As a conversation, the poem is inspired by the space between us, the overlap where our concerns resonate and are amplified. It’s shaped most by the insidious nature and continual presence of eugenics in society, and by a desire to find a voice for our agency. We began by deciding to write a double helix, to indicate our collaboration and our genetics—it was a form that both constrained and liberated our phrases.
I dance. I fly – dog paddle upwards, a vertical take-off like a helicopter (great for escaping danger), and breaststroke through the sky or glide on updrafts. There is joy in the journey. But back down on earth, leaving the reverie, my physical and attitudinal surroundings are not so conducive to travel. I use a mobility scooter or wheelchair to get around and commuting on public transport from Blacktown to Wynyard Station is closer to a nightmare.
To travel to Sydney’s CBD by train, I load my wheelchair into the back of the car using a hoist. It only takes me about ten minutes to drive to the station, then the search for parking begins. There are notoriously few public car parks near Blacktown Station, let alone disability spaces. At Boys Ave there are 130 spots, and eight of those are for disabled commuters. Say I’m lucky enough to find parking. Then I unload my chair, negotiate holes in the footpath, humps, bumps, and kerbs to get to the station. Wait my turn in front of the lift. The doors open and close. It’s overflowing with impatient commuters. I wait a while before the doors open finally to reveal a space for me. I wait for an attendant to let me through the ticket gate. Wait again for rail staff, who are often stressed and grumpy, to organise the ramp to get me over the gap between the platform and onto the train. Over 6000 commuters pass through the Blacktown station turnstiles on a typical workday during morning peak time, 15,800 people during an average 24-hour day.
In a 2019 9News report, Blacktown residents interviewed said they hardly ever get a seat on the train going to or from work. Standing room only, they’re packed like battery hens on the way to the slaughterhouse. Often the train is too crowded for me to board. When I can get on, I need to manoeuvre my way through the crush of bodies and find a place to hold onto a handrail so my chair doesn’t slide when the train brakes. At Wynyard, there’s another wait. The station attendant needs to put a ramp down and help me off the train. Even if a support worker accompanies me, I’m exhausted by the time I get to work and have a raging headache. My joints and muscles scream in pain.
Generally, I avoid public transport, choosing instead to load my scooter into my car and drive calmly through Blacktown’s asbestos jungle. With lockdown, I rarely travelled to the city and now I’m self-isolating, I work from home as much as I can. Today, however, I need to meet with other creatives in person at the start-up hub where our small arts organisation has a desk. The haunting voice of Karen Chilton reverberates through my car. She narrates the story of Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon, the latest book to satisfy my craving for Afrofuturism and Black speculative fiction. Suburban homes flick by, some just starting their gentrification journeys, moving away from the perceived stigma of working-class existence, to maybe one day, achieve the affluent, leafy, suburban bliss of Castle Hill. I glide past Kings Park Industrial Estate, a car and truck rental, and left onto Sunnyholt Road. Turn right, gathering speed, 100 kilometres per hour to merge onto the M7.
Celebrating ten years of Speaking Volumes, this anthology is a warning shot, an affirmation, an education
In forty short stories, poems and essays — by turns wry, gentle, furious, humorous, passionate, analytical and elliptical — these forty writers, new and established, speak volumes, invoking their experiences of outsiderness and their defiance against it.
The anthology is available at all good bookshops or on order from Flipped Eye Publishing. If you enjoyed this episode of NQRFU, try London by Lockdown: a podcast about falling in love with a new city in the middle of a pandemic; remaining curious and open, and making it work. Available on all podcast platforms or our website.
In the first half of her interview, Gaele introduces her upbringing and disability work, her creative methods as a cross-genre wordsmith and her reaction to the Australian bushfires and the current climate emergency.
Leslie: Could you tell the story, please, of how your interest in various forms of writing and disability arts began, grew and developed? How did your early life shape your creativity?
Gaele: I was born and grew up in regional Victoria, Australia. When I was very young, I did the rounds of all the Sunday schools; Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic, to collect books. I liked the stories. We moved around a fair bit but for as long as I can remember, public libraries were the centre of my world. When we lived in a small fishing town where there was no library, I looked forward to the bookmobile that drove in regularly. My parents also paid off a set of Grolier encyclopedias which provided me with hours of reading. We had an Astor radio with two shortwave bands. I discovered Radio Moscow and would listen to their English program. I received books and plastic records from them in the mail. I particularly loved traditional stories or folktales from around the world about magical and imaginary beings. So I would say that access to stories, books and reading during my early life definitely shaped my later creativity.
My interest in writing developed at school, particularly the secondary school I attended in Melbourne, where I had dedicated English Literature and History teachers who encouraged me to write. I kept a journal during that time and, as a teenager, was influenced by the politics of the Vietnam Moratorium and the growing women’s liberation movement.
I remember seeing demonstrations by disabled people on TV but knew very little about disability politics. I did not then identify as disabled. My understanding of disablement as a political concept only came about in the late 1990s when I began to experience impairment that affected my mobility and my access to buildings, transport and events. My involvement in disability arts only really started in the early 2000s when I came back from living overseas for over twenty years. I met with Amanda Tink and Josie Cavallaro at Accessible Arts NSW, who assisted me quite a lot in understanding the disability arts environment in NSW and Australia. At that time, I started writing my body into my work, the way I moved through the world, my experiences with hospitals and doctors. I was part of the first Australian cohort of Sync, a training program presented by the Australia Council for the Arts that focused on the interplay between leadership and disability. The people I met there and the course itself helped me understand that as disabled people, we can lead through our art and arts work. I founded Outlandish Arts, a disabled-led arts company for disabled artists across all art forms.
Indie Shorts Awards New York Interview with Gaele Sobott
For many disabled people, existence is a continuous act of resistance. I wrote this poem as an act of resistance and because of my growing concern about prenatal screening and diagnosis during pregnancy and Pre-implantation Genetic screening.
Two prominent human rights speakers with Down syndrome, John Franklin Stephens and Charlotte Fien, called on the United Nations to take action against countries that actively aim to eradicate the birth of babies with Down syndrome. Stephens said, “We are the canary in the eugenics coal mine. Genomic research is not going to stop at screening for Down syndrome. We have an opportunity right now to slow down and think about the ethics of deciding that certain humans do not get a chance at life.”
But slowing down is not foreseeable when the prenatal testing market is such an extremely lucrative segment of active growth for the diagnostics industry, estimated to be worth up to US $1.3 billion a year. A report by Fact.MR estimates the global market for Pre-implantation Genetic Testing will reach US $575 million in revenue by the end of 2022. Of course, profit is not the stated motivation for genetic testing. It is sold to prospective parents as a means to eliminating disease, illness and impairment with the expectation of eradicating the existence of various groups of people with genetic mutation. But the critical concepts and protocols involved in deciding who should not be born have not been clearly defined by governments, the medical fraternity, genetic technological corporations or the health insurance industry.
I allow unarticulated feelings, thoughts and knowing to direct the course of my poems. Floating, allowing the parts of my brain that daydream, intuit, engage in parallel-interactive logic to take over. Maybe, in the end, poetry is a process of interpreting the knowing that exists within bodily experiences, around the body and between one body and other bodies. Surprises and dilemmas emerge along the way and when I work out which direction to take, I spend time crafting a poem.
Some describe elements of my writing as magical. I see these elements as reflections of cultural realities; myth, turns of phrase, musicality of spoken language, the way imagination can be part of the everyday and accepted by a community as such.
I believe my writing is informed by a combination of the joy of imagining, anger, grief, love and disdain. Growing up working class, losing memory, I demand the right to get grammar and other bits and pieces technically wrong, but seek to be subjectively and poetically authentic.
Disability Arts Online is an organisation led by disabled people, set up to advance disability arts and culture through the pages of our journal. Their raison d’être is to support disabled artists, as much as anything by getting the word out about the fantastic art being produced by artists within the sector.
Disability Arts Online give disabled artists a platform to blog and share thoughts and images describing artistic practice, projects and just the daily stuff of finding inspiration to be creative.
Now is the time, with climate disaster upon us, to stop concentrating on fighting the boss and make the changes we want to see.
Scotty Foster is a solar powered, radio broadcasting, organic growing, co-operative creating, earth and people-protecting worker from Canberra, Australia. He currently earns a meagre living doing on and off-grid solar and general electrical work. Scotty is creating a co-operative commonwealth, through community groups, and on Community Radio 2XXFM98.3 with the ‘Behind the Lines’ show.
This interview is the fourth of four interviews with volunteers involved in the building of an earthbag water tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, Bywong. Vanuatu Earthbag Building assisted in this project. They have provided free plans, support and the materials required to build water tanks for people in need in fire zones in NSW Australia, cyclone zones in Vanuatu and Pacifica.
Gaele Sobott: How did you hear about this earthbag tank building project?
Scotty Foster: I heard through my dad. Someone told the Rural Fire Service that the project was happening. He’s with them, so he passed it on to me in case I was interested.
GS: Does the Rural Fire Service support this type of project?
SF: Yeah, I reckon they would love it. The more places that have tanks next to them specifically for fire protection, the easier their job is.
GS: Was the lack of water a problem in the last fires?
SF: It’s always been a problem around here, yeah.
GS: Why did you decide to get involved?
SF: Well, I can see that it is a simple construction technique that anybody can do. It’s not costly, and all you need is to raise some of your community to come and give a bit of a hand. It’s a very useful method of construction to know about. We’ve got a block out in the bush but we don’t want to be out there in fire season. Given the right conditions, it will go up in flames just like the last fires. We used to go there but now it’s too dangerous. In the previous ten years, fire danger conditions and the ferocity of fires have increased. We now have the new classification of ‘catastrophic’ fire danger. This earthbag technique would be perfect for building a fire shelter that meets the increased fire danger.
GS: How? Tell me more.
SF: The massive, thick walls would hold a lot of heat before transferring it through to the centre of the building. We need that mass in the walls and the sturdiness of the structure. It’s very strong and fireproof.
GS: Do you see other applications for this method of building?
SF: Yeah, it is now almost a year since the last fires began in NSW and there are still a lot of people down the south coast living in tents and caravans. Perhaps this method of building would be useful down there as well and help people to help themselves. If you look back 150 years, communities had building societies, where a bunch of people would get together and pool their resources. They’d then build one house after another after another until everybody had a home. It was a cheap and efficient way for the community to come together, and building codes weren’t such an issue back then.
GS: Are there currently barriers, laws, etc., that make it difficult for communities to go ahead and build as you are suggesting?
SF: Yes, there are many. The Extinction Rebellion mob have come up with a concept called a ‘dilemma action’ where a group of people take some form of action like blocking a road, or in this case building unapproved houses. If the government acts against the group, it will end up looking heavy-handed and idiotic. If they leave the group alone, then it sets a precedent. Building sturdy houses at this time for people who have been forced by fire and lack of government action to live in tents and caravans, is a great moment for that sort of action. I can’t see anything wrong with people getting together and just building their own good-quality houses. The need is huge. If you do it well enough, you can always come back with an engineer who says, ‘Yeah, that’s alright’.
GS: Some politicians are saying as far as climate emergency goes, we just have to adapt. What does adaption mean to you?
SF: Well if we keep putting carbon into the air, there is no adaption. We can’t cope with a climate that is three degrees hotter, let alone six degrees. I don’t know why they are doing this. There is no logic to it. They either deny that climate disasters are happening or they’re like Scott Morrison, who is part of a brand of Christianity which believes in the ‘rapture’, where the world ends and god takes all the true believers to heaven, leaving all the unbelievers to an eternity of hellfire. Of course their church is the only true one. There’s a possibility they believe that it’s time to end the world. Who knows what the motivations of these people are, but they do need to be stopped.
