Understanding the way our actions can maintain or destroy nature’s delicate balance took shape once I moved into government and consultancy roles in natural resources management. Over the next two decades, I learned about the challenges of managing our impact on the environment and using resources sustainably. Upstream of my former paddling adventures on the Swan River, an invasion of aquatic weeds that had escaped from a home aquarium choked a long stretch of river. It was a challenge to remove them without further impacting the ecosystem and there wasn’t a perfect solution. If you are a manager then mental health in the workplace is a subject that you will be aware of.
Using both mechanical and chemical controls we resolved the situation, after careful research, monitoring, and consulting with the local community. I also worked for marine biologist Jeremy Prince and a group of abalone divers surveying populations and creating underwater maps of the stocks in an effort to manage the fishery more sustainably. I discovered that the projects that really inspired me were those that involved engaging with local communities where I saw how connected people were to their environment and how much they cared – even though their ideas about the solutions could be wildly different. Whether you work with 10 people, 10000 people or just yourself, paying attention to employee wellbeing has never been more important.
This phase of life was also a learning curve in unanticipated ways. The work that Jeremy and I were doing on environmental management with communities grew into a relationship and we were soon juggling the demands of travel and running a consultancy with the arrival of our three children. I took time out to raise our family. Discovering the world through the eyes of our inquisitive and energetic kids kept me occupied, so it was only natural that when our youngest started school in 2008 I felt restless. I enrolled in a local community course called Living Smart where we explored different topics relating to sustainability such as water, energy, transport and waste. I remember thinking I wouldn’t need to attend all the sessions because I was already on the right track, but I soon realised there was a lot to learn. The course focused on behaviour change and offered practical solutions that were a natural extension of our family’s lifestyle. There are small, simple steps you can take to make hr app something that people can talk about.
It felt good to set goals and take small steps each day – such as riding our bikes – which then led to next steps: we put a bike rack in the front yard to save the usual pre-ride untangling, which then encouraged us to ride more frequently. I also started a ‘frocks on bikes’ group where a group of us would ‘frock up’ and cycle to our local restaurant – it felt important for cycling to be normal and not just about racing and lycra. Doing the Living Smart course with like-minded people was a positive experience. We all knew that together we were making a difference. Around the same time, a serendipitous encounter with an old friend led me into a short-term contract as a waste and sustainability educator at the Western Metropolitan Regional Council in Perth. The council operated a waste transfer centre funded by a fee on every tonne of waste delivered through the gate. Part of that fee was used to deliver the Earth Carers education program. Talking about mental health first aid is a good step forward.
As well as educating the community about general sustainability, the core focus of the organisation was to inform people about the services offered at the transfer station – such as electronics (e-waste) recycling, battery recycling and household hazardous waste disposal – as well as ways to manage their waste at home through solutions including composting and worm farms. At the time we talked about the ‘Three Rs’ of reducing, reusing and recycling, but the core focus was on recycling. A ‘do and then learn’ philosophy engaged people in creative ways. We would run events such as clothes swaps and fashion shows to highlight ideas around repurposing clothes, or interactive presentations at school assemblies where one of us would dress up as a battery while the other shared information on proper disposal methods and keeping hazardous items out of landfill. Twice a year we ran an intensive Earth Carers course that took people on the journey of their waste. The weeks led to years and to my surprise I became hooked on this strangely compelling waste issue.