Ian Mclean Toi Ohomai Institute Of Technology

BOP Times features writer, Carly Gibbs, caught up with Toi Ohomai’s Associate Professor in Resource Management, Dr Ian McLean.

Traffic was slow and the parking scarce. Unseen to most was how stress-free one commuter was.

His scooter was parked up alongside his dog, Storm, an 11-year-old former plant detection superdog.

Hanging above Storm’s head, was a burnt orange helmet.

Her owner, Dr Ian McLean, had beaten the traffic on two wheels, and was halfway through his coffee by the time I arrived at the cafe to join him.

McLean is an environmental scientist who works to raise awareness about the threats to the environment caused by humans. Previously, you could’ve called him: Tarzan of Tauranga.

Enamoured by wildlife, particularly native birds, he could identify all New Zealand species by age 12. Growing up in Mount Maunganui and Waikato, children’s books, Oswald the Otter, and Bertie the Beaver, were read until pages were dog-eared.

The same with the Tarzan series, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. “That’s what I wanted to be, you see, that’s how I ended up in the Yukon. I wanted to go and live with all the animals.”

His PhD was on the behaviour of The Arctic ground squirrel, and he spent three, six-month stints living alongside them, in a tent, in their wild habitat in the Yukon, Canada. It was an isolated, repetitive experience – most days he’d sit and watch squirrels for hours – and he crossed paths with more grizzly bears than people.

Was his life ever threatened?

“You’d have to ask the grizzly bears. I mean, yes, it probably was.”

He had a gun for protection, but it stayed at camp. “I did shoot it over the head of a grizzly bear one time. It was trying to get into my caravan, because it knew there was food in there. Unfortunately, so was I.”

The whole experience was “very cool” but after spending half his career somewhat obsessively wanting to go to the most remote places he could ever get to, and work with the animals that lived there, he had an epiphany that studying animals was never going to ultimately solve the problems those creatures faced.

Nowadays he’s an associate professor at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, and today, his inner Tarzan is masked by Kathmandu clothing; and he’s struggling to master his first smartphone. Although his eyes light up at the memories. He’s had an extraordinary career, virtually working non-stop until he became a dad at the ripe age of 54, 12 years ago.

When he’s not working, he owns and plays “around” 100 instruments. “Not necessarily well,” he chimes. “But all of them I have played on stage at one point or another.”

The most obscure would be his harmonium, a pump organ. Fifteen are penny whistles, and he’s partial to the recorder and the mandolin.

He’s run for the Green Party twice, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council once, and volunteers his time to various community and action groups. He’s a finalist in the Sustainability Superstar category of the 2017 NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards, to be announced on November 30.

In his own words, he’s neither radical nor obsessive, but finds it “bizarre” when I describe him as living and breathing sustainability.

“What you’re talking about is my normal life.”

But to other people it might not be normal?

“No, and I kind of vaguely understand that. What I don’t understand is why they don’t live like I do, because it’s so easy. It’s so normal. So sensible.”

He’s recently purchased an electric car – a Nissan Leaf, that can reliably go the distance to Rotorua and back.

I hadn’t heard of the model.

“Where have you been?!”

He and wife, Dr Rebecca Sargisson, and daughters, Miriama, 12, and Skylar, 10, have an energy neutral home and until getting their Nissan Leaf, had no nett power bills. They run a heat pump via solar panels on their roof, and have a solar water heating system.

Electronic devices are turned off at the wall when not being used.

“We’re obsessive about that.”

They grow their summer salad needs, and most of their winter green needs. McLean is mostly vegetarian.

Their whiteware is bought on the energy star ratings.

They put out one bag of rubbish out every six weeks, and the only thing that’s in it, is plastic.

How do they keep their rubbish intake down?

“I don’t understand how anybody creates a bag of rubbish every week. You keep saying what do you do? And I don’t do anything. This is just normal to me!”

Everyone could be doing more, but most of us are set in our ways.

“It’s not that we’re lazy, that we haven’t got enough information. It’s all about the way that we were trained.”

