Minister Rob Stokes. Image: The Fifth Estate

NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK ISSUE No 411: It took a minister of education in NSW to bring sustainability back to reality with a loud and uncomfortable thud.

Rob Stokes was in a room of about 70 people at the inaugural School Sustainability Forum in Parramatta on Monday. It was in a beautiful new Department of Education building, with vast windows framing a green landscape, timber finishes everywhere and the hit of natural air that immediately signals you’re in a quality building, probably a six star Green Star… it was.

The occasion would look at the opportunities for sustainability in the physical schools that would be rebuilt as part of a $6 million program, and within the curriculum itself as it’s rewritten.

Stokes, former minister for planning, was unceremoniously removed from his former post, everyone suspects, for being too good in the job, shoved sideways into innocuous education. A topic he quickly declared he was no expert in. Forthright, honest, transparent. Typical of this man. The sustainable property industry, at least, sighed with bereavement.

But was it sideways? Not even two years later – just 18 months since he took the reins, Stokes looked like he was fomenting the same sort of quiet revolution to unleash logic, reason and a sense of fairness he did in the other job. Embedding sustainability where it really counts and can have the biggest impact of all, our children.

(You’d be right to guess we’re conflicted about pointing this out. It’s better if the commissariat doesn’t notice what its more noble warriors are actually doing on the front – outwardly obeying the general’s orders; sotto voce seeding ideas that will stick like to the best emerging fabric of all, young minds.)

So why were we so excited?

Because Stokes, leaving his notes, and taking the microphone away from the lectern to get closer to his audience quickly challenged the entire notion of sustainability and where we are heading.

In the room was a familiar crowd of leading architects; Jason McLennan, founder of the Living Building Challenge would give the keynote address, as well as educators and even kids.

There were two schools of thought in education, Stokes said – one that it was about the individual, deterministic, which would allow students to self actualise.

The other was that the education mission was “more civic and more visionary, and rather than focus on the individual for its own sake, it focuses on the individual for the sake of society at large… to enable stronger, fairer and nicer communities.”

Quoting second US president John Adams, “education is to make a living and to make a life.”

Jason Mclennan, founder of Living Building Challenge, showed the engagement of children with natural elements, during his keynote presentation

Sustainability was key in education because there was “nothing more profound that an individual could do than to shape the world around them to find innovative solutions.

“No matter how you define it, the sustainability mission is environmental protection and restoration, and that is core to the educational mission,” he said.

Sustainability was first defined 40 years ago at a UN conference on development: that it was a way to meet the needs of the present without damaging the ability of those that come after us from doing the same, there had been some missteps,

“However, ever since that time sustainability has almost been a victim of its own success,” Stokes told the audience.

“It has become so broad and so unquestioned that it’s also become shallower and shallower and less and less profound and less and less meaningful as it sought to be all things to all people.

“Coming from its origins coming from resource conservation it’s moved into ideas of economic reorganisation, into ideas of broader social justice and more recently into ideas of inclusivity and diversity, which I would argue have little to do directly with the ideas of resource conservation.

“While all these things might be good things, by broadening our understanding of sustainability we strip it of its eternal meaning.”

Stokes said the challenge now for educators, architects and designers was how to “strengthen and refocus and provide specificity to this enduring idea of sustainability and sustainable development.”

The opportunity to rewrite the NSW curriculum as an opportunity to see if “sustainability can be deepened and strengthened and give real operational meaning to the idea of sustainability, rather than just paying lip service in its former virtue signalling; that we can actually give sustainability real focus and real practical application.”

We weren’t the only ones impressed by this call to action. Another audience member we called on a separate matter the following day gushed with bromance. “I’m in love with Rob Stokes,” he said. Others voiced similar fandom in the days following.

So many people have been seduced by the widening embrace of sustainability, to look at it as something that needs to include all people and things, living or not, to bring all along for the challenge, and that if it’s not equitable it probably won’t happen. All things interconnected.

Complex systems, in other words.

We don’t think Stokes would disagree with any of this. But it’s not the point.

But what he seemed to be more concerned with was the loosening focus on operational or actual environmental elements, so that the spotlight’s broader arc falls short of the rigour we need to save the planet.

The conversation is already underway

We checked in with Ché Wall who co founded The Green Building Council and these days works in a specialist high end engineering consultancy he founded with Matt Jessup in Sydney.

Wall said it was a timely issue to raise. Just Thursday morning he’d been deep in conversation on the same topic.

It’s not an either or situation, Wall says.

The importance of social issues were important, undoubtedly, he said, but if you address modern slavery and you dilute the pre-eminence of green house gas reductions, then that’s a serious concern.

It’s the “notion that you can miss some key areas because you’ve got a lot of low hanging fruit.” And this in the face of “the very real and clear sense of the science required to maintain a barely tolerable climate.

“I’m of the mind you need a clinical and absolute focus on carbon emissions.

You can’t bury it among a whole lot of other sustainability measures; it doesn’t mean you forget other things like healthy offices – they’re important – but they’re supplements.”

As to what’s going on, you need to look at who’s pulling the strings. “If I were a property owner it would suit me to be measured against a spectrum of my activities.”

It’s not either or

But institutional investors are not so easily distracted.

Sovereign wealth funds and pension funds care only about greenhouse gas abatement, he said. It’s their “primary concern”. It’s what powers the Climate Bonds Initiative.

