In July 2005 two DEA members Michelle Allen and Nick Towle left Brisbane on an epic cycle journey down the east Coast of Australia, taking education for sustainability to schools and community members between Brisbane and Hobart, where the journey finished in mid December. The early part of this journey was reported on this page below. The report is from Nick Towle, member of the Management Committee, DEA.
Our aim was to promote sustainable ways of living to as many people as possible. Throughout our journey we carried Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’ and drew much inspiration from The Otesha Project, a Canadian team undertaking similar projects (Otesha – Swahili for ‘reason to dream’). In total we rode approximately 4800km, presenting and performing our comical theatre to over 3000 school students. It was most inspiring to spend time with young people after our presentations to hear about their own endeavors, small meaningful actions such as creating a recycling campaign in their school or making compost in their back yard.
In total there were 10 individuals who joined for cycling stages – teachers, outdoor educators, an environmental scientist and a social ecologist – a diverse, talented team of volunteers. An improvement in personal fitness was a welcome reward for participating. Clearly a hang over of our medical student days and not wishing to let an opportunity for physical research pass we each took thigh and calf measurements pre- and post-ride. Not surprisingly we noted increases of be 1 to 3cm for all muscle groups. Also very apparent was the marked increase in general fitness. While spirometry readings would have been an ideal objective measure, we settled for simple observations such as not becoming breathless on climbing a familiar set of stairs.
We learned a great deal through our interaction with hundreds of Australians from very diverse backgrounds and developed a broader perspective on how we might apply our medical training to address many pressing social and environmental issues.
We learned first hand about some of the most significant issues that Australians will need to address in the near future. Inadequate supplies of water, strained energy infrastructure and overpopulation already threaten many unique ecosystems. These issues were prominent in public discussion and local media, but for all the noise there appeared to be relatively little in the form of tangible activity to proactively change the status quo. While cycling the southern Queensland coast we passed areas of wetland being filled to make way for new luxury residential estates. Along the northern NSW coast we spoke with council staff members who informed us of conflict arising between neighbouring councils desperate to maintain their water ‘rights’ and the perceived economic boon that might come from controlling the adjoining water flows. Many residents of Sydney sit in air-conditioned comfort unaware or unsure of how to deal with impending energy and water shortages, while the political strategists have already decided on a ‘clean’ fossil fuel and nuclear future for Australia. None of these real life scenarios paint a particularly optimistic picture for the future health or sustainability of Australian society. We would not have gained such insight without choosing to spend 5 months traveling at the relatively slow pace associated with cycling.
We had many opportunities to reflect on potential solutions to these challenges. We were frustrated at times to meet individuals and groups with very narrow views on how change could be achieved – ‘change the education system’, ‘tell the politicians to fix the problems’ – effectively divesting themselves of any sense of personal responsibility. We did engage in debate over larger systemic changes that need to occur but our main focus was to reorientate people’s awareness to the vast number of empowering actions that can be taken at the personal and family level.
Inspiration came from many sources. While cycling through NSW we were stopped by a local councilor who was seeking to introduce new legislation to ensure that all new residential or commercial developments incorporate paths for cyclists and pedestrians as an alternative to car transport. Some progress has been made on this and you can read more at http://www.rideforlife.com.au/. This type of systemic change will bring lasting economic and health benefits and needs endorsement from those who are passionate about creating a healthy society.
Reflecting on our role as medical professionals, we feel that our capacity to bring about positive environmental change should not be underestimated. Closer attention to promoting healthy behaviours (such as riding a bike to the local shop instead of driving, eating fresh local fruits and vegetables) would generate demonstrable flow-on benefits for our environment.
Doctors could also take a more proactive role in public education, for example, supporting the DEA ‘prescription for a healthy planet’ project is a great opportunity, requiring minimal effort, to introduce environmental health education into waiting rooms. Three years ago at the national conference In Search Of Sustainability http://www.isosconference.org.au Professor Tord Kjellstrom made the statement ‘Sustainability is the health promotion challenge of the 21st century’, it is our hope that more doctors will take up this challenge to lead Australia toward an ecologically sustainable and social harmonious future.
Cycle for Sustainability 2005 has been an incredible journey; we are richer for the experience and feel sufficiently inspired to want to undertake it again if the opportunity arises.
For further information on Cycle for Sustainability