It was late February when I got a call from Earth Hour asking if I could be involved in organizing something in western Sydney for Earth Hour 2015. Engaging an audience on the topic of climate change is difficult at the best of times. I’ve learnt that when trying to do this in the middle of suburbia in western Sydney it becomes even more challenging. Climate change may be the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face, but I’ve learnt that for the typical ‘Aussie battler’ in western Sydney, climate change is a topic that people avoid talking about. It’s in the too-hard basket. It seems that cognitive biases, miss-information, or flat-out denial are hard at work in western Sydney. Perhaps it is the right-wing media spin and talk-back radio, or the more immediate stresses of working hard to pay the bills and raise a family, that take the priority over any long-term global environmental issues such as climate change.
Undeterred from the challenge from trying to do something that others said would not work, I set about contacting a few community leaders from a few different suburbs to seed the idea of an Earth Hour event in their area.
My first couple of conversations confirmed my suspicions. ‘It’s a great idea but the people who live here are really time poor.’ was the first response I got from a community worker in a typical mortgage-belt suburb.
‘People who have bought into this development have paid a lot to have a green-star rated house with solar panels on the roof. They think they are already doing enough.’ was the response when I approached a more affluent new-build suburb.
The more people I spoke to, the response seemed to be the same – climate change was something they didn’t want to think about, so an event dedicated to it would not resonate with people in this area. ‘This is not Newtown or Surry Hills’ was another comment.
For the most part, I at least got a polite reception, and people listed to my ideas. I only encountered one gentleman who shut down the conversation when the C-word (climate change) was mentioned. When hearing about the concept of an Earth Hour community event in his suburb. He shook his head and declared ‘Climate change is crap! Australia has always been a land of droughts and floods and always will be’.
As I started responding with ‘..But the number and severity of extreme weather events in Australia has been increa…’ he raised his hand, stopping me mid-sentence, turned his head, and walked away.
At this moment the real challenge I faced became clear. Staging an event for a group of educated, young, affluent, center-left leaning Newtown or Surry Hills-types would have been easier. Doing something in a culturally diverse, lower-income mortgage-belt suburb in the heart of western Sydney was another matter entirely.
To be successful the event needed to be non-threatening to this community. It needed to be relevant to them. It needed to suprise and delight them. Above all, it needed to be an event with a real grass-roots community feel, and not a top-down local government sponsored event with a forced agenda and strict educational message.
I realised people are on their own journey. You can’t change their belief system through one event. The important thing was to create a non-threatening environment where people can come together, see something interesting that will open their mind to new ideas, and stimulate conversation between people.
That is how the Earth Hour Picnic in the Park at Lalor Park came about.