Driving to work on a job site in Western Melbourne
My fourth co-op is at an ecological restoration company–aptly named Practical Ecology–in Melbourne, Australia. Australia has fairly strict environmental laws and any development, must include an environmental analysis and if necessary, and offset plan. Essentially, an offset is replacing the habitat destroyed in development with an equally valuable new habitat.
For example, one of the current projects Practical Ecology has is with a retirement home in East-Melbourne. The facilities were built on a grassland that had several rare plants. As a result part of the development agreement dictated that a portion of the property would be retained and restored. I was only there for one day, but while there, I helped plant native grasses that were being reintroduced to the area.
The work I do day to day at Practical Ecology varies greatly. One day I went to the coast to look at rare orchid populations. Recently I went to rural Victoria and laid out ceramic tile grid for reptile surveys. Last week I went far out to the West of Melbourne to grassland the government is buying to turn into a reserve. On the grassland Practical Ecology has been working to remove non-native grasses and various species of thistle through selective herbicide use.
The work itself was therapeutic. In my mind, the feeling of being out with only a few others, in a desolate landscape working is reminiscent of the American cowboy’s work. Although, instead of herding cattle, we spray herbicide. Rather than pioneer the new frontier we pioneer the re-creation of the old frontier–the historic ecosystem. I spent several hours at a time with a backpack full of herbicide wandering the grasslands looking for thistle.
On one such venture as I was walking along the fence line adjacent to a cow pasture–there were several cows wandering around–when I noticed an odd shaped brown creature taller than me. After a moment of deliberation, I decided the only real possibility was that this creature was a camel. A far cry from the traditional Aussie fauna–kangaroos, emus, koalas, etc.–the camel was alien to the Australian grasslands landscape.
One of the men I work with later told me that Australia imported a lot of camels back in the day because “they did well in the outback.” Nowadays there are feral camels all over Australia. Apparently the camels feed on an exotic melon that the government also planted in the outback, because: a) they are one of the few plants that can grow in the harsh climate and b) camels can eat them.
Out in the grassland looking at the camel, I couldn’t help but feel a special connection. Like the camel, I was not from here. Before coming to Australia I had always assumed that it was similar to the States, and it is, in some ways, but not in most. Because of my accent, there is no mistaking me for a native, much like the camel’s size and unique shape is clearly not native. Different is good, it is why I choose to do an international co-op.
Practical Ecology is also different from any of my other co-ops, which were all for nonprofits. Practical Ecology is a company that generates revenue through environmental restoration. Environmental regulations have created an opportunity for businesses to profit on environmental protection and restoration. This is an incredible difference from the nonprofits I have previously worked at. At Fountain House–a nonprofit for mental health–where I worked for my previous co-op, so much time and energy was dedicated to fundraising to keep the house functional.
The concept of business that can function while simultaneously maintaining an ethical mission was new to me. Practical Ecology is working to protect the environment while simultaneously maintaining enough profit to be financially stable. This only possible because of Australia’s environmental regulations. The truth is that environmental restoration is a fairly expensive process and requires a ton of labor–trust me–and regulation is the only way to ensure adequate restoration.