Adelaide's journal for a smarter, better, fairer world

Holden our breath


I have always lived in places where a large industry or two dominates the economic landscape.

As a child it was subtle – the sugar mill & the fishing industry were key to our local economy – later overtaken by seaside tourism. As an adult coal mining and car manufacturing dominated and to a lesser extent wine grapes (somewhat more pleasant but still with significant social responsibility impacts).

Adelaide is where I live now. One vocal and/or major economic player is the auto sector – and rumblings from them don’t bode well for the long-term viability of Holden manufacturing in this state.  It is likely at some point in the not-so-distant future, many of the approximately 50 000 employees and 150 related parts suppliers  will see a shrinking of jobs. Inevitable? Yes. Though tragic as it is for these segments of the community, I believe we have reached “peak car”.

Here’s some of the evidence;

* In previous economic rebounds global car sales have maintained levels of growth, not so this past recession.

* Worldwide cycling commuter growth has jumped 47-80% in the past decade.

* E-bike & scooter sales in Europe are showing very strong growth.

* In the USA total miles driven by young people since 2001 has fallen by 23%.

* Other signs like increased transit-oriented development, huge growth in car-sharing & tele-commuting suggest a major shift in attitudes.

I saw the effects of a dying car manufacturing industry first-hand in Niagara, Southern Ontario, where we lived for several years and where General Motors Canada had a large parts plant. The auto industry in Canada was experiencing the “worst downturn in a generation”.  By 2002, the auto industry in the province had 15 000 fewer employees than in the peak of the 1990’s.

Global economic competitiveness had been clearly identified as a risk to society in St Catharines (as per the city-wide sustainability report I was associated with) with one clear solution being to build a “green, creative economy”. This is something that has been echoed by even the lobbyists for the auto worker sector.

But what does this look like? The best examples Adelaide can look to are the poster-children of industrial decline & stumbling renewal – Detroit (USA) and Malmo (Sweden).

Both cities lost thousands of jobs in recent decades and saw a rapid loss of economic health when their industrial car manufacturing industries went into decline. Fortunately for them, they are many years down the track of renewal, something SA is yet to face.

1) Detroit

From the 1950’s Detroit “moved out to the suburbs”. With cheap land (accessed via freeways) urban neighbourhoods were carved up and racial inequality created ghettos – neighbourhoods with “self-reinforcing cycles of poverty” (From “A New Direction Needed for Detroit” – Sustainable Cities Collective, August 2013). So much empty space prompted the term “urban prairie”. Municipalities were unwilling to amalgamate to provide one another with shared resources. It’s a more complex picture than that certainly, but one which is replicated throughout many US towns & cities, and whose foundation is based on one assumption – abundant, cheap oil.

With sustainability principles in mind – it’s obvious one crucial stimulant Detroit needs is economic diversity. It’s a way to absorb economic shocks – by spreading risk.

What does Detroit need? It desperately needs innovation & mandated sustainability action to reverse the economic scars caused by inequality & industrial collapse. Unfortunately, there is no single, one-factor-above-all-others solution. But the best Detroit good news story of late is food. Gardens. Urban gardens to be exact.

There are now between 1500 and 2000 urban garden spaces.  There are 30 000 acres of derelict space. The City is looking at a $30 million plan to buy 300 acres to farm timber and fruit trees. There are 45 schools now gardening in their playgrounds. Mostly its a grassroots-up resurgence and while it’s a good news story that might appear lightweight compared to the myriad of issues this city faces, there are abundant win-win outcomes that make it worthy of applause.

Urban farming is supplying spin-offs that include training for agriculture, horticulture, light construction, housing restoration, tourism & heritage building management. The odd post war-zone-like nature of this city has brought significant attention from academics, social research writers, urban planners – enough that the narrative from Detroit is – you wanna try it? Go ahead.

That open-minded recovery-from-crisis head space is one South Australia will need more of.

2) Malmo

This southern Swedish port experienced major economic shocks in the 1970’s. Shipbuilding closures in the 1990’s resulted in the loss of 35 000 inhabitants. Coupled with a broader economic recession in Sweden, Malmo was forced to revisualize itself.

Population dislocation (a la Detroit) also impacted Malmo. So it connected itself via a 16km bridge to Denmark and branded itself a major commercial hub of European business. It also branded itself an experimental city (albeit in a more stiff, bureaucratic, northern European sort of way compared to the US). This openness to allow failure to be an acceptable part of it’s experimental city tag has helped enhance Malmo’s reputation as a major education hub (Malmo’s very internationally-focussed university opened in 1998).


As a commercial hub, it has attracted a diverse clientele of commercial, financial, health & transportation industries. The number and variety of workplaces increased from 23 000 – 33 000 in the past 10 years.

