Our Sense-Sational Heroes

How many doctors does it take to change attitudes to clean air? According to Tasmanian doctors Michelle Allen and Nick Towle, two can try.

In mid-August, the two keen cyclists set off on this year’s Cycle for Sustainability, a 3000km, four-and-a-half-month sustainability roadshow that travels from Sydney to Hobart with the sole aim of spreading the word on reducing air pollution, and looking after our environment and ourselves.

There are two aspects to clean air, explains 31-year-old Towle. “One is the pollutant component. The other is the carbon dioxide emissions, and they relate to the greatest threat, which is climate change.”

Last year, Towle and Allen, 32, joined eight other cyclists in a 4800km ride from Brisbane to Hobart. Along the way, the group visited schools and community groups and performed An Hour of Choices, a short play about how our use of transport, water and fuel affect the environment. They will perform a reworked version this year.

In the transport section, characters in the play think up ways to solve the problem of getting to school without creating pollution, explains Allen. “By car pooling, the character ‘Thoughtful Thing’ reasons she can spend some time with friends; by taking public transport the character ‘Mother Earth’ says, ‘Every time I get on the bus I look down the aisle, and there they are – 30 new possible friends, just waiting to talk to me.’ And by walking or cycling ‘Thoughtful Thing’ also discovers you can keep yourself fit.”

During the 1970s, about 90% of Australian schoolchildren rode or walked to school. Today it’s only about 9%.

The two doctors have also lectured to medical students at Monash University about the impact of vehicle emissions on poor health.“There are clusters of ill health in city areas that are particularly dense in traffic,” Towle says. “But when you live in an urban area – as most people in Australia do – you become used to the smell.”

But Towle and Allen, both from Burnie in Tasmania’s north-west, don’t just preach: they are walking, talking, cycling campaigners for sweeter-smelling air. Four years ago, the couple sold their car, determined to walk or cycle everywhere. When a destination is too distant, they take a taxi, hire a car or hitch a lift.

“Waiting by the side of the road, you can count hundreds of vehicles going in the same direction with just one driver,” says Towle.

The pair were inspired to join Cycles for Sustainability back in 2000 after meeting the organisers of a ride from Perth to Sydney, and are guided by Gandhi’s philosophy: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Towle is also a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. To make time for the rides, both Allen and Towle work part-time and accept only short-term contracts.

“During last year’s ride, we could smell Melbourne before we got there,” says Towle. “By being on bikes we can show others that a clean alternative to getting around does exist.”