Taking the sustainable road Duncan Graham / Malang
|Dr Suriptono (left) and Professor Newman|
Like ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’, the word ‘sustainable’ sits comfortably on the tongue. It sounds warm and positive, something an educated person should use to display their progressive credentials.
But what does it really mean?
“Sustainability is helping communities reduce their ecological footprint, where the environment is preserved and urban living is enjoyable,” said Western Australian academic Peter Newman.
“Issues include traffic management, waste disposal, town planning, effective government and land use. Getting rid of dependence on the car is critical and a key to recovery. We are all pedestrians at some time, but when we get behind the wheel we tend to do crazy things.
“In this country that also means getting on top of the motorbikes, but I’m not here to tell Indonesians what needs to be done.
“All I’m doing is inviting local people to determine their own solutions and showing what’s happening in other parts of the world, like the impressive zero waste management program at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University.
“Inevitably some argue that outside ideas can’t be imported because of differences in culture, climate and wealth. These are all excuses. There’s no correlation between these factors and sustainability. It’s just a question of political and community will.”
Professor Newman (right), director of the Sustainability Policy Institute at Perth’s Curtin University has been in Java revisiting cities he first encountered as a backpacker forty years ago.
“I remember having a small note, just a few rupiah, less than a dollar. yet enough to buy rice for a week,” he said. “I didn’t know such poverty existed, yet these people were our neighbors.”
In Malang this month (June) he ran a short course on sustainable development at Merdeka University for a select group of academics, non-government organization heads, senior public servants and three religious leaders keen to explore the spiritual and moral aspects of going green.
Decades ago Professor Newman steered the term ‘automobile dependency’, with its connotations of addiction, sickness and lack of control into the academic lexicon. Since then he’s been pushing for better public transport rather than “the American model for using cars that doesn’t work.”
This hasn’t made him universally popular, and the hostility hasn’t just been from what Australians dismissively call ‘petrolheads’. In his home town of Perth he regularly collided with politicians determined to build freeways and shut down the trains.
After a long battle reason beat ideology; railway lines were re-opened and new ones built. “In 1992 the trains were carrying seven million passengers a year,” he said. “Now it’s 70 million.”
Though once demonized for encouraging people to divorce their cars, this year Professor Newman was awarded the Order of Australia for his ‘distinguished service to science education … through urban design and transport sustainability’.
Appropriately enough the road to becoming one of the world’s leading experts on developing public transport started after a bus journey in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales.
Peter Newman already had a doctorate in inorganic chemistry but was not convinced that life in a lab coat was the right career choice.
“I was more interested in playing (Australian Rules) football with chemistry as a hobby,” he said. “I wanted to be more socially active. I’d already been excited by the idea of an Earth Day (started in the US in 1970 and now an international event).”
A blizzard hit but the driver pushed on. “It was extremely dangerous,” Professor Newman recalled, “the road was twisting and turning. There was a deep drop. I thought: ‘This is it – we’re going over’. I decided I must just accept what happens.
“When we got to Sydney our hosts insisted we watch a TV interview featuring Paul Ehrlich. (The US ecologist was famous at the time for predicting that population growth would outstrip resources.)
“It was a fascinating program. Then straight after there was a news flash. The bus following ours had crashed. I thought: ‘I’m here for a purpose.’”
In the early 1970s the world’s only course in environmental science was at Delft University of Technology, so that’s where he went. In the Netherlands he also discovered that it’s possible to live without a car, an almost unbelievable idea for an Australian.
By the time he graduated a job was waiting at Perth’s Murdoch University, a new campus pioneering alternative fields of study and fresh ways to view the world and its problems. ‘Sustainability’ had started moving from an ethic (or, for conservatives, a loopy and threatening idea) to a science.
Professor Newman was elected to local government. He became a regular media performer and author of several books. His 2008 text Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems (co-authored with Australian academic Isabella Jennings) has just been translated into Indonesian by Dr Suriptono, one of his former students, who teaches at Merdeka.
The university is considering opening an Institute of Sustainability Studies, which could be a first for Indonesia. Degree courses are now available at campuses around the world, but not all who might benefit have easy access.
“When travelling I’ve often been struck by the amazing knowledge and experience of those working in the development field,” said Professor Newman.
“These people don’t have the opportunities for full time study away from their jobs and countries. So we are putting together an in-situ qualification in association with partner campuses overseas and offering scholarships.
“Sustainability isn’t about the next president. The issue goes deeper and further. It’s about the future for our grandchildren.
“The clash between economic development and environmental protection is over. We are into a new way of thinking that’s being recognized with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“The green economy agenda is being set in Europe, not the US. We’ve been living in cities for about 8,000 years and they are all growing. They copy each other to improve their liveability.
“I’m now old enough (he’s 69) to know that’s true. The world is changing, poverty is decreasing and that’s giving me a lot of optimism.”
(first published in The Jakarta Post 1 July 2014)