Malmo is not without social pressures – from a high % of marginalized immigrant groups and high unemployment – but at the centre of all the city’s transformation has been a strong commitment to social sustainability.

So many parallels……..

It’s only a matter of time before here we have to exhale, let go and take in a full, deep (& scary) new breath.



Today I read a headline in our local paper and it hit home (again). The issue of plastic and marine pollution.

The gist of this article explains how our own ocean research shows micro-plastic particles are abundant in Australian waters (stereotypically often we think of clogged Asian estuaries or major US city rivers to be the problem). Fortunately, the issue is not dire yet, we “only” have 4000 pieces of plastic per average square km of sea. By contrast, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, that awful human plastic soup between the United States and Japan, contains several hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic per square kilometre.

So we’re pretty lucky. We’ve observed (after only a short summer here) that Adelaide beaches are very clean. But this is no reason to be complacent.

It is time to reduce our plastic use.

This photo is from my old home beach, on the shores of the freshwater Lake Ontario, Canada. To try & reconcile my disgust at the volume of plastic material washing up on that beach I used to create little installations, little mandalas to try & express some kind of hope, beauty & order out of the collections of junk that I felt compelled to remove from my favourite wild shorelines.


It helped a bit.

You can see some incredible international plastic artists work here:

The gorgeous partnership of Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang from California


also Australia’s own local John Dahlsen

But this is the end of the pipe, a teensy eye-dropper of a cure, hardly the full-scale prevention we need !

So here’s a list of what we have replaced in our household so far – what is NOT plastic. (It’s ever-evolving…….)

* Toothbrushes (wood + animal bristle)

* Straws (stainless steel – straws are not really necessary, but still)

* Plastic cups and plates (we just don’t – we use enamel camping ones)

* School lunch boxes (stainless steel)

* Kiddie cups (stainless steel)

* Grocery cart (steel & rubber)

* Hair & nail brushes (bamboo, wood & bristle)

* Lighters (matches)

* “In” tray (wood)

* Clothes hangers (wood + steel)

* Yoga mat (now jute & rubber)

We never buy water in plastic bottles, a major scourge, and always bring our bags. Small things, I know.

But small too are those individual little “nurdles”, those teensy bits of plastic floating around in our gorgeous sea.

Together they add up to alot.

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.


Recently I was purging some environmental books ~ realizing that it was time to know less and do more. Feel more and think less. Be an activist, be enamoured by projects and not simply philosophies. So I offered up some greenie texts, some Suzuki sonnets to my friends on Facebook.  A distant relative (an entrepreneur who is re-teaching Pacific nations how to food-farm organically) put his hand up first only minutes in – but what was even more special, amongst it all someone asked me for a reading list !

THIS is what makes me energized about sustainability.

This old school buddy from high school science classes (ahem, some 25+ years ago……) & I re-connected via Facebook months back and without knowing almost anything about his life (apart from the fact he lives overseas and has a lovely wife & daughter) I find out through posts he has a strong sense of ethics about the environment. That’s about all I know about him as an adult (oh, that and some questionable 80’s music taste), but it’s nice to know there’s another voice to the sharing of the same (often unpopular) opinions.

What it really means for me is a sense of purpose. It’s what I really LOVE to do – help open people’s eyes. To be honest, I’m less interested in energy efficiency &…..yawn, what solar panels offer the greatest return on investment. OMG and talking about waste management bores me to tears.

But a READING LIST ! YES ! Here it is ! Hope it is of benefit to some of you…..

To begin with, everyone please, please please read;

1) Paul Hawken’s “The Ecology of Commerce”. It’s such a gift, it’s the Wikipedia of sustainability. And it’s so old, yet still so relevant (published in 1993 by Harper Collins NY). He is a stunning humanist, a very successful businessman and while this book is disturbing, it is packed with hope and a very clear road-map for the “restorative economy” (yes, look that one up).

(Oh, by the way – buy second-hand if you’re going to purchase any of these books ! Amazon & other on-line agents have tonnes of pre-loved books, very cheap). Or go to your local bookshop and keep your neighbourhood economy alive.)

2) Possibly the simplest book ever to grasp is the tiny 64 – page (64 “chaptered”) “Food Rules – An Eaters Manual” by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2009). Any of Micheal Pollan’s books are excellent, but this is SUCH a cute book – make great presents for anyone, who……well, eats ! As simple as it gets “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. Great illustrations too and simple enough concepts about organics and agri-food topics for children to grasp as well.

