News | 4th Mar, 2012

Speaking up about switching off

Sunday, 4 March 2012
Michael Green, The Age

Lina Hassan is very enthusiastic about household sustainability. “Everywhere I go, this is my message,” she says, leaning forward on her couch, in her Thomastown home.

She arrived in Australia from Lebanon in 1985, escaping the civil war. The day after she fled her apartment in Tripoli, the building was destroyed.

Ms Hassan, now 47, is an aged-care and refugee support worker with Victorian Arabic Social Services. She’s also a bilingual sustainability assessor with Environment Victoria.

When she began training for the organisation’s GreenTown project, she discovered – happily – that some wartime deprivations had prepared her for the long drought and rising electricity bills in Melbourne.

“I like all the tips, really, because back home during the war, we were already adopting some of the strategies,” she says. “We never had electricity. We only had four hours of water each day.”

If her smile weren’t so open, I’d think she was making a tongue-in-cheek comparison. But Ms Hassan is speaking in earnest. The connection is safety – an urge to provide security for her children; later in our conversation, she describes climate change as a waiting bomb. “We have to act, all of us. We all worry.”

With future generations in mind, she is most worried about water. Together with her husband, Raafat El Kashef, who is also a Green Town assessor, she’s installed tanks and become an avid water recycler. “I’m Muslim and I pray five times daily. I was wasting one bucket every time I washed,” she says. Now, she uses it on her herb and flower garden.

She is critical of the state government’s decision to ease water restrictions. “It’s too soon,” she says. “People were adopting ways to save water. We don’t know if we’ll have shortages again in the future.”

Under the Green Town program, Ms Hassan visited over 40 households and businesses in the Lebanese community in Melbourne’s north, explaining sustainability issues in Arabic.

One in five Victorians speaks a language other than English at home. For many people, mainstream eco-advice – like this column – is inaccessible.

As a remedy, Environment Victoria has posted info sheets in 20 different languages on its website. Then there’s GreenTown, which operates like a pyramid scheme. The organisation has trained six community leaders, who oversee 59 assessors, who’ve visited hundreds of homes and businesses from different language and cultural backgrounds. All up, over 10,000 people have heard the message.

Nina Bailey, who coordinates Green Town, says it’s the most effective behaviour change campaign her organisation has run. Based on the participants’ estimates, they’ve cut energy and water use by about a third, and waste to landfill by one quarter, on average. Converted into power and water bills, that amounts to savings of more than $500 per year.

Despite this success, the state government has withdrawn its funding for the scheme. Ms Bailey is hopeful she’ll find a way to keep it going. She says the results say something powerful, no matter what language you speak: awkward as it may feel, talking about climate change and sustainability with friends and family can be transformative.

“If you have knowledge, it’s worth sharing, because people want to hear it,” she says. “Your neighbours may be interested. People who seem different are often concerned about the same issues you are.”

Read more about GreenTown here

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