Why this environmentalist left the sheep farm

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Did she sell out?

Would a real environmentalist choose to work at a global engineering organization? It’s a discussion Inga Doak and her brother regularly have. But, she argues, there are many different ways to approach environmental preservation

You have to take the A-road from Inverell, where the rivers that run from Australia’s Northern Tablelands hills join. At the turn in the bend, you take the dirt road for three miles, past grazing sheep and wooded slopes until you reach the farm. This is where Inga Doak and her four brothers spent their childhoods, and before that, their dad and his siblings did the same. There’s no mobile reception here and to visit is to feel complete calm.

Inga, according to her brother Sam, has sold out. At least that’s one of his ways of lovingly teasing her - after all, he’s the oldest of five, and she’s the youngest. A Park Ranger in New South Wales, Sam carries out botanical surveys on horseback, monitors wild horses from a helicopter and collars dingoes with GPS devices. He gets his hands dirty and it’s a truly important job; Inga’s the first to admit that. But she still likes to tease him back. “When he’s ripping me about my own work, I remind him that protecting the environment is not all about adventuring on the land - he’s not exempt from office work like the rest of us.” She laughs.

Though they share the same values, their paths have veered in different directions. Inga is the Sustainability Manager at a global organization, working on the other side of the world in the UK, while Sam is a park ranger in their home state in Australia. Their banter often hinges on who has a greater claim over the title of environmentalist. It’s something that Inga herself often reflects on. Perhaps you can’t claim it unless you’re scaling buildings through direct action or digging your fingers into the earth – rather than working from an office, as she does. But she’s resolute about one thing: “You don’t always have to be involved in direct action.” She adds “Often you have to be on the inside to initiate change from within.”

There’ve been times when she’s doubted her own approach, but she’s also convinced by the influence she has: “If we all turned our backs on the world’s global corporations and labelled them as ‘big and greedy’, then they could get away with anything.” After all, issues of sustainability are grounded in cities; it’s estimated that 60% of the global community will be living in urban areas by 2030. That’s just the reality of how we’re choosing to live today, though Inga firmly believes that everything is connected, something she learned growing up surrounded by nature on a sheep farm in New South Wales.

For Inga, Sam and their three brothers, childhood shaped a deep, unconscious connection to the land. They learned the worth of nature’s resources, of how their dad’s annual “wool cheque” was tied to the health of a lambing season. At breakfast time, they’d watch their mum straining warm milk, fresh from the farm’s cows before a day of work (she is a schoolteacher). During shearing season, Inga would help her dad muster the sheep on horseback.

There’s something powerful about spending time in nature – it gets you outside your bubble
Inga Doak

As a teenager, she didn’t always appreciate this rural life, particularly when her friends were hanging out in the nearest town and Inga was working out how to fill the endless hours on the farm. But like much of childhood, hindsight helps: “There’s something powerful about spending time in nature – it gets you outside your bubble.”

Four of the children ended up working in environmental or agricultural community roles. Bart’s the exception; a career change led him to finance in the city, though he still regularly returns to the farm for his rural fix.

Her upbringing was idyllic in many ways, but Inga’s approach to the environment is very much based in reality. She does not view her past through rose-tinted glasses, and she’s not afraid to admit that she doesn’t hold all the answers. Making sustainability a part of everyday life is no mean feat, especially when our lives are already so complicated.

We’re no longer living in the dark ages; our existence is technology-driven. We use mobile phones containing precious metals which are often mined in terrible conditions in developing countries. But we’re not going to just stop owning phones – they’re part of our existence.” Sustainability is full of contradictions like his: “We have to create a co-existence between the two.”

The key to achieving change, Inga says, is to not get bogged down in those contradictions. “You know, some people ask why they should bother recycling at home when the world is consuming, growing and even wasting at an incredible rate. But the ‘what I do won’t make a difference’ approach is just a convenient excuse to do nothing. You’ve got to do what you can do - and this equally applies to businesses as much as the individual.”

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