Years working in the mining and finance sectors give Willow Forsyth a rare perspective as she starts a new career focused on sustainable development.
Ms Forsyth graduated with distinction on Thursday as a Master of Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Development from the University of Newcastle.
She worked in the business sector for more than 30 years, including three as a Westpac strategist and another three for mining technology firm CQMS Razer.
That experience and her postgraduate studies have left her with a conviction to help industry and the community navigate a “better way” through the often bitter and divisive transition to environmental sustainability.
Ms Forsyth, who has a Bachelor of Science (Honours) from Sydney University and an MBA, does not believe in simply shutting down the coal industry.
“We need these industries. It’s about shifting some of our bad practices. It’s not about destroying anything at all,” she said.
“At some point we’re going to have to find a better way. It doesn’t help us, the impact of putting a whole bunch of people out of work immediately. That’s terrible from a social capital perspective as well as a financial capital perspective.
“There’s no one simple solution. We’ve got to all work together and change as quickly as we can, but to be fighting with one another and not collaborating, to be saying black-and-white answers, that’s the cult of certainty. That’s what stops us.”
Students enrolled in the two-year Masters course learn how to implement the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, develop strategies to avoid disasters and further their understanding of resilience and sustainable development principles.
Ms Forsyth, who has a 14-year-old daughter, said she had enrolled in the course because felt compelled to be part of a solution to society’s challenges.
“The bottom line is I didn’t want to be passing on a debt to the next generation, whether it be environmental or an erosion of trust and social capital,” she said.
“Unless we address this we won’t solve the intractable problems we’re facing, and if I’m going to help solve it, I need the very best information available.”
She said the Hunter’s mix of industry, education, health and proactive councils made it “uniquely positioned to run some of the experiments that need to be run in Australia and become a bit of a case study”.
As the vice-president of Stockton Surf Lifesaving Club, she has a front-row seat to an immediate environmental problem, beach erosion caused by the Stockton breakwall, which she refers to as an example of a “slow-onset disaster”.
She is lobbying for the area’s surf clubs to work collectively and with councils to rebuild their ageing clubhouses in an environmentally sustainable way and establish them as disaster refuges.
“There’s things that we can do that can be a back-up while making it a day-to-day and more sustainable asset that costs less for the members to run,” she said.
“It may not be the highest priority for everyone, but it is a really practical example of the sort of things we can do.”
Ms Forsyth’s new career goal is to be involved in the region’s “development story”, working either at a local or state government level or by building her consultancy practice.
“In our current environmental and social state I believe we are going to encounter all kinds of risks and hazards globally, which will inevitably lead to disasters,” she said.
“I find it enormously rewarding to work in a field where I can help create a shift in how we prepare for these issues.”
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