"What we have here is a failure to communicate" – from Cool Hand Luke

Oil companies are appropriating doomism – and why they’re wrong. And why it’s still so tough to get positive action on sustainability in Australia.

It pays to get out and about. No matter how good the tech – Zoom, Teams, whatever – no one is going to lean in close and tell you something they shouldn’t tell you, on a screen.

And so, in the past two weeks, we learned a lot.

One thing was how young people think.

This week The Fifth Estate was invited to be part of a panel speaking to first year students at the University of Technology Sydney about why sustainability would be a great career choice.

Those young bright people were a delight to try to inspire about the big planetary battle underway to wind back the carbon clock. We mentioned the work to take carbon out of the atmosphere (at last) and the mountains of money watching in the wings.

And their questions?

If we take carbon from the atmosphere won’t people just keep polluting it?


And what was our view on rampant greenwashing?

Another gulp.

Next was a stop at a panel event at UTS on how to keep precincts both viable and authentic, part of the SXSW Sydney extravaganza, with moderator Professor Peter McNeil, creatives Wendy Martin and Dr Christine Dean, and Beau Neilson who’s spruiking her Phoenix Central Park precinct at Chippendale.

Martin noted Melbourne’s new big arts infrastructure build around the National Gallery at Southbank and wondered if it would feel like a precinct given its intense planning. A contrast no doubt to the messy appeal of areas such as Collingwood and Fitzroy, we visited last week we thought. And which makes a big chunk of Sydney’s CBD feel like a giant Westfield shopping centre (oh that’s right, it is!)

And then came the walk on the Goods Line all the way along that marathon stretch next to the International Convention Centre Sydney to Barangaroo for Cundall’s 20th birthday celebrations.

The doom the doom

This gadding about was a welcome antidote to the sense of doom we’d been feeling.

There was the horror of the northern summer, followed by the dire warnings of a severe seven months of heat and blackouts coming our way, transcended in recent days by the more immediate and extreme human disaster of even more war.

On top of our failure to build enough renewable energy fast enough. “We’re f***ed” we thought (before fronting the young ones.)

At Cundall’s Smoke Bar knees-up architect Paul Reidy told us the oil companies were now also saying, “We’re f***ed”.

He pointed us to an article in The Guardian where climate scientist Michael Mann tackled the doom scenario peddled by the polluters as reason to throw in the towel.

But Mann says it’s not too late. We can slow things. Climate history is being weaponised by doomers, he says.

 “This idea that these past mass extinction events translate to ensured mass extinction today because of, for example, runaway methane-driven warming [as permafrost thaws] isn’t true – the science doesn’t support that.”

And there is good news. Much of it still only available in chats because it’s early days and fledgling.

At Building4.0’s conference last week in Melbourne there was an explosion of positive sentiment – with so many smart innovative people working from multiple ways to find solutions – from the technical and scientific to the politics of change management.

Jaimie Johnston of Bryden Wood told us (quietly, off stage) about some of the work he’s doing with governments in the UK, the US and Japan. His company prefers to work with governments because they’ve got the scale and timeframes to make the big changes.

And there are some powerful ideas being hatched – for instance the work in the US we shared with the students to take carbon out of the atmosphere (not coal).

With mountains of investment money watching and waiting in the wings.

Johnston says there’s a lot more going on. But what’s missing is a sense of global or even national alignment about these projects – what they add up to on a planetary level.  How much carbon might be removed for the planet, or saved.

So you don’t know what China’s doing?

Nope, he replied.  

Or India? Don’t know.

What about Russia? No idea.

Even the states in the US don’t know much about what others are doing in a systematised way.

So the jewels of discovery remain accidental.

We’re not talking to each other – and we’re not sharing

The lack of communication happens in Australia too.

The people we chatted to this week say it’s rife. Companies, states not talking to, or worse, sharing with each other.

Provincial politics playing to the loudest voices who constantly want to wind back the carbon abatement clock. Or efficiency. Or equity. Ignorance and hubris driving the agenda.

It’s so immensely frustrating for the passionate people in this space trying to push out change. How they don’t go nuts, or succumb to doomism, is a mystery.

Queensland for instance glances at the BASIX rating system in NSW which is pretty amazing and says, “yeah, nah we don’t need that”.

Yet the Brisbane City Council, the biggest metropolitan goliath in the country blithely approves big commercial buildings with barely a glance at their sustainability.

A disgrace.

And that’s a council that certainly won’t talk or share. Not even with its own state government.

After the appalling result of the Voice to Parliament referendum on the weekend, expect that the Queensland state government and its challengers at the next election will all be listening keenly to that other voice – the one that comes from the majority of shouty conspiracy theorists, xenophobes and Trump-lovers that opposition leader Peter Dutton and his ilk will now be happy to trail along behind them (watch out, Dutton could be worse than Tony Abbott for sustainability and climate).

Read the devastating but brilliant analysis by Niki Savva in this in Thursday’s SMH, If you thought the Voice was bad, just wait until the next election

She predicts that Dutton has found the evil genie of negativity and has seen how powerfully it can work to destroy any fragile emerging sensitivity towards each other (or our planet) in a heartbeat. And that he will use it at the next federal election.

Through the vote on the Voice the states everywhere have revealed their ugly underbelly.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get strong traction on sustainability. (Other than the heroes shining a long lonely light.)

Off the record we hear that already volume builders in Adelaide, Western Australia, which have delayed the new ridiculously modest 7 star NatHERS energy standard for housing by several years – are working furiously to find out how they can game the new standards.

They’re substituting good insulation with rubbish, using second rate materials and stripping the first home buyers of any information that might detract from the fairy dust of “owning your own home”.

Which should be a joy these generally young inexperienced buyers –  before they have to pay the energy bills or the fuel costs to get to work.

“Once it’s built no-one knows what the insulation is and there’s no one to check the standard of building” one source told us on Thursday. In a chat.

And it’s the same elsewhere, of course, Queensland in particular. Goes without saying.

In yet another conversation we’ve heard worse. (Story coming.)

So, is it the mix of ego and hubris that stops us collaborating?

Hard to say.

Here we were at News Central thinking everyone talks to each other. All these years we assumed the gossip wire was red hot.

But no. Very few people are actually sharing their tete a tete secrets or discoveries or concerns.

It explains that when we hold a masterclass, amazing stuff comes out. People are surprised at what the other people are saying or doing.

The insights, the breakthroughs, the magic that happens when two and two get together and magically make five, is not happening at anywhere near the levels it needs to.

But there are big industry bodied dedicated to sharing, we say.

Yes, we’re told but there are barriers to entry. You need to pay to play in many forums.

(Well we certainly need to be paid to play but that’s another story – you can help right here.)

And then there’s intellectual property rights.

How can we abide intellectual property rights when it comes to things that can save the planet? Personally we think that’s criminal.

You’ll notice a growing number of people making their innovations open source. James Dibble of Grange Development who presented at Tomorrowland and has just pushed his way through planning for his tall hybrid timber building in Perth is the latest we know of. Bryden Wood is another.

And then imagine if information/innovation jumped across industry sectors, (like viruses jumping species!).

Such as Passive House used to retrofit commercial buildings – floor by floor, as Aurecon’s Jeff Robinson mentioned recently.

Suddenly we switch from how to solve the diabolically slow supply of renewable energy coming online to needing such little energy that it would no be us that would be f**cked, it would be the oil companies!

Get in touch, share your insights, ideas, visions and gossip


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