About “Environmental Audit”

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Environmental Audit is a project by Lucas Ihlein.

Between July and October 2010, I am conducting an Environmental Audit on the exhibition In the Balance: Art for a Changing World at the MCA in Sydney.

The exhibition engages with environmental concerns and the thorny territory surrounding “sustainability”.

I’ve been commissioned by the MCA to carry out this “meta-project” which turns attention back onto the exhibition itself, asking:

“If the museum puts on an exhibition about the environment, how much in the way of resources is consumed, how much carbon (etc) emitted in the process?”

In other words, was it worth it?


My project will take the form of a blog and a series of prints I’ll be making on the Big Fag Press. The prints will be a way of trying to chart, graph and map the complex data which will no doubt be unearthed during the Audit.

(As an artist within the exhibition, it’s only fair that I audit myself, too.)

You can read my attempts to understand what an Environmental Audit of Art might be, here and here.

With a rather broad scope, the Environmental Audit project will consider the exhibition in the wider context of increasing worldwide consciousness about climate change.

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Here’s a one-minute-video shot by Melinda from the MCA in early September 2010, in which I try to explain what my project is all about:


You can read a bit more about my thoughts for the project at its very beginnings, here.

You can read a bit more about Lucas Ihlein and what makes him tick, here.


Lucas would like to thank the following luminaries :

  • Glenn Barkley, Anna Davis, Isabel Hesketh, and all the staff at the MCA.
  • Nick and Kirsten from Milkwood Permaculture, where I’ve been studying total energy flows, an education which is indispensible to this project.
  • Pat Armstrong, Mickie Quick and Diego Bonetto, my comrades from Big Fag Press, where the prints for the exhibition are being made.
  • Lizzie Muller, who keeps me from going bonkers with these crazy projects


At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done. Then they begin to hope it can be done. Then they see it can be done. Then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.

-Frances Hodgson Burnett, as quoted in Lea Foster Warden and Sara Frantz, “Registrars and Sustainability: An Introduction to the Issues and a Call for Action“, an essay included in Buck and Gilmore, Museum Registration Methods, 5th Edition, AAM Press, Washington, 2010.

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Always we hope someone has the answer
Some other place will be better
Some other time, it will out turn out.

This is it
No one else has the answer
No other place will be better
It has already turned out.

-Lao-tsu. (Thanks to Jessica, a fellow student in the Permaculture course I’ve been attending.)

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“My husband will drive miles for a cheap tank of petrol”
-An anonymous wife, overheard by me in the MCA, sometime during the late 1990s

13 thoughts on “About “Environmental Audit”

  1. Interesting, but in NO way does this experiment, project, whatever-you-choose-to-call-it resemble a real environmental audit. From what I can tell about your, uh, “research”, you failed to contact any true environmental professionals, let alone any true environmental auditors. The “scope” of the audit that you sketched out, is artsy without a doubt. But the only thing it has in common with a real environmental audit is that it contains the word “environmental” and the word “audit”. Maybe you didn’t really intend to truly identify and analyze various applicable environmental elements appropriate for your project. Perhaps there is a definition of “environmental audit” that is unique to the art world- mysterious, unknown and irrelevant to the real world. Maybe I am the one who is wrong here – attempting to view your project in the context of my 25 years of professional environmental compliance, management system and risk auditing. Yeah, obviously I am way off base. I just hope no one mistakes your art for anything remotely resembling factual information.

  2. Dear Lawrence, thanks for your comment.

    Given your concern – that I have not identifed applicable environmental elements appropriate for my project – I wonder if you might give me some pointers?

    From your long experience as an environmental professional, what do you suggest I should be considering? What methods might I try to take on? As you correctly observe, I am not a “real” environmental auditor, so your wisdom could be very useful to me.

    To allay your fears of mistaken identity: to date, I am not aware of any examples of people confusing my project for the kind of professional work you yourself have been engaged in for so long. Indeed, if you trace back through the blog, there are numerous places where I have been quite clear about my “layman’s” approach.

    My own project is about the process of learning to be more intimately engaged with the cycling of the energy and materials, in the making and exhibiting of art. It is not about providing a professional opinion, but rather an approach which involves embedding myself in the organisation to observe, and (if possible) encourage cultural change.

    The project continues until the start of November, so there is still a long way for me to go.


  3. Have visited In The Balance numerous times now and each time the piece that stays with me most when I leave is Environmental Audit. I think that it strikes a beautiful balance between art and “research project” for lack of a better term. Perhaps the collation of data sits somewhat awkwardly in the gallery space but this is what gives it its appeal, at least in my opinion… to be honest I hadn’t really considered the environmental impact of an exhibition, I think at times we feel the end justifies the means perhaps? But surely with all we know we can make better choices; turning the spotlight on the bones of the exhibition simplified this and made me in an instant consider things I hadn’t considered. Fascilitating change is indeed a beautiful thing. I’m rambling… in summation, kudos to you Lucas.

