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June 24, 2021

Environmentalist Philip Swain on his passion for the environment

We recently spoke to Philip Swain, acclaimed environmentalist and National President of Environmental Health Australia, about his career, a typical day in his life and what sparks his passion for the world around us. 

How did you become an environmentalist?

I suppose I am an environmentalist but I don’t really think in those terms.  Necessity is dictating that, increasingly, every person in a society is participating in the environmental challenges of the 21st century. I am the son of farming parents and grew up with an understanding of the land, the importance of it and the need to protect native species, both flora and fauna. As a University student in the late 80’s I first started reading about the science of climate change and as I was entering the environmental health profession, I was acutely aware of the importance of prevention rather than cure. Working initially in Local Government I became involved in a series of programmes, an industrial area cleanup, a catchment management programme, the Cities for Climate Protection initiative and waste and recycling programmes aimed at diverting waste from landfill. 

What drives your passion?

Science predominantly, and the need to communicate what it is telling us. I have for decades now, felt an obligation to try and communicate to people the reasons and rationales for change in scientific terms. That can be something as simple as why we need to recycle, right through to why certain legislation exists to compel action in a particular area. I think one of the real tragedies of our time, and one that will not reflect favourably upon us, with future generations, is the politicisation of science-based movements and policy. Science gains credibility by continually seeking to disprove a hypothesis, so by the time something like Climate Change became common knowledge, the science was already very sound. But politics is about dominating cycles and in many ways is the antithesis of science.  Just statements, often factually wrong, that require no definitive proof (or disproof), as the news agenda moves on.  We have seen this to staggering degrees in recent years, most obviously in the US but increasingly here in Australia too. It will be interesting to see the post mortem of the current pandemic we are in, for example, evaluated from a country to country perspective. Those that let the science-based health advice drive policy, versus those that didn’t. And it should be noted the science around infectious disease transmission and control has not fundamentally changed in 170 years. So with environmental challenges, we need to both better understand and communicate the rapidly changing science.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I don’t really have typical days as the nature of my business means I travel to remote areas regularly for environmental health work and when in Perth, I operate from my home office.  I undertake a considerable amount of volunteer work for Environmental Health Australia, so if I have a typical day it will be a mix of those commitments. And trying to maintain a work-life balance of course.

How do you envision our environmental future?

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the rapidly accelerating issues that will be of our time, but I try to look on our ability to use science and invention positively as I think we already have the ability to address huge challenges, just not always the will. I think that we in Australia are extremely lucky to have the ability to lead the world in many areas of environmental change, but we are somewhat deluded about our place in it. We are a wealthy country but environmentally our housing is some of the worst in the world, and not just because of the size of the average home. We have had to legislate to move our housing toward improved thermal performance, standards that were implemented in other developed countries, decades ago. This is just one example of the myriad of environmental issues that we as a country need to move on, and quickly. I also think that increasingly people movements, and particularly younger generations, will not tolerate the sort of political manipulation, we have seen in recent years. In this context, there is the potential for conflict, but I do believe that over the next few decades there will be a form of environmental revolution that will rely on science and technology, real shifts in energy policy, extraordinary invention and an application of human knowledge in places like Australia, that will make real fundamental change as we make the move to live within our environmental means. 

What can everyday people do to reduce their impact on the environment?

There are numerous things that people can be, and are, doing. I like to think of many of these things in the context of waste reduction. Why should a person recycle? Because recycled materials are simply commodities that it took resources and energy to manufacture and it takes a lot fewer resources and energy to reuse or recycle those goods. Why should a person put solar PV cells on their house? Most do it to reduce their power bills, but they are actually undertaking waste reduction, as for every watt of energy they produce, less fossil fuel needs to be burnt to produce the same power. Detractors will say the embodied energy cost of the solar system will take decades to recover. On this sort of argument though, I always say to people, what does the science say and in the case of PV cells it’s about 4 years, so on every analysis it makes sense, given that an average system will last decades. So what else? There are numerous ways people can contribute, use public transport or replace some vehicle use for short trips by walking or riding a bike, compost food waste, get a more energy-efficient vehicle and always look for more energy-efficient appliances, insulate your home and better seal windows and doors, buy recycled products rather than virgin material ones …and the list goes on!

 

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