3) As far as kids go, I found “Last Child in the Woods – Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (by Richard Louv 2008, Algonquin Books) absolutely bang-on. How our kids are more wired & messed up than ever and how much they are missing out on the creative, restorative, moral and nurturing powers of being “in nature” if we allow them to live a “biophobic” (scared of nature & bugs & mess) life. Talk about inspire you to build cubby houses in neighbouring vacant orchards, which is what happened after we read it. Brought back great memories & ignited a greater longing for my kids to be bestowed with something similar to my own icky & brilliant farm upbringing.

4) Affluenza – by Clive Hamilton. Ouch! Read that one before Christmas and you’ll save a bunch of $$$. Might help you move away long-term from your own consumption habits, binging and the inevitable disappointment you face when you buy “stuff” rather than “things”. (Allen & Unwin, 2005).

5)  Again, Paul Hawken “Blessed Unrest”. Basically a book about who all the people are who are already working on building this restorative economy. His research has discovered the “largest movement on earth” and how this collective intelligence and effort is morphing into one combined driver for social justice, environmental responsibility, peace and respect for our indigenous brothers and sisters. (If you want a sneak peek, see his clip – my favourite all-time green video, still get goose bumps when he says “Pachamama” !) (Viking Books, 2007).

6) & 7) The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery (2007, Penguin) & Eaarth by Bill McKibben (2010, Henry Holt Books). Both are clear (and scary) accounts of climate change issues. These two authors and books are virtually interchangeable. They both say that each other is the best climate crisis oracle of our time. Well, there is no winner. The books equally will engage your passion and are filled with “what-to-dos”.

8) The Sacred Balance – David Suzuki (Greystone Books, 1999). This is a profound book, one of many you could read by David Suzuki. He researched many dreaming stories of indigenous people to show how they  consider themselves innately joined to rather than separate from the natural world. His message of the crucial interconnectedness of everything makes this a touching and spiritual account of our relationship with all that is around us. I loved this book.

9) The Transition Handbook (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008) by Rob Hopkins is a post-oil peak guidebook, almost textbook-like. It’s a self-reliance, locavore manual that left me more energized than anxious about a low-energy future. I ended up surprised at how many underlined sections & notes I’d made by the end……

10) If you’re not an eco-holic by now, there’s no hope for you! Ecoholic, by Adria Vasil (Random House, 2007) is a full-on Canadian/US green product encyclopedia. Worth a look. From the greenest options for head lice treatment to the carbon footprint of winter coats, her blog & books are full of brilliant ways to purchase more wisely.

This has been a great exercise for me in realizing the depth and breadth of information that’s out there on many, many topics. There are so many wonderful thinkers and workers in this field. They are compassionate, wickedly smart, courageous and endlessly enthusiastic. Please take some time out to read, some of it will be sure to rub off !

Daggy Mags


I am a magazine-a-holic.

Green livings, interiors, art, gardening – love ’em all. No idea when this affliction began, but as a sustainability professional it’s my Achilles’ heel. Since what I do in working hours can be a bit of a slog – it’s a creative escape, a way to find beauty and sense in a sometimes world of waste, consumption and yick.

The best guilt offsets so far have been the second-hand piles of free mags at my old library in Canada, the newsagents who resell them at one of my local “down-towns” in Goodwood and the thrift shop, the Salvos around the corner.

Yet still I buy.

This time though I grilled the poor retail assistant about the out-of-date ones. This agency claims they “don’t have the space” to keep old magazines for re-sale. Covers come off & get sent back to the publishers, and retailers are paid full price. What becomes of the rest is up the discretion of the individual. No-one measures the impact, and apparently (after speaking to one publisher, the huge Bauer Media) the impact is no-ones real concern. Am following up with Bauer to see how (if) their covers are recycled and the numbers around that activity.

But why oh why can’t a person buy an unwanted couple-of-months old Vogue Living or Dwell for a few bucks less? That’d make a nice little good news social-benefit story for the magazine giants. Then there’d be less toxic landfill (an environmental win – conventional inks are pretty toxic) and a little sweetener for the  sales and profits of publishers including greater profit for the small guy, the agents.

There are other ways to indulge of course – there’s the beautiful semi-collectables (see Frankie, Collect and of course Peppermint) – but they still represent a wee part of a massive market.

Guessing this is one sustainability issue I’ll just have to put back on the shelf and solve for another day.

Pop! goes the retail


A quick scan of friends reveals the pop-up shop concept is hot – and the municipal/real estate sector is busily and happily manoeuvring around the complexities.

Not a book, not a nursery rhyme, but just as quirky and cute in their innocent snub of conventional big-boy businesses – the “pop-up” is alive and well here in Adelaide.

