25. Kelly

I met Kelly almost a decade ago at a client function. Chatting to him was a welcome escape from the small talk that was customary at such events. All these years later, I still remembered his contagious energy and palpable passion for his work. After being reintroduced to Kelly through a friend and ex-colleague we caught up over a lunchtime beverage. It was such a relief to see his fiery passion hasn’t wavered. I walked away from our conversation eager to share Kelly’s urgent message – we all need to do so much more to protect our planet. 

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“I spent five years attending four different community colleges across California trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I kept coming back to the environment. I guess it’s obvious what’s important to you when you grow up in the picture-postcard mountains of Lake Tahoe, California.

I was born in San Francisco, which has so much character. But, while working there as a bike courier, I saw a more polluted side of the city that tourists don’t often see. Flying through the streets, between the concrete, fumes and mass consumption, it was evident that the physical environment takes a beating from us humans. I can only imagine what it would be like to live in Beijing, Hong Kong, Mexico City or Los Angeles.

From fast paced San Francisco, I moved to Mildura and it was such an amazing difference. In Mildura it was about big blue skies, millions of stars and an ancient landscape in direct contrast to that of Lake Tahoe. The mighty Murray curls slowly around lengthy bends and the trees are gnarled and asymmetrical. Soon after, I started a now defunct degree, Bachelor of Social Science, Environmental Policy, and I’ve been in Australia ever since.

For over ten years I’ve worked at a Victorian Government environmental agency, changing roles, but remaining in project delivery where I feel like we can make the biggest difference. I’ve worked in almost every area of the organisation from green power and renewable energy to energy efficiency and climate change.

I have never worked in the commercial buildings area, but I did have the opportunity to present at a conference on a temperature set-point trial I got up in the workplace. This would be such a simple step in the right direction. People need to adapt to the environment, not the other way around.  Organisations need to relax their dress standards in summer and staff need to layer up in winter. It’s that obvious. We need to start asking less of the Earth and more of ourselves.

I’m currently working in the organics recovery area, focusing on diversion from landfill. Part of the role is to deliver waste data for a national mapping project (for the state of Victoria) that highlights the quantities and locations of biomass residues. The project is about driving investment into infrastructure that will turn these materials into heat, electricity and fuels at the very least. This will ultimately drive product development of fossil based replacement fuels with organic, biomass based equivalents, resulting in better environmental and climate emissions outcomes.

It’s difficult to get people’s heads around the business case, because we’re so used to doing things in a particular way. But, carbon emissions are out of hand. We all need to work towards reducing our impact or a tipping point will be realised, where it will be too late for recovery.

There have been some small wins in the time I’ve been working in the sector. For example, the creation of the Victorian Bioenergy Network which, for the past ten years, has brought people across government, industry, environment and infrastructure together. It could have been transformative until another change of government.

The office where I work is another win in my opinion. We consume half as much energy, a fraction of the water and a quarter of the paper of comparable offices. Again, it’s really simple. The fit out was developed eleven years ago. We installed an automatic general power outlet shut down system that turns everything off at 7pm every night. Our servers were among the first to be virtualized and we use laptops which traditionally consumed a third of the energy of a desktop. Everyone sits within eight metres of a window and all lights have sensors (if there’s no movement or enough daylight, they shut off). If every organisation emulated this model we might be closer to actually achieving real reductions in emissions and material consumption.

These small wins have come off the back of so many failures and so many non-attempts. It’s confounding. The environment is the backbone to everything. If people weren’t so worried about bringing in dollars and having instant satisfaction, they may think about where everything comes from – the planet!

Currently, I have the privilege of sitting on the Darebin Energy Foundation Interim Advisory Board. I’m surrounded by people who want to change the game. But, the world I live in is very small because I try and surround myself with others who care about shit!

I’m lucky enough to live in the inner-city of Melbourne where many people ride their bikes or jump on public transport. I personally haven’t had a car in 20 years. This doesn’t mean my partner and I get rental cars for weekend getaways – we wander around Melbourne and discover new places to eat and drink. The only time I travel is to go home and I always pay for carbon offsets (even though this doesn’t do much to help). I have all my clothes fixed when they fall apart and I don’t buy new stuff very often. We have been 100% green powered for over ten years and hardly consume energy. Basically, we lead a really simple life and the added bonus is it’s easier to live this way as it’s so much less stressful (we don’t have unnecessary stuff to worry about).

I find it infuriating that our society is still operating as though the only bottom line is the dollar. It needs to be the environment.  We need to recalibrate so that the environment comes first, our social and community conditions second and money next. But, how do we get there when the population continues to increase and more and more people, want more and more?

People grow up through different social orientations and it’s very difficult to change someone’s trajectory. Coming from America where racism is still very real and very palpable, I can see that values and attitudes are learned over generations. So, to turn behaviours around in a single generation is a gargantuan task and it’s the task we’ve been set because climate change isn’t happening in the distant future. It’s happening now.

The pathway of our economy was virtually reset after World War II. Before then, things were simpler from a material perspective. But now, 70 years later, things are out of control. Not only do we want everything instantly, we want things that are new and better.  

Because there’s such limited time to take advantage of being alive, there’s so much competition for anything and everything – for air space, for jobs, for money, for a house. This competition means we all have an ever-contracting focus. Fewer and fewer people think about the people in their street, let alone their community and it feels like people focus on what they can control within the four walls of their home. And the more difficult things get, the more their focus narrows. But by looking beyond your circumstances you expand your experiences and add substantial value to your own life and the lives of others.

When I returned to Lake Tahoe with my partner Karen in 2009 it snowed almost 10 feet over a week and the result was complete silence. All you can hear is the cracking of trees under the weight of the snow. The way things are going, snowfall will get thinner and thinner and here in Victoria, we probably won’t even see snow within the next 20 years. You can only imagine what will become of the Murray-Darling Basin, which fuels our great food bowl.

When it comes to working in the environment – I don’t know what else to do with my life. My job doesn’t feel like a job that anyone should have to do. I get to make a living out of trying to do the right thing within the confines of the bureaucracy. I know I’m lucky to be doing this, but I wish it wasn’t necessary.”

Photos: Lucy Bastick from @streetsofmelbourne 

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