GS: What do you think the alternatives are?
SF: Adaption is one part of survival. Climate change is happening in a significant way, and we are locked into that. They talk about geoengineering. Most of those schemes are extremely risky and pretty crazy but there is one form of geoengineering that would be a really sound way forward. That is to convert the world’s agriculture into organic techniques that take the carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil. We could take all of the world’s agriculture and use it to take carbon out of the atmosphere and to put that carbon back in the soil where it came from. That would go a long way. But we also need to stop damaging our habitat as a way of life.
GS: For this local area and the south coast, what do you think the immediate ways forward are?
SF: We need to change our building techniques for one thing. The way we keep building these crazy English houses here in Australia, particularly with the climate getting way out of control with fire season, bloody pyro cumulus nimbus clouds and firestorms. The earthbag design used to build this water tank protects against fire. Bring it on. Build houses, animal shelters, bunkers. You could build a house by bulldozing up four dam walls in a square, and put a roof on it, if you wanted to. Site it properly of course.
GS: What work do you do? What are you working on at the moment?
SF: I’m an electrician. I have been an organic farmer for many years. I’ve been a blockader and an activist. At the moment I’m building co-operatives to try and create a new economy that will make this crazy one, that is eating the earth and eating people, obsolete. Build an economy that is good for people and good for the planet.
GS: I had the impression that various regulatory hurdles and laws constrained co-operatives in Australia. Is that the case?
SF: It used to be that the co-operative laws were different in every state, which made it quite difficult to trade across state boundaries. That’s been fixed now. The Co-operatives National Law has reduced red tape and simplified financial reporting for smaller co-operatives. I mean you can use any form of governance as long as the registrar lets you do it.
GS: How are your co-ops going?
SF: So far, so good. We’re still in the set-up stage of the community-run farming co-op. We’ve got a renewable energy co-op which has put in one set of solar panels already. It’s called the Pre Power One Renewable Energy Co-operative. It’s designed to enable people who have a roof with a lot of sun shining on it but no money, access to solar energy. It also allows people in the area who would like to take their money out of fossil fuels and put it into something that is reasonably ethical, to do so.
GS: How does the investment bring a return?
SF: So the way it works is that when you become a member of the co-operative, you get the right to do one of two things or both. If you have a roof that you would like the co-op to install solar equipment on, then you can put up your hand and ask for that. We will come around and make sure your house is suitable, for example, check that there is not a great big blue gum on the north side or something basic like that. If it’s good to go, then we will get a couple of quotes. Then we open up an investment opportunity for the other members who can choose to invest. We get the equipment installed for that member. That gets paid back to the investor when people pay their bills. A portion of that bill will go straight to the investor, and another portion will go to the co-op. The investor will double their money over about twenty years which is a lot better than super. It’s different from perpetual investment which is what most companies offer where if you invest once, you get the right to profits from that company forever. In our case, we prearrange precisely how much we will pay you back. We pay that amount, and the deal is done. You can invest again if you like. The beauty is that all the equipment winds up under the ownership of the people who are using it. That is a major problem in our society. Almost all the productive assets are owned by people who are either extremely rich or completely imaginary, i.e. a corporation. The purpose of corporate ownership is to extract as much wealth out of the community as possible.
GS: How do you maintain the solar units?
SF: There are two ways. You can either put a surcharge, a couple of cents on each payment. As hundreds of people are paying regular bills, we will have a pool of money that we can dip into. Or we can just raise another investment opportunity when the time arises that we need to buy something.
GS: How do you manage the co-operative?
SF: Management iscritical. Currently in our society, management is almost always a very top-down, hierarchical, do-as-I-say model. We reckon that it is one of the leading causes of a lot of problems, certainly a lot of mental health problems. If we’re spending a large part of our time at a workplace where we have no control over our work situation, it’s going to affect us. We go through school under that model, and we leave school and face that model again in the workplace. Our families are that model because our parents were taught that model, and their parents too. So how do we do it differently? Luckily, people have been thinking about this for quite a while. We didn’t have to come up with an answer by ourselves. The intentional communities movement uses the sociocracy method of governance and decision making.
This is a system whereby the people who are involved in the community make the rules. The organisational units in the group are “circles” of people who have a defined way of meeting. A lot of the political and power problems that arise in groups these days are from a lack of structure in decision making. There is a lack of knowledge about how the organisation works. So, what happens is the members of the group have to make it up as they go along. Of course, the people who are very forceful and perhaps manipulative tend to rise to the top of that sort of organisation. Sociocracy and holacracy, which I’ll talk about later, are both flatter forms of organisation than the usual hierarchical forms of decision making we find in our society. Meetings are very structured and use a form of decision making called consent which is quite different from consensus. Consensus is where you all need to agree on something before it can go ahead. It can take a lot of negotiation. It is easily stalled by someone who is bent on getting their own way and doesn’t care about anybody else. It’s good for certain things. If people want to form the purpose of their organisation. Then it might be important to use consensus, so everybody is on the same page. Consent is slightly different. A proposal is put forward, and members ask themselves if it is good enough for now and if it is safe enough to try. It is an iterative process. If there are no objections, then the proposal can go ahead. If there is some doubt, the group can say, well let’s try it and come back to assess in a week or six months or a year.
GS: Are there cases where the iterative process should be applied regularly, anyway?
SF: Many of the newer organisational models that have come out of the tech revolution use iteration frequently. Lean methodology is an example of that type of management, but I’m not really up on that. I believe they use iteration a lot.
GS: I imagine it allows for more experimentation, but also it would assist with transparency and accountability.
SF: Absolutely. Our current organisational models do not make transparency and accountability a priority. Transparency and accountability are crucial to creating more humanised ways of organising where people are comfortable and in control.
GS: You said you are also starting up a community-owned farming co-operative. What management model are you applying to that group?
SF: We will be using holacracy which evolved from sociocracy. Sociocracy is an effective form of self-management in situations where there is a community of people living together, like housing co-operatives and other intentional communities. Holacracy is more structured and business-focused. It uses documentation and software, so it’s clear to everybody what the organisation is about. A new member can join the organisation, look up the website and know exactly what the group is about.
GS: Did you establish the purpose of the co-operatives before starting?
SF: We’ve tried both ways now. I came into the Pre power co-op as a bit of a ring-in. It was after the business people involved couldn’t get the concept of a co-op not being for-profit and needing to be controlled by the community. They graciously dipped their lids and bowed out, but then they needed to find someone else to be on the board, who was more aligned with the ideas we are now putting into practice. So, I wound up taking the position. We did have a few things to sort out like a purpose that really fits the bill. There are four of us involved and a couple of other people who come in and out, so it’s taking some time. There’s a lot of work to do in setting up a business.
GS: How do you protect yourselves from burn out?
SF: We make sure that if it is too much to do, we do it next week. We don’t pressure each other with timelines or anything but burn out is a real issue. Part of the model is to ensure that the structure will be easily replicable, so it will be easy for other co-ops to join in. A co-op is a business, and running a business is a pain in the arse and running a business as a volunteer after work is just ridiculous. It’s draining, especially if you’re working long hours. So the model we are working with envisages lots of local co-ops. Pre Power One is the first local co-op we’ve set up, and twenty per cent of the revenue from this co-op will go straight up to what we call Pre Power Central. That is a co-op that is owned by all of the local co-ops. Its sole job is to make life easy for the local co-ops. The central co-op will employ people with that twenty per cent of the revenue, whose job it is to assist with running a local co-op. They will be mentoring. There will be templates for co-op policies, insurance, arrangements with installers, basically all of the hard stuff. It makes it easier for a local co-op to set itself up. All that is left for the local co-ops to do is to hold a certain amount of board meetings per year, run the AGM and figure out what to do with the profits they make.
GS: Are the local co-ops volunteer-run? Are they able to pay themselves?
SF: The locals are basically volunteer run. We use twenty percent of a local co-op’s revenue to pay the central co-op to do most of the work. If a local decides that it needs to pay someone to do something the central coop is not doing, they can do that by agreement amongst the members. The effect would be that the extra wages bill would come out of the discounts received by the members of that particular local co-op.
GS: Earlier you asked, how we organise in a different way when all we know in our families, schools, businesses, government is top-down decision making with little transparency and less and less accountability. How do you think we can start organising differently?
SF: Well, sociocracy and holacracy is one aspect, but it is a huge task to change the existing systems and culture. Sociocracy has been successfully used in family situations before, but we are also going to have to start implementing these processes through education by opening up schools. How we fund those is going to be interesting.
GS: How do you see that happening on the ground say in this area?
SF: I see it as a later stage. The first stage we open co-ops like the renewable energy and the farming co-ops, where the people involved pay their bills. People already pay bills. We are encouraging them to stop paying bills to outside entities that make a profit from them. We want them to start paying bills to an organisation that is owned by them and controlled by them. A form of organisation where they get to decide how to spend any profit in a way which will benefit the community.
We are using a participatory budgeting scheme to distribute our profits. That’s where you have a pool of profits made by the organisation, and the members get to vote and decide how that money is spent. We will have a set of criteria for applicants to pass, and members can vote according to how much they want to give to who. For example, some of those profits could go to building and staffing a school, and some to say, elder care. These are services that are not suited to privatisation or to purely profit-making concerns.
GS: If as a community, you are taking on the responsibility of care and education of your members, does that mean you assume that the responsibility for these services does not lie at a state or national level, or do you envisage starting locally in order to make changes at state or federal government level?
SF: I guess the structure of responsibility that we want to build here is called subsidiarity. It means that decisions are made at the smallest possible level, so if your school can make a decision, that’s great, that’s where it should be made. Suppose there is a circle for cleaning within the sociocratic or holacratic structure of the school, and a decision needs to be made about cleaning. In that case, the cleaning circle should make the decision. If there is a kitchen circle, that is who should make decisions about the food. If you have a complaint about the food, go and see the kitchen circle. From there, you work outwards in a federal manner. You make formal arrangements with other entities that are doing the same thing, so with other schools. Anything that needs doing at a broader level like negotiating with the government or raising funds for particular projects can be done by all those schools agreeing to work together. This method or organising has been successful in northern Syria with democratic confederalism in the Kurdish areas. They spent seven years running a system that was working in exactly that way.
GS: I imagine it takes a fair bit of time to build the structures and culture required to run a system like that effectively.
SF: Major changes like this can really only happen where there is a power vacuum. For example, when Assad deployed all his troops to the south of the country to fight the Arab Spring. The Kurds, who have been fighting Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, were well-armed and ready to build alternatives. They’ve been preparing for this for a very long time. Abdullah Öcalan has been around for a long time. He was one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978. The party was not aligned with Russia when it started, and it didn’t take the official communist line as gospel. Because of this they were shunned by the communist world. They evolved towards democratic confederalism. In their guerrilla camps, they’d have a yarn around the campfire analysing how oppression arose historically and decided the first instance of oppression is probably the oppression of women by men. Gender equality is central to their organisational principles. The Kurds are known for their women’s army, which is also democratically run.
Sovereignty is held at the neighbourhood level. That is the ability to make and enforce rules. Within each neighbourhood, sub-communities are represented. The neighbourhood meetings work on a majority vote basis.
GS: How do you see this type of system dealing with exploitation?
SF: Okay, for example, there’s also a women’s council for each neighbourhood. So when decisions are to be made, the information goes out to a group of women in each sub-community. So, there are parallel structures at work in their social contracts.
GS: And wage exploitation?
SF: Well, the Kurdish example covers a very poor area. Historically, under Assad, it was mainly primary production, a lot of crops but no processing of the crops. It was all exported—the extraction of fossil fuels and that sort of thing. Everything gets taken out and shipped away. They have set up a whole system of co-operatives now to do that work. The local communities are federated. Say you’ve got a town with ten communities in it, they band together to organise water and electricity and all of that through co-ops they create in common.
GS: How do they meet their social needs?
SF: Through neighbourhood meetings, I suppose.
GS: Are you saying there is no need for wages?
SF: Oh, I see. I’m not sure. I haven’t managed to get a source about how the economic system works yet. But they have achieved an enormous amount, very inspiring, much longer-lasting and more peaceful than what the Spanish Civil War achieved. The Kurdish example illustrates to me that the federalist model with local sovereignty is entirely possible. It is a way to create a peaceful, sustainable society out of an absolutely turbulent situation.
GS: Here in Canberra, what do you do about the role of media which generally supports and enforces current power structures?
SF: We run a radio show, Behind the Lines on community radio 2XX and make a podcast called Align in the Sound. That is a three-way podcast between the New Economy Network of Australia (NENA), Behind the Lines and a group called Co-operatives, Commons and Communities Canberra (CoCanberra). So if there is something we want to learn, we do it in a public manner. We record it and leave it as a public record and information source that anybody can look up at any time. What a lot of people lack at this point are ideas. We don’t even know that alternative ways of organising and living exist. Who has heard of sociocracy or holacracy or what’s going on in northern Syria? Almost nobody.
GS: Tell me a bit about the organisations, CoCanberra and NENA you just mentioned.
SF: Every month CoCanberra and NENA Canberra region combine to hold a community information or study group night. For instance, we recently invited the National Health Co-op and a co-op from Sydney, called The Co-operative Life, who do aged-care and disability help. We sat the video conference TV on the couch at the food co-op, everyone else sat around it, and they talked about their models, with Q&A afterwards. One is a worker co-op, and the other is a consumer co-op. We were able to explore how they work and why, and what problems they face. We also do asset-based community development training. The idea here is that the community is an asset. The strengths and passions of the community need to be uncovered and used to build solutions to whatever problems that community is experiencing. When we discover or come up with new ideas, we run a workshop.
The New Economy Network of Australia is an Australia-wide networking organisation of people who are essentially trying to build a new economy. CoCanberra is about starting up co-ops and getting things implemented on the ground. The Pre Power and Community Owned Farming co-ops are projects that CoCanberra is deeply involved in. Radio Behind the Lines does long format interviews with anyone who is trying to make the world a better place.
Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That’s what we are all doing.
Of course, we do have to fight the old system as well because it’s very quickly munching its way through the planet. The New Economy Network is a co-operative devoted to building a new economy. They’ve been around since 2016 when a conference was held in Sydney by the University of New South Wales law school and the Australian Earth Laws Alliance. At that point, there was no peak body in Australia, so they decided to form one. You can become a member of NENA. It’s got a really good website. They have geographic hubs, and they also have sectoral hubs like an education hub, a First Nations economics hub, housing, food, you name it. There’s a long list. You might live in a regional area, and you’ve got a passion or in-depth knowledge of renewable energy; you can hook up with people from around Australia who have similar values and skills. Behind the Lines is a community radio show that has been going for thirty-two years. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years. We work together with CoCanberra, and have recorded a lot of the New Economy Network conferences. If it’s appropriate to record the CoCanberra / NENA meetups, we will record them. We run editing training workshops over the web, building a team to polish up all that raw audio. Once we finally get them edited, We put them all up as podcasts.
GS: Do you work with unions?
SF: We’ve been trying to, but we haven’t had the numbers to form what they call a union co-op yet. There is interest in Canberra, and there’s a mob in Melbourne called the Earthworker Co-op. They bring together trade unionists, environmentalists, small business people and others in common cause. They began as a coalition of what was left of the Builders Labourers Federation after they got banned, alongside parts of the Green movement. Earthworker operates parallel to us trying to create a co-operative commonwealth on the ground. We are moving towards meeting our needs and capturing the profits rather than letting them go up to all the crazies who currently run the world.
GS: What are the main problems you see with trade unions in Australia.
SF: I think their principal problem is that they are stuck fighting the boss rather than working to make the boss obsolete. They are stuck in a perpetual fight, and that’s not good for culture, spirit or anything else. From being in the system, you become like that system no matter what principles and community support you start with.
GS: What is the main message you would like to pass on to people?
SF: We cannot afford to muck around with slow change any more. Now is the time, with climate disaster upon us, to stop concentrating on fighting the boss and make the changes we want to see by ourselves. We cannot wait for big capital to do it or for the government to do it. We have to do it ourselves; otherwise, it’s just not going to happen. We only have a few years, so we better figure out new ways of organising ourselves to displace the system that is currently ruining the world. Care for people, care for the earth. We can create economic systems that support socially just and ecologically sustainable communities. We can do it, but we have to act now to get it done in time.
Interview conducted with Scotty Foster by Gaele Sobott at Lucky Star Sanctuary, Bywong, 11 October 2020.
Our climate is becoming more unpredictable and we need options. We need the autonomy of knowing how to put solutions in place ourselves. Knowing how to defend ourselves. Knowing how to protect ourselves. Knowing how to take care of our families, neighbours and communities.
Liz Sherborne is director of NeckTek, a designer and restorer. She and her husband Alex introduced earthbag building to Vanuatu in 2013. They founded Vanuatu Earthbag Building; an eco-building group that links volunteers and schools to water-tank projects in the pacific.
This interview is the third of four interviews with volunteers involved in the building of an earthbag water tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, Bywong. Vanuatu Earthbag Building assisted in this project. They have provided free plans, support and the materials required to build water tanks for people in need in fire zones in NSW Australia, cyclone zones in Vanuatu and Pacifica.
Gaele Sobott: You have assisted people to build tanks in Vanuatu and have just completed two tanks in Australia. How did you reach the point where you decided to help people build earthbag water tanks?
Liz Sherborne: Well, both Alex, my husband, and I have been volunteering and giving to charity all our lives. We were doing that long before we met each other. Over the years, we became disillusioned with charities and the waste of resources on CEO wages and marketing costs. We thought that there must be a better way to fulfil our moral obligations to society, and we decided to do our own volunteer work.
GS: What does moral obligation mean for you?
LS: I believe very strongly that service to others is the rent we pay for our room here on earth. Muhammad Ali said that. Gandhi is reported to have said,” The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing, would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” I think the idea is very old. We use the earth’s resources. We are part of a community. Those of us who find ourselves on the better end of that deal have an obligation to help those in need. One of the events that spurred us on was when our government cut the Australian aid budget to the Pacific. The idea that we weren’t going to help our neighbours but that we were going to pollute the air and accelerate climate change was not acceptable. We thought, well, we can’t physically go and make our politicians make the right decisions. We can’t force a politician to pay attention to climate justice or what’s happening to the poorest people in our world. But we can contribute to helping our neighbours survive. We began by researching a lot of family volunteer holidays and discovered that most of them have middlemen that take most of the money that is raised. The money doesn’t actually end up with the people who need it for projects. So, we thought, well it can’t be that difficult to go to a country that may want volunteer assistance, make friends, listen to what it is that they need and help them.
GS: How do you finance your volunteer operation?
LS: We started just using our personal savings. Over the years, friends and family have sponsored tank materials, a couple of businesses that we work with and the Corrilee foundation have paid for materials. We are not a charity and we don’t take donations but if someone wants to come along and help or pitch in on the costs on the concrete or the bagging, then we happily accept.
GS: How did you come to the decision to proceed with earthbag building?
LS: First, we travelled to Vanuatu. Once we started getting to know people and listening to their problems, it became evident that they wanted a roadside market. The women we met didn’t have a safe place where they could sell their yams and their woven mats and their local produce. So the focus became providing them with a safe place to sell their goods. We then researched different methods that would be suited to tropical climates. Port Vila is one of the most disaster-prone capital cities in the world. So any structure you build will be hit by a cyclone, volcanic eruption, earthquake or tsunami within several months of building it. So we had to look for something that would survive all of that and we discovered earthbag building.
GS: How did you develop the knowledge and skills to start building?
LS: We corresponded with people overseas who had done this type of building and we learned by doing it. We just did it. The first tank was an experiment to see if it worked and it did.
GS: What were the problems you encountered? What were the successes?
LS: The problems in Vanuatu weren’t with the building process. The problems were more about negotiating land leases, the right to use land. Negotiating the rights of women to participate in the project and the ownership of the building. Project money disappearing. The problems were more culture-based than engineering problems. One of the more surprising successes was that a tank seemed to result in more girls going to school because they didn’t have to fetch water.
GS: Would you mind explaining how the idea for the project came from the community?
LS: One question I get asked by missionaries and charities is, how do you know you are helping the right people? I always find that a funny question, who are the right people? I see charities over there providing plastic water tanks to communities. They don’t follow up with what happens afterwards. They don’t train members of the community to maintain the tank. They don’t have friends in the community. They just deliver the tank, bring in a water truck, fill up the tank then leave. Sometimes the tank ends up rolled away to someone else’s house and a lock put on it so the community can’t use it. Other tanks are built attached to churches and only the church members who pay their tithe can use it. They are not really community assets. We build a water tank with any woman who asks for one and has organised enough helpers. So far, they have all maintained them really well.
We were lucky to meet a builder from Tanna called Philemon, who was essential to the project. The design of the tank needed to be appropriate to the island. Philemon’s input was imperative for that. We also paid a woman called Rachel, who went out to all the islands and started building tanks. There was no way we could have introduced the tanks to custom islands and remote islands without Rachel. We work with the local people, teach them how to build their own tanks and leave them with enough material to build one for themselves.
GS: How long have you been building the tanks?
LS: We built the women’s roundhouse in March 2013. The first water tank was built in January 2014. Since then we’ve seen more than 60 water tanks built. Some by Rachel, some by the Save The Children volunteers Rachel trained, some by St Augustine’s school, some by the Laurien Novalis Steiner school. We organised building holidays for some families who built tanks and a significant number were built by our friends and us.
GS: What would you like to happen in the future with the earthbag-building initiatives?
LS: I would love for this to be adopted in developing communities, especially coastal Pacific communities. At the moment versions of our tanks are being built in 8 countries on three continents. I just send the plans to anyone who asks.
I never thought we would need to build them in Australia but I found the bushfires towards the end of 2019 and early this year completely paralysing. The very air we were breathing was people’s homes burning, their farms, our forests and wildlife, burnt koalas. It was horrifying. We were breathing that air in Sydney. Alex and I were talking about it and we realised that the one thing we had to offer was the building of fireproof water tanks. We can teach people how to build their own earthbag structures in the fire zones. Then Helen Schloss contacted us about building a tank for the Lucky Stars Sanctuary. We thought, well building a tank for an animal sanctuary is different for us. We had been more focused on building structures that would benefit women, especially mothers. But Helen had organised people to do the work and they all wanted to learn. So we said, yes. COVID delayed the project but we finally got there. We were really amazed at how well run the Sanctuary was and the fantastic group of local people, and people from all over the place, who support the work that Kerrie Carroll does. We discovered that humans are definitely on the list of mammals that get sheltered there. It was the most fun we have had building in years.
In regards to the future, what I would really like to see happen is we vote for a government that acknowledges that climate change exists and addresses the emergency. Then we wouldn’t need to use our weekends doing this work. Failing that, I think it’s like barn-raising where you work in groups and help your neighbour. Building a water tank is really hard, dirty work but it can be fun. It takes four and a half days for a group of eight to ten people to finish a large fire reserve tank. The Lucky Star Sanctuary got a wonderful group of people together. But I don’t know if this form of tank building will take off in Australia.
The two tanks we built in NSW posed some problems. In Vanuatu, we worked with sand which was full of salt and the fill we used for our earthbag tubing was crushed coral. You’re not meant to put salt with concrete because it creates a chemical reaction. But it works in the tropics because the crystals from the chemical reaction inside the concrete seal off the capillaries and seal the tank. In Australia, we are not working that way. We can’t rely on the passage of time to seal our tanks and we can’t afford any seepage. We need to keep them drum tight. On the tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, we used road base and packed it so tight that it was holding water before we put the ferrocement on. We’ve adjusted the plans quite a bit to suit firefighting. After talking to the Rural Fire Service (RFS), we now fit a STORZ valve so they can connect their fire trucks and quickly refill their water. We had to re-engineer the entire tank design to suit the new conditions. We may refine the design even further according to the different contexts and situations we find when we build.
GS: I believe you are researching more about waterproofing the Australian tanks.
LS: Yes, we just found a fantastic local company that sells a flexible cement membrane that will keep the tank from seeping. This means we don’t have to rely on crystallisation.
GS: Would you describe briefly how the tanks are built.
LS: We buy polypropylene tubing from Bundaberg Bag Co. It comes in long rolls. The last lot we cut into twelve-meter lengths. We fill that tubing with either earth which we then compact or with road base. Row by row as we build up and compact the fill down. We basically end up with a lot of rings on top of each other that look like flattened sausages. The tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary required eight tons of road base just in the formwork. The entire tank needed eleven-and-a-half tons of material. We use ferrocement as the inner lining, then we put wire and cement down. We use the UNHCR recommendation of a two to one sand-to-cement mix on the inner lining. We work the concrete to reduce the capillaries and reduce leakage. On the outside of the tank, we again use a ferrocement coating. The idea is that you then basically have two structures which are helpful if you get a weather event like Cyclone Pam. If a coconut hits the structure at 260 kilometres an hour, it might smash the outer ferrocement wall. But the internal tank remains intact and this is why they survive, earthquakes, cyclones and fire. The inner tank is protected from natural disaster.
GS: Where has it been tested in a fire situation?
LS: Well, we had no idea about fire until several of our tanks were built on Ambae Island by Rachel. Soon after that, everyone was evacuated because of volcanic eruptions. Those tanks experienced eighteen months of volcanic hot ashfall. When the residents went back to the island, they found that all the fibreglass and plastic tanks had melted. Many houses had been turned to ash and the only tanks standing were the ferrocement tanks and our tanks. The ferrocement tanks were upright but not holding water anymore. Our tanks still worked because only the external wall had been touched.
We build a cone on the top to complete the tank. The reason we create a cone rather than a flat roof is to reduce the amoeba content in the water. You don’t want your water evaporating up to the tank ceiling and sitting there getting mouldy. By building the cone-shaped roof on the tank, it means the droplets run back into the water rather than stick to the roof and breeding bugs. In the tropics we line it with cement, here we now use an extra layer of flexible cement membrane. After that, we cement render the entire outside of the tank, for added strength and so there is no UV damage to the bagging. Sometimes we raise tanks up by building them on a base. In the case of the Lucky Stars Sanctuary, the ground was hard. So we compressed road base for the tank to sit on. I don’t think we’ve ever built two tanks the same way. When we completed the last tank, we asked someone from the RFS to check it out for us.
GS: How much does it cost to build one of the tanks?
LS: If you buy at suburban retail prices and have all your materials delivered. If you use compressed road base and if you use all the fancy fittings we used on the latest tank it costs $1610.00. That’s for a W12000 litre tank. In the islands, we can build one for less than $600
GS: How much would a plastic or ferrocement tank cost?
LS: A plastic tank would cost over $2000.00 and I think a ferrocement tank delivered is between around $10000.00 to $15000.00.
GS: What would you like to say to finish up this interview?
LS: This form of building suits extreme climates with low labour costs or willing volunteers. It is very adaptable. We started this project in Australia not because we thought that this was the best water tank available but because it was the only fireproof one that could be built by an unskilled team. It was all we could offer in the face of such tragedy. You can literally use the burned land to stuff the bags and rebuild. The tank project allows people on the fire front to talk with each other about their losses and exchange information and innovative ideas. Coming together and working as a group of volunteers on building a tank can serve as a kind of therapy. It may also help people to feel more in control of their future. Some of the promised assistance has been non-existent. It is possible to organise and support each other and also support the RFS by providing water reserves. People realise they can actually build a bunker, a water tank, a safe shelter for their animals. You can start small. Build it up bit by bit. There’s no deadline. You can take all the time you need.
On the build at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, we met a guy who is using scoria as his fill, which is like pumice, to build a safe house for his bees and protect them from the next fire. You can’t really put your bees in the back of the car with your kids and your dog when you are evacuating. He has built this fantastic beehive-like structure using earthbag building techniques.
Our climate is becoming more unpredictable and we need options. We need the autonomy of knowing how to put solutions in place ourselves. Knowing how to defend ourselves. Knowing how to protect ourselves. Knowing how to take care of our families, neighbours and communities. When people come together on these tanks projects, it has the potential to provide an antidote to feeling helpless and hopeless about the overwhelming devastation we went through with the last fires.
Interview conducted with Liz Sherborne at Lucky Star Sanctuary by Gaele Sobott, 11 October 2020.
I was gobsmacked by the melted tanks I saw on telly. People lost their homes and there has been a long waiting time for them to receive assistance, especially the wait to get a roof over their heads. I was concerned by the need for water, and I thought, surely if you can build a house out of earthbags, you can make a water tank using the same methods.
Helen Schloss lives on a small property in Bywong, New South Wales, near Canberra. A primary caregiver and dedicated wildlife volunteer, Helen prides herself on her strong work ethic and animal rights principles. Some of her voluntary work includes producing ‘Tuesday Tips’ for Lucky Stars Sanctuary. Her passion drives her to help others help and protect the less fortunate.
This interview is the second of four interviews with volunteers involved in the building of an earthbag water tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, Bywong. Vanuatu Earthbag Building assisted in this project. They have provided free plans, support and the materials required to build water tanks for people in need in fire zones in NSW Australia, cyclone zones in Vanuatu and Pacifica.
Gaele Sobott: I believe you were the person who instigated the building of the earthbag tank. What gave you the idea, and how did you go about finding the expertise to commence this project?
Helen Schloss: I already had an understanding of the sustainability and affordability of earthbag building. I was interested in building a second home from earthbags on our property. Then we experienced the bushfires from early December 2019 and January 2020. I was gobsmacked by the melted tanks I saw on telly. People lost their homes and there has been a long waiting time for them to receive assistance, especially the wait to get a roof over their heads. I was concerned by the need for water, and I thought, surely if you can build a house out of earthbags, you can make a water tank using the same methods. So I put a few words into Google, and one of the first things I found was the Vanuatu Earthbag Facebook page. That was early February this year. I saw a post that Liz Sherborne had written saying they had been using earthbag-building methods in Vanuatu. She noted that earthbag water tanks would be a valuable resource in fire-prone areas of Australia. Helpful in protecting people’s properties, their lives and the lives of animals. I wrote a comment asking if they would be interested in doing a workshop down our way at some point. She instantly messaged me, and the project evolved from there. Liz said that if we could find ten people to assist with the building, they would come to Bywong. In some ways, it was serendipity.
GS: You found ten people and provided food for everybody, anything else?
HS: Yes, so I rounded up the volunteers to do the work. Initially, we were going to start building around early March, but then COVID hit, and the restrictions meant people couldn’t travel from Sydney or gather together. We had to postpone it, which meant I had to keep those volunteers interested throughout that time, sending them links and chatting with them online.
GS: What previous organisational and networking experience do you have in gathering people together for projects like this one? Not everyone would know the importance of keeping that group of volunteers interested.
HS: I have some past experience. My family and I were in Papua New Guinea for a while, and I did fundraising events for various organisations. Maybe through the trial and error of that process, I learned that if you don’t keep your communication going, not everyone, but some people will lose interest. I’m pretty sure now, knowing this crew, if I had put them on hold and not had any contact with them, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Most of them have got properties. Potentially they could use the earthbag building skills on their properties and help neighbours and their communities. But I believe in communication. I’m not fantastic with my friends and family. But when organising events for the animal sanctuary or for people in Papua New Guinea; the hospital there, I feel there’s a lot at stake. Last summer, it was scary because the bushfires were near Lucky Stars Sanctuary at Tallaganda forest and there were various other spot fires around the place. It was really worrying and very stressful for Kerrie and Yee, the founders of the Sanctuary. I think the contingency plan was if a bushfire reached them, they were going to stay and defend. It would be next to impossible to evacuate three hundred animals. That was one of the reasons I felt an affordable, fireproof water tank was necessary. The tank is fitted with a STORZ outlet so fire trucks can connect to it.
GS: How did you first get involved with the Sanctuary?
HS: In 2017, a year after they opened, I was looking for something to help my daughter, who has been unwell for some time now. She loves animals; in fact, she probably loves them more than most humans. I was looking around for animal sanctuaries and found Lucky Stars on the Internet. We live not too far from the Sanctuary, so I contacted Kerrie and asked her if she would mind if my daughter came over. I remember Kerrie saying, ‘You know it’s not just animals we look after, we look after humans as well.’ My daughter is thrilled working there and now Kerrie and I feel like we’ve known each other a lifetime.
GS: Many people who experienced the bushfires complain that they are still waiting for assistance that was promised by the federal government. I know finding funding for the Sanctuary has been a battle. How do you think a project like building this earthbag tank helps in this regard?
HS: It definitely helps. Earlier in the year, Liz was saying that they like to teach communities the skills involved in the building so that those people can pay it forward. Hopefully, one or two people from each tank-building project can do that. It is one way of getting through this deficit of government funding and developing ways to protect ourselves in the future, especially with sanctuaries. It’s really frustrating that animal sanctuaries don’t get government help, like drought assistance. That’s one way the tank building helps, and I think, also, it helps by promoting awareness. We now have an extra eight or ten people who are aware of Lucky Stars Sanctuary. Hopefully, not only do they know the Sanctuary is here, but they know that we need help from time to time. They also have increased awareness about animals, animal rights, and how tough it is for the animals, especially during bushfire season. Workshops like the tank building initiative serve to increase awareness through social media and word of mouth. More people might contribute to helping financially or by giving Lucky Stars a hand.
GS: Many community projects are continually battling time and funding constraints. People have little time to theorise about what they do, how they do it and where they are heading. How do you think we can solve that problem? How do we begin gathering the data needed to understand our impact and the choices we need to make in the future?
HS: Hmmm, that’s a really good question. Time and money are always going to be an issue. There are various organisations and government departments that collect data, for example, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But whether it’s accessible to charities and communities … I don’t know. A tool that’s simple, affordable and standardised across the sector, could be the answer, like a smartphone app. The majority of people have smartphones now, although not everyone likes mobile apps, I guess they suck up valuable space on their phones. So maybe a website app that has the same functionality as smartphone apps. All the relevant data can be just a fingertip away, no painful paperwork and time saved as a result.
Lucky Stars Sanctuary could gather data such as volunteer info, animal health, fundraising, infrastructure problems or improvements, seasonal conditions. Even information, including photos of soil degradation would be useful for analysis, reporting, planning and decision making. It needs to be well designed, intuitive and easy to use, of course. All the data is there, no more hunting for it down the track. More time saved! Tick!
There’s an app called Farm Tracker, developed by the Department of Primary Industries. It helps farmers collect similar data, including geotagged photo diaries to monitor seasons and dam levels. Some of this information isn’t made public. Perhaps this could be retrofitted to suit charity or community-based work. Then you have the question, who’s going to commission and pay for it? Maybe the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission is a place to start.
Interview conducted with Helen Schloss at Lucky Stars Sanctuary by Gaele Sobott, 11 October 2020.