After only a couple of months in SA we’ve seen not far from our home several clothing, furniture, artist and market locations “pop-up”. Best recent examples have been Naomi Murrell’s clothing, furniture and jewellery concept store on Ebenezer Place and Splash Adelaide’s spontaneous urban retreat sites of deck chairs, lawn grass, and salad trucks.

What is a pop-up store and why is it related to sustainability?

Well, does the thought of a more sustainable lifestyle make you sad? Is your view that it is about frugality, difficult choices and doing without. “We have to make it fun!” is a common catch-cry.

Making something fun by force is largely impossible. What IS fun is when we are inventive, creative, perhaps a little naughty and we make an effort to connect with what other people are yearning for. It’s what you, the “new” consumer is actively seeking – being happy, socially responsible, buying better and buying less. Does this resonate?

Current retail delivers big on the dopamine – hits of colour, metallics, massive scale and major distraction – but little on the rest. For an increasing number of us (and the latest BBMG report on how consumers will revolutionize brands and sustainability claims there are 70 million US consumers alone who are changing ways) big retail is going the way of big-agriculture and fast food.

We now want slow……and…..local……food. Someone to talk to in a shop. Something we have procured from someone else, often something that THEY made !

We want economical items, things that connect us to our values.  A few years ago we learnt from farmers markets that you engage in 10x more conversations shopping for food there than a supermarket. A pop-up store is like a farmers market of conventional retail.

Pop-ups are usually small producers who don’t want/can’t afford overheads of a permanent store. We want those stories, we want to help build that kind of community. We want to hear from people whose friends decorate and supply furniture for their store. We want to participate, to co-create something desirable that is also socially responsible. Bring us the pallet furniture, the student portrait artist, the online interior designer who lives around the corner.

Perhaps the cynic could say it’s like a craft fair or a chip van. But it’s not like that at all.

There’s more sharing, participation and storytelling. And ASPIRATION for something better, richer, truer.

And you don’t get that at a big box store.


Adelaide sustainability “summery”


My family is new to town – we arrived just this January.

A keen sustainability practitioner, I was ready to interview sustainability icons, write voraciously about benchmarks, GHG reduction efforts and brilliant social media campaigns.

But I forgot. It’s hot. And it’s lovely.

No surprise I lost the motivation to read through corporate brochures and was more interested in chasing squid than doing professional research and ground-truthing. So what was to be a dozen well-researching and glowing articles and interviews has become something significantly less. But isn’t that what sustainability is about? When the weather’s good, forget the policy, ditch the campaign – simply head to somewhere natural and beautiful and soak it all up.

So here’s my “summery” (rather than a summary).

What are the bricks, the disappointing first impressions? What are the bouquets, the things that have gladdened our hearts and buoyed our confidence that we have in fact, chosen a great green place to live?

Find it below in my “Top 10 Green Summery Adelaide”.

Over the coming months I promise to deliver (as I suspect it’ll get too cold for beach combing).


1) Locality – the topography and location of this slice of land that is Adelaide. So diverse, such great landforms, hills, gullies, beaches, rolling plains. So easy to locate yourself, so picturesque, something for everyone.

2) Sub-tropics ! There are coloured fish and coloured birds, banana plants and avocados bearing fruit. Oh my, what bliss to know we are living in such a lush micro-climate.

3) Obviously thanks go out to the ocean – to cool, rich, stabilizing water. Bringing incredible seafood to our shoes, steady mild seasons and great beaches to find ourselves when the cooped up inner-city suburbs get too much.

4) The heritage building stock was something we immediately were gladdened to see. From a sustainability perspective this is such a gift, and it is captured in this publication Sustainability and the Old Australian House. We have seen there is such an awareness about the great contribution old building stock makes to our communities.

5) Icons are everywhere. If I did decide to write about the iconic Adelaide institutions, where would one start, and how to stop? Haighs, the Zoo, the Central Markets, and so on. This place is as iconic as a Ken Done t-shirt.

6) Of course you have to mention the coffee and the local food (worth a bouquet each really). Well-supported hubs and hives of community activity and more posters of events on a single wall than my old home town had in a decade. It was here I saw the  – Lavazza sustainability report lying casually on a side table.

And heard about OzHarvest who pass on gourmet left-overs to local charities.

7) Cultural vibrancy. I think almost enough has been said about this, but do consider – that art, architecture and design contribute very strongly to our well-being.

8) Awareness and appreciation of natural resources, especially water vulnerability and biodiversity. It’s everywhere you look. Interpretive signs, swales and fenced off areas.

9) Local government sustainability. Yay ! You have sustainability officers, they’re everywhere ! And plans and measurement and……..

10) What really counts. Willingness. 

Will we bother with the bricks? Maybe next time.

I’ve got to go re-apply my sunscreen.