The Marriage of Ethics and Aesthetics: Meet Dr Cara Augustenborg

PENNY McCORMICK meets five women leading the conversation about SUSTAINABILITY IN IRELAND. They share their thoughts on the concept of an alternative luxury, ethical fashion and their personal tips for a KINDER APPROACH TO OUR PLANET

Photograph by Doreen Kilfeather

Growing up next to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, where plutonium was generated for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan during World War 2, DR CARA AUGUSTENBORG tells me the joke in town was that residents “glowed in the dark”. Undaunted by their proximity to toxic waste, her parents worked to clean up the site. Clearly Augustenborg, who calls Bray, Co Wicklow, home after 15 years spent in Ireland, has inherited their eco-consciousness and determination. This formative experience in “how humans can mess up the planet” led to her to train as an environmental scientist. Latterly, her media savviness has helped communicate her message. “I used to think dwindling freshwater resources were the greatest threat to humanity and life on the planet, but after watching Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, I realised that all environmental problems, including water resources, would be even worse due to climate change. Even civil unrest, as seen in recent years
in Syria, has been linked to prolonged drought sparked by climate change. In Ireland, the extreme weather we’re experiencing will take a toll on our ability to produce food, so I have no doubt that climate change is our most pressing concern for the planet right now.”

You may have heard Augustenborg trying to drive this home and educate self-confessed climate denier, radio presenter Ivan Yates on environmental issues during her Down to Earth radio slot on Newstalk FM, or read her award-winning blog (The Verdant Yank), or participated in one of her training days creating Climate Champions in every county in Ireland – part of the new Cool Planet Experience in Powerscourt Estate. Indeed, when Augustenborg is not lecturing in climate change at University College Dublin or in corporate environmentalism at National College of Ireland, she is head of science, communications and fundraising for Friends of the Earth. This summer saw her at Dalkey Book Festival – part of a panel discussion on plastic oceans.

She’s particularly proud of the environmental legislation ten years of campaigning with Friends of the Earth has achieved. “In addition to The Low Carbon Development Bill, 2015, we’ve banned fracking, got the Government to rid its strategic investment fund of fossil fuel investments and we’re on our way to getting them to ban offshore oil and gas exploration.” All told, she’s more hopeful of Ireland’s environment than ever before.

Mindful of her own carbon footprint, as a routine, Augustenborg uses carboncalculator.com, examining her household energy consumption, transport usage and diet. “The biggest impact on my carbon footprint right now are the flights I take for work [as chairperson of Friends of the Earth Europe]. It’s not possible for me to give up those trips at the moment, so I try to offset them by taking holidays in Ireland instead of abroad.” She has also written honestly about her “break-up” with fossil fuels on her blog – she switched to an electric vehicle, a Renault Zoe, this year, and is a fan of secondhand shops for clothes. “There are environmental and cost reasons for doing this, but I like the buzz of finding something great, that no-one else, has in a charity shop.” Following the separation from her husband, when she left home last year with few possessions, she furnished her new place with charity chic. “I found a gorgeous blue velvet antique sofa and a marble-topped dining room table. Ironically, the furniture I ended up getting was much better than anything I could have bought new. It just took a lot more patience and a few coats of paint, but I’m thrilled with the result and the idea that I kept a lot of things out of landfill or incineration with my bargain hunting and upcycling efforts.”

Augustenborg also prioritises better waste management. “Recycling is probably the biggest way we can live a more sustainable life at home, and so I always make sure my
recycling bin is ‘clean, loose and dry’. I also ‘shop and drop’ and leave any unwanted plastic packaging behind when I do my grocery shopping.”

Given the many projects she has going on at any one time, switching off completely is a rarity. “I’m lucky to live right by the sea and a Special Area of Conservation, so I get out for regular walks or jogs as much as possible. Just looking out at the vastness of the ocean gives me an amazing mental boost.”

Penny McCormick

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