Six weeks into a six-month shutdown what have we learned from our enforced change in lifestyle? The ‘Crimsons’ are already talking snap-back but, to paraphrase T S Elliot, it’s less likely a bang, more of a whimper. Slack back perhaps.
So, here’s six sustainable steps that we could aim for when COVIP* finishes.
Planes, trains and abominables.
Australia can’t support two major airlines. Ansett folded, and Virgin only turned a profit two years in 10. This in a country where Melbourne – Sydney is one of the busiest, easiest, and most profitable trunk routes in the world.
Supporting Virgin is good money after bad. Richard Branson asking for financial help from jurisdictions where he’s never paid tax is a hilarious, if tragic, joke. He’s absconded to the low-tax Caribbean where BTW, he lives in spectacular and beautiful handcrafted timber knock down prefab buildings created in Bali by Australian Mark Keatinge, using Balinese temple carpenters. No jobkeeper for Branson.
Qantas, once a government airline, could snap back, if not to ownership at least to some controls to prevent monopoly abuse. With JetStar we already have 1.5 airlines, one that could expand to hire many of the workers from Virgin. Or to REX, a word that wears a Corona.
Back to that most profitable route: we should seize the opportunity to bypass planes and build a very fast train, the VFT; Brisbane – Go Coast – Sydney – Canberra (if you must) – Albury-Wodonga – Melbourne. You could save massive disruption and pollution caused by dozens of daily flights with a state-of-the-art magnetic levitated (mag-lev) train. At last the last continent gets a VFT.
Lest you think land acquisition might be expensive, much of the corridor passes through drought-stricken land, many farmers could use this as an opportunity to opt out of their unsustainable farming practices, growing back trees and putting the land to better use.
The cruise ship industry was always madly unsustainable: despite using large ships, which move people more sustainably than airplanes, they belch the worst low-grade diesel pollution in the Harbour, where they're tied up right next to residential areas.
And socially unsustainable: a 12-hour turnaround for a quick visit to the Sydney Opera House? It does tourism an injustice from an environmental point of view. No contribution to Australia (or other countries they visit): no taxes, few Australian staff and no local maintenance undertaken: a parasite feasting on the host nation and returning nothing.
When Carnival Cruises inevitably goes broke the federal government should seize an opportunity to buy their assets at knocked down prices. The Ruby Princess could be repurposed to carry live sheep to the middle East, a radical improvement to that disastrous trade, always a sustainable issue. One form of sheep for another.
Office home or, the home office
The most successful typology for Green Star buildings is the office building. Think initial sustainable buildings such as Lendlease’s HQ in Sydney and NAB offices in Docklands in Melbourne
The lesson learnt early was that success lies not in the reduction of energy and water but rather in providing better workplaces for their employees, better light, better thermal comfort and ventilation. This leads to greater productivity, less personnel churn and lower HR costs, all of which far outweigh the savings made in energy and water.
All of this was done by making the office interiors feel more homely. So successful that ‘presenteeism’ became a thing; the office was so comfortable it was better than home, so staff came to work even when sick, with the flu or worse.
Now people are working from the real home, not the ersatz one. The digital transformation to convince people to work from home, predicted to take upwards of five years, has taken place in the blink of an eye. And we can expect that to continue after COVIP ends.
The sustainable gains in transport could be massive. If people only go to work on one day a week then mass transport is no longer so mass (say 80 percent less). Movement from suburbs to the CBD, radically reduced, reduces demand on freeways as well as public transport.
Transforming the office into a home leads, through COVIP, to a home office.
COVIP has exposed how third-rate our broadband is. I’m sure Malcolm Turnbull has some rationale, in his book released this week, on why fibre to the node was better than to the premises, promising savings that never materialized, all at the behest of his crazy Crimsons.
Another great Labor idea that was clumsily privatised, and market managed into oblivion; ironic that the NBN destroyer should launch his book just as we are yelling at the ceiling about the failure of NBN to give us decent MS Teams and Zoom. Slow speeds all round, in installation and operation, needing to be ramped up for the digital revolution that is suddenly upon us.
We are now seeing how important our public owned utilities are in a time of crisis. We see how selling off the banks, the electricity generators and the networks, not to mention the airlines, was an ideological move, not a democratically rational one for the future. Regrets, we have a few.
We need to reconfigure and improve the national broadband network, which can only be effectively done if it is nationalised. The NBN will never be up to speed until Labor takes over in a couple of years. It could then use it to start a conversation about the ‘Uluru Statement From The Heart’, so shamelessly dismissed by PM Turnbull, without blinking an eye. Few PM’s have such a rotten legacy.
Food accounts for 25 percent of CO2 emissions. Surprising, but understandable when you consider all those oil-based fertilizers and machinery, sending vegetables and meats to long-term refrigerated storage that covers hectares, all so food can be eaten out of season.
A vast machine, suddenly challenged by the potential change to sustainable local food. At the outset of COVIP thousands of households raided the nursery to buy vegetable and fruit seeds to grow their own food. The aim to make meals with truly fresh food.
If only half those who planted vege’s carry on, and if only half of those make a second planting, we will have made our suburban blocks far more sustainable. More water in the aquifers, more sustainable fresh food being eaten, an increase in people being in touch with the earth, even a potential reduction in obesity. A win-win-win growing food at home when COVIP ends.
We're all wearing Zoom gear now; the newsreaders clobber of a pressed shirt, maybe a tie, but boxer shorts and thongs under the table. We've discovered the delights of ‘athleisure’. In self-iso we’ve discovered clothes in our wardrobe that are, in the words of Howlin Wolf, “built for comfort, not built for speed”.
The challenge of COVIP can help us see fashion in another light: being unsustainable in two ways: waste is created in buying replacements for perfectly good garments; and the poor material choices in those purchases.
When COVIP ends we may not go back to pressed shirts and blouses, suits that need a fortnightly visit to the dry cleaners (whose machines are second only to petrol stations in creating ground pollution). We are seeing wisdom in Mies’s saying (in his starched white shirt) “Less is More”, and our household clean-up is seeing much of our former wardrobe being donated to the local Vinnies.
As Autumn falls many will don fleece, a synthetic fibre made from recycled polyester in bottles and waste, called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It’s not above reproach sustainably (see here), but a lot better than cotton (robbing water from the Murray Darling) and wool (where the sheep’s cloven hoof is destroying land in ways the native fauna never did).
What if it turns out that our really comfy clothes, not to mention the ‘mamil’s favourite lycra, are made from inorganic materials, many even petroleum based, but are more environmentally-friendly than ‘natural fibres’?
It’s a tricky thing this sustainability slack back.
*COVIP: regular readers will know that COVIP describes the pandemic, and its responses, not the disease. This is the focus for design futures for Tone on Tuesday.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected].