Nature needs you: are you man enough?

In Sydney Harbour… the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has energy right to call us back. (Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs, 1980)

I like to think I am a pretty outgoing person with the kind of repertoire of ‘banter’, comebacks and stock jokes that act as social currency in the UK. Yet, there is nothing like receiving a surf lesson from a strapping, suntanned Australian bloke to make one feel utterly useless. An uptight, London office worker with no balance who’s afraid of a ‘tiny’ wave, this stock humour is reduced to smiling, nodding and trying not to get too much salt water up my offended nose. Mike, our surf instructor has clearly spent his whole life outdoors and, judging by the puffing of chests and macho gamesmanship from the French 20 somethings in our group, I am not the only one he makes feel inadequate.

After Melbourne’s laid back cool and small town feel, Sydney is a real contrast. At Circular Quay, you’re greeted by the Sydney Opera House on one side and the Harbour Bridge on the other. The city’s two most famous icons ostentatiously displayed, so confident in itself it’s getting the clichés over with before you even start exploring.

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The view from Manly ferry

Melbourne cultural ‘signals’ are taken from hipster foodiness, vintage fashion and cycling. Restaurants in hipster Fitzroy and Collingwood advertise organic and vegetarian food, locally sourced and prepared with pride. Fancy bicycles abound and you can even hire Boris Bike style steeds from stations around the city. Yet venture outside of these areas and there is a definite sense of a bubble, of a ‘them and us’. Head down Brunswick Street in Fitzroy and you’ll find local groups campaigning for investment in a new toll road to be diverted to improve the train system. In working class St Kilda, they’re objecting to plans to remove car parks and pedestrianise the high street, therby improving the tram service. This ‘hipsterisation’ has been the recent cause of protests in Berlin, and bad feeling in Hackney. Green living often gets lumped into this lifestyle with communications used to present a premium and identify tribes within groups of people. However, by getting too sucked into signaling of certain lifestyle choices, it can never appeal to the mainstream and ultimately politicises or stigmatises important issues and choices. In a country led by the recently re-elected arch conservative Tony Abbott, it’s a dangerous game to play. When OgilvyEarth conducted their Mainstream Green research in the UK, they found that 75% of the population thought that green was for crunchy hippies or rich elitist snobs, I wonder what the numbers would look like here.

I also wonder what Mike, the Australian surf instructor would think of it.

Sydney's comms are witty and no nonsense
Sydney’s comms are witty and no nonsense

Sydney represents a different type of cool and a different communication style. Despite the beach bum image, it feels like much more of a big city. Fashion is sharper yet more mainstream (think skyscraper heels and bodycon), the population more cosmopolitan and the vibe closer to what I had expected from Australia. Cycle lanes exist, but only the bravest dare use them. To be honest, I see very little in terms of sustainability comms at all: bar some amazing pop up ‘barber’ shops for Movember and heavy handed information and public service announcement. The local movement is strong here and I do see one charming example of guerilla gardening. Mainstream comms overall are witty, straightforward and sharp, with a focus on making the viewer feel smart, practical and insightful (cutting through the bullshit).

The local movement and 'Australian' products can be found everywhere
The local movement and ‘Australian’ products can be found everywhere
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Lipton comms lampoon Coca Cola’s heavily branded approach

Which brings me back to some kind of conclusion. In a country where ‘common sense’, pragmatism and straightforwardness are prized so highly, it strikes me that the hipster aesthetic can’t appeal to the mainstream. There needs to be more than one story, including a ‘macho’ version of sustainability. Again, when OgilvyEarth surveyed people in the UK, they found that only 18% of people thought that sustainability was a masculine issue and I can’t imagine it would be too different here. From Yvon Chouinard’s version of a man battling the elements, to an innovation take for the slick urbanite, to labeling for the urbanite poser, to sourcing stories for the purist coffee lover, there need to be multiple stories that go beyond vintage clothes and organic food to engage everyone.

Man vs. nature, macho sustainability
Man vs. nature, macho sustainability

Melbourne: poached eggs and epiphanies

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Melbourne is a huge culture shock after Hong Kong. It’s a sprawling low rise mix of wild west and Berlin cool with stylish and disarmingly friendly residents. Vegetarian restaurants, bars, vintage stores and endless coffee shops line the graffitied streets of Fitzroy and laneways of the City, reminding me of Hackney or Montpelier in Bristol. Coffee is a serious business, brunch is the most important meal of the day and the north/south divide created by the Yarra river is a cultural as well as physical one. The weather is like an April day in the UK, flitting from bright sunshine, to intense cold wind to torrential rain in an instant. It’s familiar and strange all at once, both reminding me of home and the furthest away from it I’ve ever been.

It’s easy to see why Melbourne regularly gets voted the most livable city on Earth. The city is navigable, public transport workable, working hours seem reasonable and compensation adequate. The pace of life strikes me as one of gentle hedonism: a contented slow burn, fuelled mostly by (delicious) filter coffee and organic poached eggs. With my experience of urban living being the London lifestyle of sleep deprivation, intense highs, grinding lows and chaotic humanity, it’s surprisingly hard to get used to.

Comms and marketing are intriguing. There is a simple, direct and straightforwardness that is artless at times and refreshing at others. Common sense and straight talking are clearly valued. Sustainability communications seem few and far between. Those that I see are from familiar sources: local campaign groups, restaurants or in parks and fall into the usual camps of too rational, expressing ‘dos & don’ts’ signaling a premium, failing to connect action and consequence or misdirected humour.

Harry as 'Crapman'!
Harry as ‘Crapman’!
Wipe for Wildlife
Wipe for Wildlife

So, here’s a summary of what I’ve learned:

  • Australian history is fascinating: After a couple of days weaving in and out of vintage shops and drinking delicious fancy coffee (Proud Mary’s reputation is well deserved). I head to the Melbourne Museum to learn something about Australian history (a topic which I am woefully ignorant of). The aboriginal exhibition is frustrating at first, assuming knowledge which, as a Brit, I just don’t possess and alluding to a sensitivity which I therefore can’t initially comprehend. Displays interview living aborigines on subjects such as culture, possessions and respect and captioned objects suggest an approach to both art and culture which hasn’t changed much over thousands of years. Those that feature in the exhibition are articulate and fiercely proud of their heritage. The horrifyingly recent reality of the ‘White Australia’ immigration policy and the ‘Stolen generation’ of Aboriginal children is an insight into the divisions within Australian society and are currently front and centre in Australian politics. It is obvious that Australia has its own issues and a rich cultural heritage that is very different to ours, no matter how similar the culture might initially seem.
  • 9bn people can’t want the same stuff: In the aboriginal exhibition, I find a placard that neatly puts into words the uneasiness I felt about the proliferation of Western brands in Hong Kong and the ubiquity of the hipster sensibility:

    “Each of our different family groups or clans have different totems. Gilgar Gundtij- our totem is the emu. So we don’t eat the emu. Our neighbouring tribal family group, the Kerrupjmara, their family totem is the diamond headed snake, so they don’t eat that, but they eat the emu. And of course, if we were hungry, we would eat the diamond headed snake..”

    To someone who loves the experience of different cultures, this convergence of tastes, desires and aspirations just feels wrong. Also, when coupled with the increasing population, the demand for the same things is presumably increasing resource pressures for products such as coffee. I know, from previous work that companies such as Nescafe and Cadbury’s have already predicted this and are taking action with programmes such as the ‘Cocoa Plan’. However, it makes me think that growth strategies that don’t respect and encourage cultural diversity are inherently unsustainable.
  • Points of wonder are being used as ‘epiphany moments’: Another enormous difference from home is the exotic, colourful and totally alien flora and fauna. A visit to the Yarra Valley Healesville Sanctuary means meeting wombats, Tasmanian devils (sinister with sharp teeth and blood red ears), dingos, koalas and evil looking snakes and the Royal Botanical Gardens are beautiful. Half way up Guilfoyle’s volcano, there is a sign showing a view over Melbourne when it was built, to be compared with now. It then attempts to link the development of Melbourne (and our human impact) to climate change. Back at Healesville, they try it too, with signs asking visitors to ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ and using the dodgy ‘Crapman’ to promote recycled toilet tissue. The parks and zoos are trying to use the wonder and excitement of discovery as epiphany moments: moments which change points of view or behaviour, which OgilvyEarth’s Mainstream Green research found to be really important in forming people’s points of view on sustainability.
    The issue here is that it’s not always executed well. The messaging I saw was still too rational and often too literal. Humour, such as the oddly named ‘Crapman’ doesn’t really work and aspiration isn’t always used correctly (no one wants to be a ‘tosser’ but then I doubt anyone wants to be a ‘Watersaver’ either). Australia’s natural beauty and unusual fauna presents such an opportunity to create these epiphanies, but need to inject more emotion and create a clearer call to action to be truly successful.
'Epiphany' comms in the Royal Botanical Gardens
‘Epiphany’ comms in the Royal Botanical Gardens

My own epiphany comes whilst drinking beer late on in the week and pressing my friends about livability. I express doubts about Melbourne’s pace of life, and probe them about whether it is ‘enough’ for them after London. Surely this is a utopia and not a genuine alternative to London life? In response to the questioning he sips his beer, sighs a relaxed sigh and responds that he would find it hard going back to London, oscillating between a 1 and a 10 all the time, knowing that life could be a constant 7 to 8. Would I swap crowded tube journeys, incredible nightlife, sleep deprivation, cutting edge galleries and mass of humanity for this fun, chilled, smaller town lifestyle? Yes, I probably would.

Places to visit (that I can remember the names of): Vegie Bar, The Night Cat, Proud Mary, Huxtaburger and Huxtable, The Tyranny of Distance, ‘No Lights, No Lycra‘ (it will change your life)