SUE JACKSON Therapist | Writer | Photographer | Activist

An avid blogger for the last fifteen years, I believe in the power of the word to change the world. I have participated in, and reported on, a range of protests during this period, including the successful East-West Link campaign and, more recently, our wonderful, home-grown Extinction Rebellion (XR). If you believe, like I do, that it is time for ordinary people to rise up in defence of the planet, I encourage you to explore this blog, share it with your networks, and – of course – take action.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Trains Not Toll Roads

One of the main take-home messages for me from the Economics of Happiness conference a fortnight ago in Byron Bay was about localization. I came away sold on the idea that the best way to take action is to try to make your own neighbourhood as sustainable as possible.
So when I learned that this weekend a community action forum was scheduled promoting the construction of the rail link to nearby Doncaster and opposing the Victorian Liberal Government's alternative - the East West road tunnel - I knew I had to be there.
In anticipation, last Thursday morning I stood on the footpath above the Eastern freeway, with my eyes smarting from the fumes and my ears ringing with traffic noise, to record what it's like driving into inner-city Melbourne in peak hour.

What a way to start the day!

7.30am and stuck on the Eastern freeway exit

I know it's often a squash, but how much better to be travelling to work on the train than sitting and seething, bumper to bumper in your car.
That's certainly the opinion of the bunch of stalwarts who met outside the Collingwood Library yesterday. Veteran public transport activists, new chums like me, reporters and Yarra council representatives mingled with each other before deciding to curtail the meeting. Because of an administrative stuff up, the library, which was the forum's scheduled venue, was closed for the public holiday, and the clash with Easter meant that only a skeleton group turned up for the forum.

Passionate about public transport

Although the meeting was brief, I still came away with lots to ponder:
I was blown away by the dedication of the activists. As one of them put it, ten years of campaigning had 'nearly killed' her. Yet there she was yesterday, ready to start all over again.
An example of the human cost of the proposed freeway extensions was expressed by one participant, Mary Ellen Fenelon, simply but poignantly: 'If they decide to go ahead with the tunnel plans, I will lose my home.'
There was an astounding level of knowledge within the group. People have obviously done heaps of homework and the arguments for the train on environmental, social, health and even financial grounds were very compelling. Even though I find it hard to get my head around the statistics of transport, it has left me determined to do some homework of my own.
There are glimmers of hope:
The transport Minister in Western Australia stood up to the road lobby with the result that Government money was diverted from road building to public transport. I'm told that travelling by public transport in Perth is a breeze.
I'm lucky to live in a part of Melbourne with a progressive local government. Yarra Council appointed Australia's first Greens mayor and has been very receptive to the community's desire to experiment with different sorts of edible gardens in public spaces. So I wasn't really surprised, but still delighted to hear, that Yarra is one of the six Melbourne metropolitan councils putting their weight firmly behind the establishment of Doncaster rail.
Even though the numbers at the forum were small, they were an energetic bunch, and group members have obviously developed considerable know how over the years about garnering public support. There will need to be a groundswell of public enthusiasm for rail over toll roads to challenge the determination, misinformation and dollars of big business. So future forums will focus on how to convert ideas into actions.
Signage is just one way of making an impact. And a few signs are popping up.

Spotted on my morning walk on a neighbour's front fence

I look forward to the reconvened forum and my opportunity to do my bit.
It's amazing to think that 'when' (not 'if') we have Doncaster rail, there will be 800 vehicles less per train clogging up the roads. That is 100,000 people a day who will be able to relax and enjoy their iPod or their book while somebody else does the driving. When that time comes, my photos of the Eastern freeway at peak hour might still not look like a country lane, but they might appear a bit different.