“Social impact investments are a secondary layer; it’s a separate decision.”

Property companies make a broad contribution in social issues – some about social issues, procurement or upskilling and it could suit them to wrap it all up in a single focus of reporting.

Bottom line, we need more stringent requirements.

We need a grittier word – is sustainability too fluffy?

In Melbourne, we’d been talking recently to Matt Plumbridge, a former head of sustainability for UrbanGrowth NSW in Sydney (now split and renamed Landcom and UrbanGrowth NSW Development Corporation) and he’d made a few interesting observations about the challenge of implementing serious sustainability in buildings. In other words there was a lot of greenwash about.

So what’s his level of concern about environmental outcomes? We asked.

At a job he’s now project managing in the Moreland City Council area through his company G2 Partnerships, he’s had to issue a wakeup call to the builders to realise that environmental outcomes are not optional.

Plumbridge thinks the word sustainability is problematic.

“It’s not a gritty enough word; it doesn’t have the parameters, so everything can be thrown into that void.

“If you talk about conservation you need a grittier word.

When people identify with things such as brands, in a funny way you know what it means. Sustainability doesn’t have anything tangible in it.”

“Social sustainability can be a distraction; it’s a different skill set. I’m not a social planner as such.”

The ideas of Jane Jacobs might be good, he says, and ideas such as having a load bearing wall so a house can be subdivided so that ageing people can remain in place “can be done”.

Sustainability is “just a fluffy word. I like words that are succinct.”

The work he did on CH2, the experimental and exemplar new building for the City of Melbourne (that Wall also worked on), there was no question of strong outcomes and gritty meaning to sustainability. It cost more, around 20 per cent, but the building became a beacon for innovators to observe the first testing of ideas and systems

“We had parameters that didn’t go into social welfare; every bit had to be triple checked against the dark green people, the stakeholders.”

The result though was “an incredibly healthy building” where the gains in productivity meant it paid itself off in 10 years, Plumbridge says.

See a video of the building here:


In all those years since though, the industry has not affected the residential sector at all.

Stokes, quoting economist Daniel Bromley says: “Sustainability is both a noble idea and a hopeless concept. Noble because it points us to the plight of future generations and hopeless because it’s devoid of any operational content.”

The opportunity in rewriting the curriculum is to “place operational content behind that fine or noble idea of sustainability.”

In the world Stokes was unveiling, a possibility for schools to have real live and meaningful environmental surroundings or contexts this means stopping trying to “shoehorn sustainability concepts into subjects like languages or English.

“We can actually look for deep and real engagement through project based learning and across subjects.”

This mean no longer paying just lip service to sustainability but bringing in it to life, perhaps with kitchen gardens that could sell produce to the school canteen and through environmental educational centres and zoo centres.

You have to get it right, Stokes said.

“The thing about dealing with young people is that they can smell a fraud or phoney a mile off.”

“We need to assume the people of Australia will do the same.”

More photos from the School Sustainability Forum

Left to right: Professor Chris Reidy, Institute of Sustainable Futures, UTS; Dr Debra Talbot, Usyd; Jason Mclennan
Andy Marlow, Envirotechture, Alex Small, Cox Architecture
Jason McLennan, Jason Twill, Mary Casey, Minister Rob Stokes

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. Wow! I am so pleased that Rob Stokes has spoken out on this topic. As former Director for the centre for Sustainable Construction developing and implementing the BREEAM buildings ratings tools and former Vice President of the US Green Building Council responsible for developing and implementing LEED I always advocated for keeping the tools focussed on the BIG issues of environmental impact because economics can and always does look after itself and management, operation and social issues are important in their own right but for me should not dilute the importance of the environmental impacts. By staying focussed on key issues, measuring and assessing actual performance, not intent, policy or management tick boxes and measuring in scientifically robust ways you keep rating simple, cheap and accessible to the full market, not marginalised to the BIG end of town. The well intentioned adding of issues and credits to rating systems serves only to dilute the power of the rating for critical issues. Now, because of our decades long inaction on climate change, ALL other issues have become effectively irrelevant – this (and perhaps biodiversity impacts) is the only rating system issue that is actually an existential threat to the survival of our species. Untill we are on a trajectory of emissions reduction for 1.5Deg C or less of warming nothing else matters. Our buildings will last for 100years – certianly long enough for the profound implications of climate change to radically change the climate they are exposed to and what they are used for, if there are even folk still able to feed themselves to occupy them.

  2. Maybe then, it is time to again show the significant progress of Young Australians’ Plan for the Planet. This extra-curricular senior high school program reviews ALL of the 17 Sustainable Development goals from the UN. Students research shows what is currently happening and then reveals what needs to happen in their region. A simple prioritisation process confirms, then focuses on the top issues to address and how to formulate this into a tangible working modern Business Plan of implementation.

    A remarkably successful pilot year in Australia with a presentation in Parliament House to Federal science and education ministers of the first Youth National SDGs Plan for the Planet in 2017. Growing into an international pilot in 2018 and now the Young Persons’ Plan for the Planet, that is having its first international conference in Mauritius later this month. The program is free for schools. The students love the program, it gives them a voice.

    The conference shall produce the world’s first Youth international SDGs Plan for the Planet. The website shows much of this progress and we’re looking for more international partners to grow the program into many countries.