green star burst

News from the front desk, No 486: This week the Green Building Council of Australia announced a bunch of green building champions that it honoured in its first such awards.

Among them are many faces well known to The Fifth Estate. People who have kept up the good fight through thick and thin. Here’s the full list. But we won’t pick out any in particular because each of them truly deserve a mention.

And there are also so many others who deserve the same recognition. Perhaps next year.

We’re interviewing some of the green stars in our own patch in our new podcast series called “How to Build a Better World”. It’s such a thrilling experience to sit down for a nice solid hour with someone who’s spent a big chunk of their lives trying to improve the world around them, in a multitude of ways, but often not just their work life but in so many things they do. Proving over and over that sustainability isn’t a goal, it’s a process – a set of values that drives everything you do.

We started with Piers Grove, who is founder and chair of EnergyLab, Australia’s largest cleantech startup. Grove seems to have endless supplies of energy himself. His job is to connect the sparks of inspiration from some of the most talented people in the country – young and old – with the commercial nous and framing capable of dislodging the rusted on political ties that bind us to redundant energy technologies. If you check out his LinkedIn you’ll also see he’s publisher of the highly disruptive Betoota Advocate, which is now massively popular as a satirical newspaper in a world that desperately needs to take a good hard look at itself.

Tim Williams is another guest. As Cities Leader at Arup since the start of 2018 and previously chief executive of the Committee for Sydney – and that’s just a few short years since he’s been in Australia –  Williams is a complex, always-energised thinker about all he comes across. He’s got an impressive background in the UK where he worked with Boris Johnson before he was prime minister and advised the UK government on a range of urban planning issues, which means he understands the way cities develop and need to develop. What’s so valuable about Williams’ perspective is that he will instantly cut to core issues and gently, and sometimes not so gently, pull them apart. As a regular contributor to our Spinifex column, Williams never fails to create some provocations. Of course, we thoroughly encourage him there: manners and polite conversation have never changed the world that we can see. During the course of the interview, we discovered he’s a barrister. Makes sense.

In our third podcast we ventured into new ground that we hope to replicate soon. It’s bringing together three people: two experts in their field, with one acting as co-host to help The Fifth Estate tease out the more incisive questions from “inside the tent” of expertise. For this one we pitted Ruben Langbroek from GRESB (the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark) with Craig Roussac of Buildings Alive, who wanted to unpack the underlying ambitions of the big property owners and their well-known high performance on the global stage of sustainability.

Langbroek was a great participant in this, and highly open to ideas and challenges for the evolution of the benchmark he runs in Australia.

Roussac has been a long time go-to for The Fifth Estate for critical and original insights on sustainability and the underlying value, or not, of the marketing-related promotion around it. He’ll point to the embodied carbon in a shiny new six-star office building and say that no amount of operational energy savings can match the embodied energy in the building fabric. That, of course, is something that the industry is now tackling with some exciting projects and programs. (Full disclosure, Roussac’s company Buildings Alive is a 2020 Corporate Partner of The Fifth Estate, which is by invitation only).

We’ve also had Australian-born inventor and educator Sally Dominguez on the podcast to talk about her “adventurous thinking” style that boils down to a handful of different “lenses” to apply during the thinking process, including the “backwards” lens that’s effectively sustainability. She also discussed the outside-the-box-thinking getting her excited, such as the dozen startups looking at turning carbon dioxide into fuels.

Caroline Pidcock was another exemplary guest on our podcast. We first spotted Pidcock years ago at an architecture event and saw a future leader in environmental issues. Pidcock has more than surpassed expectations and in our podcast reveals some fabulous insights. In particular the obligations and the growing enthusiasm for the Architects Declare Movement that she helped found in Australia. There is no stopping this powerhouse for change.

Peter Newman, the amazing professor of sustainability from Curtain University, is not only like a kind of godfather of sustainability as a leading thinker and academic, but for The Fifth Estate he’s often provided a huge fillip at times when our optimism has been sagging.

It was Newman who, during the worst of the dark days of the Abbott government, pointed to the evidence to show that “we are winning” this thing. He’d detected the early turnaround in the numbers that proved fossil fuels were on the way down not up and that behaviour, especially among the young, was changing. This podcast focused on the global picture, including the US position on climate change, and that of China, Europe and the emerging issues in Africa. Another eye opening session with  Newman!

We tarried in the west a bit longer for the next podcast, up now on the front page, with mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt.

We met Pettitt a few years ago when we had events in Perth. These were inspiring times and Pettitt emerged as a fabulous leader from the part of government that can often have the biggest impact, local. Our big question for him during the podcast (as it is with most of our guests) is how to negotiate the political complexities in bringing people along with progressive environmental ideas. In Fremantle, it seems it’s not the council trying to convince its electorate to come on a more sustainable journey, it’s the other way round. A problem we wish was more widespread.

There are more wonderful people we’ve got lined up for future podcasts. Some very well known, others not so well known outside their own circles, but acknowledged as key movers and shakers in their own way.

It’s an exciting project and probably one of the most satisfying in journalism, to delve deeply into the stories and motivations of successful people.

The people version of green stars are so important to move this industry forward. They’re key, really. Without them we’d be blundering along in groupthink. Sometimes these motivators are perfectly brilliant at creating change without appearing to ruffle any political feathers. Other times they don’t care – their passion gives them cover and it’s enough to sustain them. Even more important is that action often motivates more action, so that people who are not so brave and forthright appreciate the leadership and might just be waiting for the signal that they’re not alone, to join in.

These individual motivators are really special and they deserve our special protection wherever they are. (They can be in the most unexpected of places, even in “enemy” territory.)

It’s in that spirit that we applaud the thinking of the GBCA to create this list of green champions to honour their work. To be truthful, we would love to interview them all.

On another not so positive note this list is well-timed.

The grapevine suggests that the built environment, hard hit by the impacts of coronavirus, may be about to also take a toll on some of our bright green stars. Sustainability is still seen, in some quarters apparently, as “non-essential”.

That’s not just a shame but a mistake.

Sustainability people are often the most passionate dedicated staff that see beyond themselves and care about the planet and other people. To lose them is to lose your best talent. Who can afford to do that in a world where we will need to be as efficient and effective as possible, traits that are essentially the DNA of sustainability?

It’s another false economy in a world of false economies powered by the fossil fuel industry.

Because to push forward in any economic enterprise without a framework or plan for mid to long term outcomes is a waste of energy and resources. It’s like plugging our leaky economic boat with putty. Or like giving subsidies like the HomeBuilder grant to the already privileged. Or like a Covid stimulus plan that ditches green tape and ignores the impact on our environment and quality of life.

Wrong thinking PM Scott Morrison in your reasonably good actions on this virus response.

Wrong thinking CEOs planning a sustainability cull.

Amid the inevitable jobs losses that will be hopefully short lived if we bounce back better and quicker than we anticipate, property bosses would be well advised to think about where they will find best value and “bang for their buck”.

The susty people should be last on their hit list.

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