The fragile state of our planet prompted author Rod Taylor to collect stories about the impact of climate change in his book Ten Journeys on a Fragile Planet. I asked Rod what inspired him to start writing.
Rod Taylor – inspired by nature
Rod: In late 2016 I was an IT consultant, not a bad job, paid well. By night I was a science columnist for Fairfax and doing radio, occasionally for the ABC.
So while things were pretty good for me personally, I was becoming increasingly concerned about the future of humanity. My scientist friends were telling me ever more alarming news about the state of the planet. Things are looking really grim and we’re running out of time.
Then Trump got elected, which is a pretty clear message that a lot of people have no idea of how serious our situation is, often viewing it as a green-left socialist conspiracy to attack our freedom.
What to do? I am by nature a problem solver and it was clear to me that the only way forward is people. People are the solution.
While I am by nature optimistic, this is profoundly gloomy. I can’t live with that, so I decided to write a book.
This book would tell the stories of people who inspire me and, I hope, the reader.
We have a maggot farmer, a politician, a physicist and a guitar-playing part Maori. According to the title, the book charts ten journeys, but really it’s eleven because it’s partly mine too, as I navigated this path.
Rod’s book features contributions from:
The Activist: Simon Sheikh
The Solar Pioneer: Professor Andrew Blakers
The Maggot Farmer: Olympia Yarger
The Accidental Activist: Charlie Prell
The Thoughtful Salesman: Leonard Cohen
The Politician: Susan Jeanes
The Climate Game Changer: Inez Harker-Schuch
The Advocate: Professor Kate Auty
The Lady with a Laser: Monica Oliphant
A Question of Hope: Dr Siwan Lovett
Here’s an extract from the book. Thank you so much Rod for sharing this with us.
The Activist: Simon Sheikh
Extract from Ten Journeys on a Fragile Planet by Rod Taylor
Outside it was beautiful and sunny, but it was a bleak day. Donald
Trump had just delivered his inauguration address and already
he was attacking climate science. The world had just broken
temperature records for the third year running, while then Prime
Minister Turnbull was blaming renewable energy for blackouts in
South Australia. All this was just as the nation was about to record
mean temperatures for the month (0.77°C above average) and
eastern Australia would be hit by a run of heatwaves.
After reading all this grim news I met Simon Sheikh, but he
was cheerful, friendly and upbeat. We were about to record a live
interview, but it was he who started asking me questions. How long
had I done radio? How did I start writing for the newspaper? What
were my plans for Fragile Planet? I could see he’s a good operator
because of his genuine interest in other people and it was hard not
to be carried along by his enthusiasm. It gave me a glimpse of how
he’s been able to stir people out of their complacency to get them
active with groups such as GetUp.
Like anyone I don’t mind talking about myself, but we were
about to go on-air and I needed to get ready, so after a few minutes
I had to cut in, “Hey, I’m supposed to be interviewing you.”
Transcribing the interview later, I was struck by his use of
language, which was peppered with words like “passionate” and
“enthusiastic”. I made a note to learn about how a person could stay
hopeful in the face of relentless bad news.
Simon’s father was born in India and spent time in Pakistan.
Somewhere in his heritage is Saudi Arabian, which is where he gets
his surname. On arriving in Australia, his father quickly detached
himself from his ethnic background and assimilated. He’s even
largely forgotten his native Urdu. Sheikh, who was born in Sydney,
says he doesn’t think too much about this, but sometimes wishes
he knew more about his mixed background. He thinks of himself
as Australian and was surprised one day when his wife Anna Rose
told him most people don’t think of him as a “white Australian”.
Simon is tallish with soft features and breaks into an easy smile.
His Indian heritage is visible but not dominant. If you meet him on
the street, you’ll see he’s obviously not “full blood white”, but with
the ethnic mix in Australia, it’s hardly noticeable. What stands out
more is his surname, which, with his public profile, has made him
a target for online racist attacks. Even in a multicultural, relatively
progressive nation, some of these forces are just below the surface.
Still, he’s prosaic and shrugs it off. “That’s the nature of modern-day
engagement on things like social media.”
His sister Belinda died before he was born and his mother had a
bout of encephalitis when she was much younger. Later she suffered
mental health issues, which left Simon’s father the job of looking
after him. Sheikh describes those times in a Sydney Morning Herald
article. His mother’s mental health worsened during her pregnancy,
and by the time he was born, Simon’s parents were living apart.
His mother was becoming increasingly delusional with psychotic
Simon had to deal with his mother’s instability such as the
day she set fire to the kitchen while cooking chips. It wasn’t made
easier living in the inner-Sydney neighbourhood. Enmore was a
rough neighbourhood back then and drug and alcohol abuse was
common. It was an unsettling start to life as he recalls, “I’d often hear
huge fights as I lay awake at night. I remember being scared a lot.”
“I slept with an axe next to my bed after being threatened for
not paying enough protection money to a local gang.”
When Simon was 10 or 11, his father had a major heart attack
leading to a quintuple bypass. Now the young Sheikh found himself
caring for his father as well as his mother. He says his father “really
didn’t recover full strength for quite some time” and at various
times both parents were dependent on welfare.
For Simon, it was a formative moment that could have gone
either way. In an ABC interview, he told Richard Aedy:
[His father] would come back from work, in those years that
he was working, cook dinner, ensure that I was studying, and
then go back home again. Every single day. And that put in
place for me a regimen that was very helpful in keeping me
grounded and particularly in keeping me away from a lot of
the troublemakers that I grew up around.
I had a year or two there where things could have gone
By Year 7, Simon was showing glimpses of his future life and the
energy that would propel him into national prominence. Already
he had an emerging political awareness and a sense of social justice.
His first rally was against the rise of Pauline Hanson. It was, he says,
something he did with encouragement. “I was lucky in high school
to have teachers help propel that along.”
Simon’s impressions from the “fairly poor” community of his
childhood have stayed with him. “I got to see a few challenges faced
by the people around me.” There were sole-parent families and most
parents didn’t manage the finances very well. There were high levels
of drug and gambling addiction. His parents had other problems,
but he’s grateful for the strong grounding they gave him. “I owe a
lot to my dad,” he says.
After a day at school, he would go off to private tuition, which
was something few other parents could manage. Today he can
see that it was the commitment of his parents and their focus on
education that got him into university. “They were always putting
every dollar they could into education,” he recalls. “Growing up
the way I did meant I learned to be self-sufficient and to navigate
systems to achieve the best outcomes.”