The Flip Side of Ambition

Getting the best balance in life is not easy… making the hard choices needs thought and planning.

Steve Douglas’s ambitions read like the flip side of most people’s idea of success. He is wary of high-paying jobs, happy with an older car and a small home and never flies overseas. Douglas is an ecological consultant and doctoral student. His partner, Dr Emma Rush is a philosopher and social researcher at the Australia Institute in Canberra.

At the age of 15 Rush decided that she would never own a car. Not just because of the carbon emissions but out of “solidarity” with the majority of the world’s population, who in their wildest dreams could never afford a motor vehicle. She relies on her bicycle and public transport.
Rush, whose doctoral dissertation was on reducing consumption in the industrialised world, rejects the idea that not owning a car is a chore — in fact cycling is one of her favourite forms of ecologically sustainable hedonism.

“It’s a pure joy to pedal around,” she says. “It’s so nice to be outside.”

Douglas owns a car because without it his job would be almost impossible. But, unlike many other private consultants, he refuses to lease or buy a new vehicle every few years.
He minimises the use of his car and offsets its greenhouse gas emissions by subscribing to a company that each year plants enough trees to take up the vehicle’s output of CO2 .
Both vow they will never take an international flight because of the greenhouse gas emissions such a journey would entail. When work requires him to fly domestically Douglas asks his clients to offset the carbon emissions of his travel.

Both have rejected the lure of high- paying positions, Rush in the public service and Douglas as a consultant with a large firm so that their quality of life is not compromised.
Douglas has retrofitted his home to reduce energy use.

“I have no lawn, no lawn mower, all of my garden is mulched and all but the food plants are hardy natives.” He collects his shower water in buckets for his garden and grows some vegetables and fruits. Rain from the roof is directed onto his yard instead of into stormwater. He buys organic and avoids buying products with packaging or which are imported.
He says the thought he has to put into his life adds to its richness. Rush lives in a share house. Food is bought from a local organic grower or co-operative.

Ben Thurley trained as a high school teacher and lived in Sydney’s inner west before working overseas as a volunteer on an aid project and realising that he and his wife had to give their lives an ethical overhaul.

“We have made a lot of small-scale decisions about trying to live more simply, we try to spend as much on others as we spend on ourselves. We have tried to set 10 per cent of our wages as the baseline that we give away and work up from there. Sometimes we can afford to do more.”

While many Sydneysiders enjoyed weekends relaxing, Thurley engages in a game he has invented called Slum Survivor. For three days he and a dozen others were at Appin, living in a hand-built slum, reflecting on life among the planet’s poorest people.

Dr Simon Longstaff, the head of one of Sydney’s moral lighthouses, the St James Ethics Centre, is now wrestling with some of the emerging quandaries of the 21st century.

Longstaff is examining whether it is possible for him and his staff to offset the carbon emissions of their travel. He warns that starting to look critically at the structures of a person’s life can lead to big changes.

“Ethics unsettle the existing certainties that you have,” he says. “Be careful when you take the stopper out of this bottle because you can’t do that and expect nothing to change. Once the genie’s out change is inevitable.”

Dr Longstaff says every decision is in principle an ethical one and involves a choice about good and right. The ethical decisions that most strike us are the ones that come at a cost to the person making the choice.

“We feel arrested by the example of a person who seems to say, ‘This is what I believe, and because of my commitment I am prepared to act on that as a matter of principle and accept the cost of doing so’.”

Quoting Socrates, Longstaff says the unexamined life is not worth living. One person Longstaff knows and respects is the former senior BP executive Greg Bourne. After decades as an oil man Bourne is now in charge of WWF Australia, one of Australia’s most influential environmental organisations. Bourne’s primary ethical concern with regard to the environment is offsetting his carbon emissions. He bought a hybrid car soon after he left BP and still drives one.

“I don’t wear a hairshirt. I don’t feel any concern about flying to a particular place to go and visit friends but I do offset my emissions and talk to people about that.”

Each year he does a rough estimate of how many kilometres he expects to travel, then adds a little bit as a buffer and then pays several hundred dollars for someone else to buy the credits to match his carbon emissions. He says he is enriched by passing on business skills, knowledge and competencies to environmentalists.
“My re-direction was very invigorating. My balance is now better.” ?