The key is getting youth to take note.

McLean himself, is teaching stuff at tertiary level that didn’t even exist five to 10 years ago.

“It’s kind of the new conservation. Twenty years ago, every kid wanted to be a conservation biologist of some sort. Today, they want to protect the environment, they don’t want to be so narrowly focused on saving the kakapo or the black robin.”

The reality is, that saving our nation’s takahe, black robin, black stilt, Hector’s dolphin and kakapo, is not the solution to their problem.

“They then get put into a position, of having the same short-term horizon that the rest of us have.”

How do you create change amongst humans who do the one-finger salute (McLean demonstrates it), to sustainability and global warming?

“They just don’t see the realities of today’s world and they don’t want to. Let’s try and change the behaviour of the people that are aware and do care. Those who want to be more sustainable but don’t know really know how, or are constantly focused on the barriers.”

So, what can we do?

He says, get out your wallet.

Money will put some people off though, no?

“The response to that is, now you are not thinking sustainability. It is as much a philosophical problem as it is an economic problem. You can always justify the ‘I can’t’ sentence.

A lot of people say: ‘Oh we try and be sustainable, we recycle.’ My response to that is: ‘Fantastic. You do understand that it’s not enough?'”

He’d love to see every household buy solar panels, and a solar water heater. A fridge with the five stars, not three. And if you try to argue you can’t afford it, he’ll argue back.

“My response to them is: ‘Actually, most of you do, but you refuse to acknowledge that, because you’re always thinking about the cost and not the benefit.”

He believes too many people view sustainability as a compromise.

“We don’t have television at all, but we can get TV online. We don’t want to be excessive in our investment in technology, but most important for us, we don’t want our children watching screens.

“Interestingly, this,” he says pulling a slim, black cellphone from his pocket. “I’ve had it for one week, and it’s the first smartphone that I’ve had. And immediately the kids are absolutely bloody obsessed with it.”

How’s he finding it?

“I hate it.”

Shortly after, it rings – a peaceful tone of birdsong entwined with music. He looks unsure.

“Is that yours?” Oh, it’s my phone! The kids put that (ring tone) on there yesterday.”

He politely ignores it.

Birds and mammals are what he started his career focusing upon. He worked as a biologist at Auckland University, before doing his PhD in Canada, working at Canterbury University for 10 years, five years at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

Then five years in Switzerland, where he worked for the United Nations providing technical support for landmine removal in war-torn countries.

“That’s where I had the epiphany that the biggest conservation problem the world faces is saving humans, not kakapo.

“Human beings are a massive … some people call it an infestation, some people call it a virus. There are 7.5 billion people, and we represent more than five percent of the total animal biomass on the planet, and we are growing. We’re already using more resources than are available for us to use.”

He is currently involved in researching how to make housing more affordable, and contributing to the creation of energy efficient and affordable homes through papakainga marae-based housing.

“What we’re focusing on is small houses that are cheap to run because of the way they’re designed, which suit the needs of the people living in them, rather than big houses, because we think big is good.

Also keeping his green thumbs moving is the circular economy. Using used and broken goods, like old gumboots or tyres, to recreate something new.

He’s passionate and he cares. Why should we care?

“We know we’re getting climate change. The only question now, is how much climate change are we going to get? We’ve already had a million refugees flow into Europe from North Africa, and it’s not being driven by [militant group] Isis. These people are economic refugees, rather than political refugees.”

McLean’s paid job is to create sustainability champions. He’s genuine in saying he might not always succeed, but he hopes that for every young mind he encounters, he imparts passion and thought.

On his fridge at home, lives a child’s hand drawn black-and-white picture of houses sandwiched in a row, saddled by an everlasting sun.

It reminds him that the small people, and the small things, are what really matter. 

In bubble writing it reads: “I [heart] the world.”

Associate Professor McLean is leading the development and implementation of the Applied Science programme at Toi Ohomai, with a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability and kaitiakitanga. He currently teaches on the NZ Diploma in Applied Science.