Communities that decide they can’t wait

We’ve waited a long time for climate change action. Increasingly, people in communities have decided that it’s time to stop waiting and start doing. [8 September 2009 | Peter Boyer]

There’s a play about a couple of blokes, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for someone called Godot. Little is said and even less happens — in fact it seems to be a play about nothing. Yet for many people Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece.

Samuel Beckett’s 1948 play made a mark because it touched on a keenly-felt awareness in postwar Europe that all the talk about purpose and values was meaningless because these things don’t exist until people actually live them.

I think Waiting for Godot has much to tell us today about our response to the climate challenge. Like Vladimir and Estragon, people are waiting for something to happen — for someone in authority to take decisive action. We wait, and we wait, and the talk goes on, and on.

But some have decided to stop waiting. Around Tasmania, people have committed to an informal world-wide movement to affirm the values that everyone talks about, by joining others in a concerted effort to lower their carbon emissions and reduce their environmental impact.

One such initiative began a few years ago in a secluded valley in the foothills of Mount Wellington, when the Waterworks community — basically just a strip of houses along a road leading to Hobart’s historic Waterworks reservoirs — decided to take matters into its own hands.

In  2007 the community instigated a “walking school bus”, enabling children to walk safely to school escorted by rostered parents. Then households committed to bulk purchase of solar hot water systems and photo-voltaic panels. They’re now installed and at work reducing power bills.

They have encouraged each other in improving home insulation, swapping old shower heads for new water-efficient ones,  making runs for egg-laying chooks, and growing their own vegetables. With the help of a generous landowner, they’ve started up a community garden.

Now the Waterworks community is getting serious about reducing household emissions, instigating a “climate-friendly” campaign that is spreading to groups in neighbouring suburbs.

Reducing household emissions by 40 per cent in just a few years is not too hard, according to Chris Harries, a prime mover of the Waterworks initiative. What it needs is mutual support including practical knowledge and advice, and a bit of determination to see it through.

The Waterworks plan is to start with a five per cent minimum abatement each year, working on power and water usage, personal transport, food and other purchases, and home insulation.

The steps to success, according to the Waterworks recipe, are establishing a personal or household target, setting and implementing an action plan, and measuring the results — and enjoying it. The remaining commitment is to lobby relentlessly for political action — the key to large-scale change.

Mr Harries likes to spread the credit for whatever success has so far come to the Waterworks initiative: good outcomes require multiple inputs from many talented and dedicated people, he says.

He acknowledges the value of being a cohesive and well-informed neighbourhood with strongly-motivated people to keep things moving, but is adamant that the Waterworks initiative is one of many around Tasmania that all deserve public praise and support.

All major social change such as women’s emancipation and changing smoking habits takes decades to be realised. The Waterworks people don’t expect quick results and won’t be stopped by setbacks. They are in this for the long haul.

Most important of all, they won’t be waiting any more. They’ll be doing.

• Big road infrastructure plans are one of the triggers for a public meeting next Sunday to form a Sustainable Transport Advocacy Network in Hobart and to discuss the $40 million Kingston Bypass. The meeting, organised by transport activist Greg Clausen, will be at the Kingston Beach Community Hall in Beach Road, starting at 7 pm. The Bypass will be considered by Kingborough Council the following day.

Waterworks community’s four basic rules for action

1. Look to the “multiplier effect”: It’s important to adjust our own lifestyles to live according to our values, but we can often have a much higher impact by affecting other people and institutions.

2. Focus on the big-ticket items: Be aware that commuting long distances by car or taking a holiday on the other side of the world can blow your carbon footprint out of the water.

3. Make a commitment: It’s hypocritical to moralise about the government not responding to the climate crisis if we don’t set adequate targets ourselves.  It’s not too hard for any typical household to reduce its emissions by 40 per cent in just a few years.

4. Use the ‘powerdown’ method: Set yourself a manageable emissions reduction target of five per cent a year. It’s a technique that can be applied to government, business and household alike.

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