This blog records my 3000-kilometre bicycle trip up the east coast of Australia, researching a book about simple living.
On the way we’ll meet a variety of interesting characters — chefs and scavengers, farmers and gardeners, the young and the radical, the old and the wise — and learn something from each person’s life.
It’s a story about local food and community gardens, downshifting and DIY building, sustainability and self-sufficiency. But mostly it’s about people. I hope you enjoy meeting them as much as I have.
This feed contains my favourite posts, updated every few months. For more recent content, visit the full blog at www.simplelives.com.au
Gavin Webber - the green bloke
Gavin Webber is your average Aussie guy. He lives in a free-standing house in the suburbs, works a 9-5 job in the city, has a wife and kids, loves a hearty meal (not to mention a drop of wine), gets excited about technical and mechanical equipment, and has a passion for home improvement. In short, Gavin is a bloke.
But the 47-year-old father of four is also a greenie. When he’s not working in the IT department of a major bank, you’ll find him in the “blog cave” at the front of his Melton home, pounding out daily posts on all things sustainable. His website The Greening of Gavin, started in 2008, now features more than 1000 entries and boasts over three-quarters of a million page views. To top it off, the Alternative Technology Association has just named this “mild-mannered” man Australia’s best green blogger.
All of this makes Gavin Webber a curious combination: the green bloke. So how did this self-described “ordinary Australian man” get involved in environmentalism, a movement typically associated with the fringes of society? And how has his newly discovered passion for sustainability changed his life?
Sophie and I had organised to interview Gavin this morning, but after arriving in Melton yesterday afternoon we couldn’t find a decent camping site. So we called Gavin’s wife Kim and she offered us a bed in the spare room. We were standing in the kitchen when Gavin returned from work wearing a black polo shirt with a Dell logo and faded light blue jeans. Most people would be taken aback to find two semi-strangers – not to mention sweaty, smelly cyclists – in their house, but Gavin swaggered over and immediately established friendly banter. The green bloke was in his element.
Like a lot of Aussie guys, Gavin is into home improvement, and so he took us on a tour of the family’s 779-square-metre block. That’s only about a fifth of an acre, but Gavin has managed to cram an extraordinary variety of environmental features into this modest area. On the West side of the house is a veggie garden based on permaculture principles, with rhubarb, rosemary, lemon balm, thyme, kale, eggplant and many other varieties. As you can see, all the plants are neatly tucked away in garden beds, allowing space for a rocky pathway:
“Here’s me garlic chives and normal chives,” said Gavin fondly as we walked along the path. Then he showed us the aloe vera plant. “Whenever I get burnt like a silly bugger, then that’s what I use.”
Towards the back of the garden there’s a small greenhouse – built on an Easter break four years ago with the help of a hungover son – and next to that is the garage roof with a 16-panel solar system. “We haven’t paid a power bill since the middle of last year,” said Gavin.
Under the garage roof there’s a hybrid car, several compost bins and two worm farms. At the back of the house is a swimming pool with decking made from sustainably harvested plantation timber, and on the Eastern side is a chook pen dubbed “Cluckingham Palace”.
The newest addition to the property is a clay oven built in 2011, the outside covered in mosaics. Gavin shone a wind-up torch into the oven’s gloomy depths to highlight the interior insulation. “There’s five layers of clay on it so the heat doesn’t get out,” he said. “It’s bloody fabulous.”
That night we enjoyed a dinner of bean soup and home-made veggie pizzas. As we polished off two bottles of red wine, the conversation veered onto nearby housing developments containing large homes with little space for personal gardens. “I couldn’t live in a house without a backyard,” said Kim.
The next day was Gavin’s scheduled day off work (he recently downshifted to a nine-day fortnight). After leaving some milk on the stove to curdle for homemade fetta, we retired to Gavin’s blog cave for a chat about his life.