Watch out for the next post, which will be even closer to home. You can blow out the candles, while I tell you all about my adventures researching our house for the Fitzroy Residents Association 'Happy Birthday House' extravaganza.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Economics of Happiness Conference Byron Bay - part 2

Normally if I take three things away from a conference I feel it's been a resounding success. It's now a week since I returned from the Economics of Happiness conference and about twenty-three different impressions are still jostling for a position in my head. Here are a few of them:
Dave Rastovich 'Rasta', with his tanned face, lean frame and sandy-looking dreadlocks took the floor on the first evening. Since the age of six, this world-renowned surfer has spent the bulk of his time in the sea. It's little wonder he has become a spokesperson for his marine playmates who have no voice (at least a voice that we can understand).
Dave is founder of an acclaimed environmental activist group called Surfers for Cetaceans. In case, like me, you are unfamiliar with that word, it means marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Magic footage of dolphins gambolling in the ocean delighted Dave's audience. And I couldn't help but think how appropriate it was for a presentation in Byron Bay to star dolphins, those so-called 'hippies of the sea'.
Dave said that when he is in mid-campaign and takes time out to surf, the cetaceans often make supportive contact, and one day a dolphin even gave him a watery 'high 5'. He added that only a Byron resident can get away with such assertions.

Just like Rasta - young kids learning to surf on Byron beach

I had yawned at the prospect of a welcoming speech by a council dignitary. But as it was Byron I should have known better. Simon Richardson is no ordinary mayor. His first 'housing' in the area was the sand dunes. From there he graduated to a squat, followed by a teepee and eventually shared ecohousing. The previous day, from the mayoral chair (where he sits, not lives), he had overseen a triumph for local sustainability when an application by KFC was rejected.
The aptly named John Seed is Founder of the Rainforest Information Centre, which protects rainforests and the indigenous people who depend on them. John is a scathing and effective critic of the current global economy, arguing that it has become the new God.

Heretic, John Seed, rejecting the doctrines of economic globalisation   

I was delighted with that assertion because in my own book The Crowded Nest, I made a similar point, suggesting that with its own credo, liturgical calendar, mantras, patron saints, daily communicants, rituals, and missionaries, consumerism has become the new religion. It was very affirming to be on the same page as someone of John's stature.
Another great thing about him is that he not only describes the problem but has been working for years to combat it. John trains people in deep ecology, takes up cudgels against advertising and, as he puts it, is on a mission 'to defrock economics, by robbing it of its Nobel Prize, and cast it out of the temple'.
Helena Norberg Hodge, as the opening speaker, was just the first of many contributors to suggest that people are longing for a better relationship with animals, with nature and with each other. And that motif of connecting actively with each other was ever-present at the conference. There was plenty of opportunity for informal networking and partying and several of the sessions featured experiential components, with hugging galore.

For this Anglo, photographing hugging can sometimes be easier than actually doing it

The only downside of hugging is that, once you get started, it's sometimes hard to stop. So conference sessions regularly ran over time. No problem there until the last afternoon.
I'd been hanging out to see Winona Laduke. An American Indian activist, Winona was the Green Party candidate for US vice-president, running with Ralph Nader. You might have noticed they didn't win.
She has also worked on Indian reservations for 30 years and was co-founder of the Indigenous Women's Network.

Winona Laduke

Unfortunately we only got to hear a little from Winona because we had to dash to the airport. But even that taster was enough to get my juices running, and since our return I have enjoyed researching her amazing achievements via the internet.
Next year's conference will be in Japan. I've already started brushing up my Japanese: 'Sayonara'.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Economics of Happiness Conference Byron Bay

When people asked where I was off to last weekend I found myself stammering. Somehow the admission that my destination was a conference entitled The Economics of Happiness sounded fey and clearly out of touch with 'modern economic realities'. And in my stammering state, trying to explain only made things worse. Especially when I added that the location was Byron Bay. 'Remember to pack your harem pants and headband', advised one friend.


Sure, there were headbands and harem pants galore in Byron. But there was also a sublime beach where surfers of all ages, swimmers and fisher folk mingled in unregulated harmony. I know this because we played hooky on Saturday to spend the morning there. I was keen to visit Walgan, the sacred place of the Bunjalong Nation that a young Bunjalong man, Nigel Stewart, had sung about during the conference's Welcome to Country.

