or a Liberal – let’s not make it political. I think we can all agree that protecting the environment and the air and the water is a good thing.”

People might question the expense or the regulation, she says.

“I understand that, so let’s try to find a common ground.”

California greening – how they did it

When she was chair of the California Building Standards that led the charge on mandating minimum sustainability standards for all buildings, many people asked what she was doing.

”This will cost an arm and a leg,” they said.

But Marin is not easily deterred. She put in charge of the committee organising the transition someone from the building industry.

“That was a stroke of genius,” she says. “Why? Because if we put in charge of this effort the people who would have the most likelihood of rejecting this then they will own it and they will figure it out.

“It was the building industry that helped us create the first green building code.”

The process started in 2005-6 and it became effective in 2008.

That was the first in the world and now it’s grown into an unstoppable movement, Marin says.

“Throughout the world when we created the green building standards, [others] literally took what we had. They took it and put their name on it.”

And this was a great thing, she says.

“Emulation is the greatest flattery, I felt, so ‘go for it’. It’s good that entire countries adopted that.”

“This sounds like you believe in the collaborative model,” The Fifth Estate says. “When you talk, I don’t hear politics.”

“I just talked about the green building standard and we had to have collaboration to get the approval, the sign off,” she says.

“We had to get the building trades on side, the hospitals, the schools and mayors – we had to get everyone to buy in and we did.”

But how did she respond to what must have been inevitable shrieking that this would kill businesses and entire industries?

“We had a lot of individual meetings; we had even more people in the environment area that said this didn’t go far enough. We met with people with disabilities, we talked to everyone individually. We held hearings, we heard concerns and we addressed them; we didn’t just listen to them.”

A favourite saying was, “If you raise a legitimate issue we will legitimately deal with it.

“I always listened very carefully to what they were saying.”

Part of the process was to start with voluntary standards, so that it was “not an imposition to be begin with”.

The message was, “If you want homes to be green, you adopt this.”

“That was a huge key, because people didn’t feel we were imposing our will upon them.”

Once that started to work the mandatory standard kicked into place, without many people noticing much since they were already adopting the standards in any case.

There was a “litany” of people who supported the standards, from trade unions, to plumbers and electricians.

Ahhemm, this is kind of the opposite behaviour you might expect from a conservative government, which typically rejects mandating much at all, preferring to leave things to the market.

Again, Marin comes back to her core standby: “There’s nothing wrong with making the world a better place.”

She also thinks the market can care about the future. You simply need to talk about the benefit, “What’s in it for them.”

In the case of her friend Darren Pearson, Marin says, it was looking at his child who has asthma and answering her question, “Will this house make it easier for me to breathe?”

“If people can see the benefit, then the expense will be worthwhile.

“Most people look at things as an expense. We say it’s an investment.”

Marin has a saying she likes to tell her children: there is no punishment for doing the wrong thing, nor rewards for doing the right thing, just consequences.

“The same thing is true of the environment.

“There will always be people in government who don’t believe that. I will try to make my case as best as I can.”

Today California is world renowned for the high standard of energy efficiency, children are learning better, there is better drinking water, better air and that has to make sense, Marin says.