Gavin grew up on a dairy farm near Loxton, South Australia, the eldest son in a family of four children. As kids, they’d ride their pushbikes everywhere and climb haystacks for fun, enjoying a diet of fresh eggs, fruit, veggies and meat, not to mention “gallons and gallons” of fresh milk. “It was the best upbringing any kid could have.”
At 16 Gavin joined the Navy and became a radio operator. Although not his life’s calling, maritime service instilled in the young man a strong sense of discipline and determination. Those two decades in the Navy left their mark in other ways too. When talking about distances, Gavin still refers to kilometres as “clicks”.
After leaving the Navy in 2000, he got a well-paying job in IT and, like many people with newfound wealth, he succumbed to the heady temptation of consumerism. “You start buying stuff. Stuff like a new computer every year or stuff like a new telly or a stereo. You know, shit you don’t need. That happened for about six years.”
Then, in September 2006, Gavin experienced a “green epiphany” while on a work excursion to see Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. Gavin wasn’t aware of the seriousness of climate change at the time, and as graphs of rising CO2 levels and images of melting glaciers washed over him, alarm bells started ringing. “Why don’t I know about this?” he thought. After the shock subsided, he felt guilt for his part in the looming catastrophe. “I drive cars…I buy furniture made of wood.”
The film had such an immediate effect that Gavin refused to take a taxi back to the office, telling co-workers “I’m not doing any more damage to the planet.” Instead, he sat alone in the cinema as the credits rolled, then walked “a five click” journey back to the office, thinking about the film and crying. “It took me nearly an hour and a half. I didn’t want to turn up to work with bloodshot eyes looking like a big girly sissy.”
Over the next few weeks his research led him deeper and deeper into the depressing reality of climate change, and his wife Kim noticed a suspicious shift in his mood. “She thought I was having an affair.” Later he showed her the film, and she joined him on a crusade to reduce the family’s carbon footprint.
Within a month he’d switched to a hybrid car, and since 2006 he’s built a veggie garden and orchard; installed solar hot water, rainwater tanks and solar power; learned to make his own jam, cheese, bread and soap; built a chook pen and set up worm farms; attended climate change rallies; and finished a course in carbon accounting.
The effort has paid off. He estimates that the household has achieved an 80 per cent reduction in emissions and a 50 per cent cut in town water consumption. The humble veggie garden now supplies about 40 per cent of their fresh produce, and the orchard supplies all the fresh fruit they need in summer.
Perhaps the most profound results have been of a personal nature. “Before the green epiphany I was an angry man,” said Gavin. But getting back in touch with the planet, the seasons and the weather has had a soothing influence. “It affects your emotions, it cools you down,” he said.
As Gavin describes it, the change has been substantial: “From a sedentary sort of lifestyle – you know, going to the office, coming home, watching telly or playing computer games – to somebody who has meaning, purpose and love in his life.” He enjoys his new role as an urban green guru. “It’s exciting, and it’s fun, and I get to share it with thousands and thousands of people.”
The response of those people has been overwhelmingly positive. As we sit in front of his computer, the counter on his blog ticks over to 730,785 pages views since June 2009. But the influence of his meticulously chronicalled story goes beyond mere statistics. Here’s an excerpt from a recent fan email:
“Just goes to show that one small person CAN make a BIG change. We’ll done on putting in the effort, teaching Joe Public how to do cool stuff and becoming a changed man…”
Gavin said he receives about one such email a day, often from readers who have made changes in their own lives. He also tries to influence the community through interviews in the local press. Yesterday’s Melton Leader, for example, featured a photo of Gavin holding up two home-grown leeks alongside an article about home gardening tips.
“Doing the blog and trying to get in the media as much as I can in a positive way – and being the sort of bloke I am – is enough to inspire people,” he said. “If they see a guy like me, who works five days a bloody week and still has time to do these things, maybe they’ll wake up and realise, hey I can do that too.”
It’s just the pep talk Australia’s environmentally apathetic males need to hear – and the green bloke from Melton is the one to say it.