Nigel Stewart

As we sat next to Walgan's ancient midden, cooled by the sea breeze, with the brush turkeys and lizards scampering about at our feet, it was easy to appreciate why the ancient and present-day Aboriginal people treasure this place. Why Bunjalong Elder Auntie Delta, speaking at the Welcome, counselled us to: 'Stop. Listen. Feel. Breathe in the Beauty.'

View of the beautiful bay and mountains from Walgan 

One of the many things I appreciated about the conference was the Aboriginal presence and the honouring of Indigenous culture in general. Another was the buzz of being surrounded by 500 people from all around the world who see things very much as I do. We might live vast distances apart, but I really felt that I had found my tribe.
One of those people, Helena Norberg Hodge, was a key organiser and inspiration for the conference. In fact her film, The Economics of Happiness, based on her long-term involvement with Himalayan Ladakh and its people, catalysed the whole movement. (For a more comprehensive outline of Helena's ideas, check out the article I wrote based on an interview with her for new matilda.)
Helena stated unabashedly that the aim of the conference was to develop a completely different economic paradigm. In her view: 'If the current global economy was a person, it would have been locked away a long time ago, never to be let out again.'

Helena Norberg-Hodge

But as the conference flier suggested: 'We know what we're against. Now is the time to decide what we're for. And how to get from here to there...'
And those are the very issues I will come back to in my next post. The conference was so life-changing for me that I'll need to talk about it - a lot.
All weekend the words of another wonderful activist kept reverberating in my mind. As Gandhi famously said: 'First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you and then you win.' This statement seemed particularly apt for this tiny group of environmental activists determined to unseat the juggernaut of economic globalisation and replace it with localization and bio-diversity.
Yesterday as I described to the curious how I had spent the weekend, I didn't stammer at all.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Gold Rush Kit Homes

Yesterday I had an adventure. I crossed the Yarra - not something we Northerners do lightly - to visit down south, or South Melbourne to be exact. I wasn't only travelling in kilometres but in time, way back to when today's uber-cool gentrified suburb on the edge of the CBD went by the much more alluring name of Emerald Hill.
And alluring it was to masses of optimists who came in the mid-nineteenth century from all around the world to dig for Victorian gold. Many concluded that there wasn't enough to go round, but they might as well put down roots in the 'new world' anyhow.
Something I hadn't realised fully until yesterday was that putting down roots, then as now, was no easy task.
Although Melbourne was surrounded by bush, building materials were scarce and as many tradesmen were on the goldfields themselves, knowhow was hard to come by. So some clever people ordered pre-fabricated portable houses from Bristol or Manchester or London. These were transported in crates and advertised as being erectable 'in a few hours'. Having recently tried to assemble a 'simple' Ikea bookcase, I have grave doubts about that claim.
But there was no doubt that if you were intending to leave home to dig for gold in Australia it would have been a good idea, not only to pack your swag, but your kit home as well. In fact even Governor La Trobe, who I suspect didn't come here to dig, had that thought. He ordered two pre-fabricated homes, one of which can still be seen in Sydney's Domain.
But getting back to South Melbourne, the three houses there, maintained by the National Trust, are extraordinary. For one thing, they are all made out of iron.

Abercrombie House, originally located in Arden Street North Melbourne

I imagined that iron would have been impossibly weighty to transport, until I learned that galvanised and corrugated iron had already been invented by the 1850s in Europe, where it was all the rage. But one reason why iron houses' popularity was short-lived in Australia became apparent rapidly yesterday.

Bedroom/sauna upstairs in Patterson House

Although admittedly it was hot outside, by the time I had taken a few photos of this charming children's bedroom up under the roof I was dripping with perspiration.
Perhaps you are wondering at this point: 'Why this sudden interest in houses?' After all, they are not something I have ever written about before.
I should come clean: I was a bit of an interloper at yesterday's event in South Melbourne. My current interests lie somewhat closer to home - actually in my own home in Fitzroy.
With the National Trust Heritage Festival coming up in April, I have recently taken on the challenge of our local council to 'research your own house'. I'll post about the thrills and spills of the 'Happy Birthday House' challenge very soon.
But the opportunity to visit the iron houses and learn about the lives of their residents seemed to dovetail nicely with my own investigations. And the other bonus was that the entertaining and informative writer, Tony Birch, was presenting a workshop. As I surmised he would be talking houses and how best to write about them, I thought the event would be too good to miss.

