Facing the future

06 May 2013

Author: Graham Readfearn

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Committed to sustainability coverage, US-based green media maven Sarah Backhouse is now shining a spotlight on the technologies our planet needs to survive.
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There’s rarely a queue for the ladies toilets at clean technology events, says Sarah Backhouse. “You look out over the conference floor and it’s just a sea of suits. It’s very male dominated.”

Backhouse is one of America’s most recognisable faces in environmental media and clean energy.

When former US vice-president Al Gore gave the final presentation of his epic 24-hour "Climate Reality" event, it was Backhouse who welcomed him onto the stage in front of a global crowd; she’s interviewed heads of state, scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators.

Now the Australian-raised television producer, presenter and emerging media entrepreneur is trying to tackle a much bigger problem than perceived male dominance of “cleantech”: the planet’s future.

And in a world of solar energies, electric cars and everything imaginable (and unimaginable) that lies between, she’s made it her mission to make cleantech sexy.

“Cleantech can confuse people or send them to sleep,” she admits. “I think it holds the key to so many of our problems but sometimes people in the industry are not that good at promoting the great work they’re doing.”

Backhouse’s answer is her new venture Future360 – an online video portal to showcase the technologies that a cleaner and more sustainable planet needs.

“I want Future360 to be the Huffington Post of cleantech,” says Backhouse, from her Californian base.

From the Dandenong Ranges of Victoria to the bright lights of Los Angeles, via the iconic streets of London, Backhouse’s journey so far has been as unpredictable as it has been intriguing.

There was no sign of a career in the media business or a commitment to clean technology as she approached her graduation at the Australian National University in Canberra, where she studied economics and Japanese studies.

“Japanese was the language du jour and I thought I’d go into finance,” she remembers. “Trade with Japan was hot at the time and I vaguely thought I would go into that field.”

Just weeks before her graduation, a friend thrust a job advert under her nose from the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper asking for a Japanese speaking researcher for a television show.

Something intrigued her, but Backhouse didn’t really know what it was. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she admits. She applied, got the job and a previously unplanned media career was born with a bottom-rung research role on the Australian science show Beyond 2000.

Numerous roles on science and technology programs followed, in-between production jobs on entertainment shows covering lifestyle, video games, travel and Japanese culture.

She met her screenwriter husband Mark Staufer – appropriately some might argue – while producing a show about people’s sex lives.

The pair moved to London where Backhouse secured more television work and started to swap the anonymity of being behind camera for the glare of the lens. Next came a move to Los Angeles in 2003, where she now lives in the Los Feliz suburb with Mark, son Milo and daughter Anouk.

“I was doing a lot of fun things in television and moving around a bit but I felt it was a little bit superficial,” she says. “I was craving something that made more of a difference than light entertainment.”

But in 2006, something happened – or rather two things happened – which changed her view of the world and her role in it.

“I had a baby – Milo – and Al Gore had a baby with his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Those two things really had a profound effect on me.

“That film really marked the start of a movement. As soon as I started to look at the sustainability movement, I felt I was doing more important work.”

At the same time, Backhouse was reading seminal books like Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Biomimicry by Janine Benyus.

“It really opened my eyes to a new set of information and a new way of thinking.”

But if it was the likes of Gore, Hawken and Benyus that were shaping her future, Backhouse says it’s her Australian roots that are helping her to succeed.

Born in the Scottish capital Edinburgh to a Japanese mother and an English-born father, the family immigrated to Australia when Sarah was five so her father could pursue his linguistics academic career at Australian universities.

The forests and gullies of Victoria’s spectacular Dandenong Ranges were the backdrop for Backhouse’s most vivid childhood memories spent on a one-acre plot surrounded by trees and a lawn that took dad a full day to mow.

“It was quite an idyllic rural upbringing,” she remembers. “We grew vegetables. We air-dried our clothes. We had chickens and fresh eggs. All those things were part of everyday life back then. It was second nature and I think as a society we have become very much removed from that.”

Striding along a path towards a more sustainable future, she thinks it’s her cultural heritage that put her there and keeps her walking.

“Australia is in my DNA,” she says. “Some of that comes from immigrant parents – a common experience in Australia. It’s very diverse and because Australia is very mixed, people come and go which means a lot of Australians are very outward looking. We’re a small nation so you can’t be insular.

“It felt like a common thing to do to go overseas and study and work. That spirit of adventure and being a bit fearless inherently led me to where I am now. There’s also a spirit of entrepreneurialism, as there is in California.”

“There’s an optimism and a sense of ‘can do’. I feel like those things are all part of who I am.”

After committing herself to communicating environmental issues to the world, Backhouse became a prominent face online.

Working for media company Discovery, she researched and presented more than 250 online environmental bulletins called Planet 100, featuring 100 breathless seconds of news.

Last year she became an integral part of former United States Vice-President Al Gore’s marathon live “Climate Reality” event, which brought together 24 one-hour presentations on climate change across 24 time zones and 13 languages.

Working as a presenter for a grueling eight of those 24 hours (including the final handover to the man himself), she says any prizes for stamina have to go to Gore.

“He’s an incredible figure. I think he was awake for 40 hours before he gave his one-hour live presentation.”

Now Backhouse, who is an in-demand speaker and conference host, is being recognised as a leader in her own right.

Advance, an organisation promoting a global network of Australians with its patron the Prime Minister Julia Gillard, named her as one of 50 leading women helping drive and shape the future.

“My hope is to just get more women into science and engineering and around cleantech,” she says. “Women are very good at nurturing and understand the importance of sustainability.”

Backhouse has been watching events unfold back in Australia with a sense of pride, as the Australian Government led by Julia Gillard has introduced laws to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s such a positive move but I know it’s been a struggle to get there,” she says.

Backhouse’s own contribution to promoting renewable energy is now firmly fixed on Future360 – which officially launched in April 2012.

The online video portal showcases everything from cleaner cars, renewable power and energy storage to greener buildings and investment solutions. Backhouse also speaks with leading entrepreneurs and innovators as she tries to extract nuggets of knowledge to help the clean technology sector succeed.

“The main mission is to build a community of cleantech entrepreneurs and investors and people who are passionate about clean technology and then give them a platform to connect with one another and encourage that conversation.

“But I also want to demystify cleantech for the public. It really is an area where seeing is believing, so we are focusing on things like electric vehicles which are tangible.”

Backhouse believes that while the importance of clean technology might be a difficult thing for some people to grasp, it’s really a question of “whether you want clean air and clean water – things that are basic human rights.”

Her passion for these common sense basics comes back to her Australian upbringing, she says, which can occasionally leave her mystified when her LA neighbours get their hosepipes out.

“People are watering their lawns at all times of the day and night,” she says, with a hint of astonishment. 

“Sprinklers are broken and you see water gushing down the pavements and no one looks twice. But from an Australian’s perspective, that’s horrifying because you have the inbuilt instinct to conserve.

“That sense of environmentalism is something that a lot of Australians inherently have grown up with. It’s common sense – it’s how things are done.”