Tony Birch in action

That proved to be the case. Tony was great. Especially as many of the examples he used came from his child-hood memories of Fitzroy in the1960s, the workshop was right up my alley. So too was the discovery that the third house's original site was in Moor street Fitzroy.
All in all I had a great adventure crossing the Yarra. And I ended up right back where I started from.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Man Who Started It All (for me)

Roberto Perez speaking at Ceres Fair Food Warehouse on Thursday

I first heard Roberto Perez speak at Petty's Orchard in outer suburban Melbourne about six years ago. I knew nothing about him in advance and was dragged along by a friend from our local food security network. Back then, Cuba seemed about as real to me as Camelot. It also felt a world apart from Australia.
But five minutes into the Cuban food security activist's talk and I was riveted. I couldn't believe how ingenious and resilient his fellow country men and women were proving in the face of the twin catastrophes of the ongoing American trade embargo and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1991, which left Cuba virtually bereft of oil.
As Roberto talked of cities criss-crossed with urban farms and residents using every centimetre of available space - balconies, bathtubs, footpaths, even buckets - to grow food, I knew I had to see it for myself. So I contacted some local magazines and offered to report on sustainable practices in Cuba. And last May, with beautiful new camera in hand (thank you Ponch!) I headed off. What I found surpassed my wildest expectations.

Oxen transporting fodder in farm in downtown Havana

Something Roberto emphasised on Thursday is that when we are thinking about designing food systems, we must never forget to include animals. Since 1991 all sorts of animals have been pressed into service in Cuba, not only providing fertiliser and food, but also transportation and 'grunt'.
Animals have a couple of additional advantages over their mechanical counterparts, Roberto believes. 'If times get tough, you can always eat an ox. You can't eat a tractor.' Yikes! Also 'You can't work for 10 hours straight with oxen. They remind you of what is is to be human.' That is crucial, he believes, because 'we need to get back to human scale.'

Havana farmer who needs no reminding of what it is to be human

There was so much wisdom in Thursday's talk that it's impossible to do justice to it here.
But one thing came through loud and clear: When faced with a huge challenge, like a 70% reduction in fossil fuels in a country as addicted to oil as Cuba was, people pulling together can work miracles. That was particularly heartening to hear as the the rest of us will soon be facing that situation ourselves.

The luxuriant terraces of Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso in Vinales 

The site above is a great example of people working miracles. Just seven years ago it was totally arid, but is now a thriving experimental farm, with a host of different vegetable crops, numerous fruit trees and clumps of sugar cane. Powered by oxen and horses and fertilised by rabbits, chickens and innumerable worms, the farm has become famous throughout Cuba for its honey and medicinal herbs.
Roberto suggested that the preoccupation in some parts of the West about eating 'organically' can in fact be problematic. He much prefers the notion of eating 'sustainably'. Citing California as an example, whose organic fruit and veggies are grown mainly by itinerant Mexican workers under back-breaking conditions, he argues that a sustainable perspective ensures the ethics of food production is always kept under the spotlight.
Roberto ended his talk with a photo of two free-ranging pigs having a fine time bonking. He argues that a sustainable future will be much more appealing if it is not simply promoted as a solution for the poor, but as something 'sexy and fun to do'.
At the end of the talk, I marshalled my courage and went up to Roberto. I had come bearing gifts - a respectable little pile of Big Issues, Earth Gardens and Pen magazines featuring articles I had written about Cuba since my return. Roberto was particularly taken with the Earth Gardens, which he reminded me have been popular in Cuba ever since early Australian earth gardeners offered support to Cuban farmers.
Roberto asked if I had enjoyed Cuba, and seemed delighted with my answer - that I had loved it. I even managed to mumble, before dashing off, that he had been the inspiration for the trip.