  4. Thanks Krystal, that’s great to hear, and very encouraging to be encouraged.

    I’d be interested, in the spirit of the Audit itself, to know more about the impact of all this in your own life, in the next little while. All the best

  5. The project has got a couple Visitor Service Officers like myself here at the MCA thinking about how we could lessen our excessive use of paper. Oftentimes we have to make reports (about the temperature of certain rooms etc.) , and witness a load of flyers being taken and then left throughout the gallery….but why don’t we, after the message on our reports is transferred to the computer log, recycle them to be made into new reports? So in other words, why don’t we have eco friendly, recycled paper reports.. we must go through at least 10 reports a day, and maximum 20….that’s a lot of paper.
    Also, if we had a basket at FOH which had a sign saying something like ‘ Already got a map or program? Instead of throwing the extra one away why not place it in the basket for other visitors to take a look?’ perhaps not as many seasonal programs would not be wasted…. we could even start sing recycled paper for the programs too…just an idea;)

  6. Thanks Alana, nice to hear from you.

    It’s good that you guys have started thinking about these things, it certainly can’t hurt, at the very least from the point of view of the sense of satisfaction with your own everyday work life; not to mention sending a message to gallery visitors that the MCA encourages mindful use of resources. And as you say, 10-20 paper reports per day adds up to a lot over the years…

    I’ll be keen to hear about the process you undertake as you move from idea to realisation. Do you know there is a new MCA Environment Committee in the works? This is something that the VSOs could participate in.

    Keep me informed!

  7. thanks lucas! Would love to be a part of that committee.. think it’s a great idea,and will ask around how to get involved..perhaps could see how the idea goes over when i discuss the eco paper idea with them. Thanks for the support!

  8. I have been having a good read of your blog, which has reminded me of something I thought about last year. I work in the building industry as a consultant to architects. The company I work for has provided ‘grass-roots’ advice to architects in relation to passive design since the early ninetees, way, way before the word sustainability became fashionable.

    Anyhow, in the last couple of years a new breed of consultants emerged called ESD consultants. ESD consultants provide advice to developers/architects (commonly using the Green Star scheme as a basis). I got into a heated argument once with one particular ESD consultant, because I questioned why he drove a massive 4-wheel drive vehicle rather than catching public transport (I also questioned his frequent flights interstate for golf games). His response was simply “I work hard, so why can’t I live a little”. Ignorance is bliss, it seems when it comes to an individuals greenhouse gas emissions.

  9. Thanks Ben, it was good to talk with you the other night about all this stuff. Regarding green star schemes – there’s a bit more on these over here – links which another sandgroper, Michael sent through.

    Your experience of the “hypocritical” ESD consultant does seem to tie-in with the notion that those star ratings are “creditable plug-ins” rather than wholistic design solutions.

    However, confronting individuals about their own lifestyle choices is perhaps harder than arguing than an organisation, corporation or government department should pull up their socks. Who am I to dictate the behaviour of anyone beside myself? (And I imagine that your questioning of his practices was met with some resistance and defensiveness).

    Recently I had the good fortune to meet Sam Graham, a consultant with a company called Stormlight. She and I had a long chat about the possibility of organisational change, and how it relates to individual transformation. In our discussion, we reflected that change is far more powerful when it comes from one’s own desire to change, rather than merely a response to external forces, legal compulsions, and technological plug-ins.

    But how to make this change happen? (In this post, I think about this question in relation to the MCA).

    Sam is exploring how particular tools, and intelligent design strategies, can “influence” people to want to behave differently.

    This is different from hitting them over the head with rules and regulations.

    To a certain extent, Sam’s latest consulting research skirts close to the work of organisational psychologists – and to a (somewhat icky?) extent, it has something in common with the influencing power of advertising…

  10. The trouble is, perhaps, that changing of individual behaviours can not possibly affect global climate change. This is not to say that we shouldn’t promote responsible behaviour, but to note that its effect is necessarily limited on this particular environmental issue.

    So don’t dismiss ‘technological plug-ins’. The atmospheric carbon problem will be solved by technology. I can’t tell you if that will be solar-thermal, nuclear fusion, or something else, but it will be technological.

    There are many, many other issues of sustainability which require behavioural change, and I fully support efforts in this direction. But I think it’s important to draw the distinction. And to argue against those with an inherent mistrust of technology.

    [By way of putting my comments into context, I’m a patent attorney so my livelihood depends on new technologies, including ‘green’ technologies.]

  11. Of course you’re right Barry. And I take your point regarding the distinction between greenhouse-gas climate change, and other more localised sustainability issues. A tandem approach would seem to be the way to go.

    I’m not a luddite, by any means. But one risk with a “technology is the solution” position is that we can feel like it’s OK to pass over responsibility to somebody else – carrying on with business as usual, and trusting that the scientists and politicians will come up with the solutions. However, as we’ve seen a lot lately, politicians only act when they feel they have popular encouragement to do so. Changing the way we do things day-to-day might be one way (besides some sort of mass demonstration, which could also be a good idea) to perform our enthusiasm so that governments are encouraged to introduce bigger changes.

    I hope this re-adjustment of personal lifestyle on the micro scale isn’t futile. I hope that it’s more like “making the soil ready”, so that when the big techno-solutions get planted from above, we’ll be ready and excited to welcome them – and they’ll find a fertile ground to grow in.

    Or do you think I’m wishful in thinking that individual action can have any effect at all on climate change?

  12. Well, frankly, yes. The trouble is that even if Australians rioted in the streets until we’d managed to restructure the economy to zero emissions, this would make no measurable difference to climate change. When the entire country’s emissions are insignificant, each individual’s are manifestly more so.

    The way Australia could make a difference is by spending money on technological development. It’s perfectly feasible to operate large scale solar-thermal plants in, for instance, the Pilbara. The resulting energy could be used to electolyse sea water to form hydrogen gas. This could then be pumped through the existing natural gas pipelines, and used instead of LNG to fuel power stations. All carbon free (eventually). And with carbon-free energy export potential.

    So if personal action can drive the politicians into investing into that sort of scheme, then it will certainly have an effect. Otherwise, well, not so much.

  13. hey lucas- so I’m attending the environmental comittee this thursday, pitching the eco paper idea.. however, because i a m casual this means vsos, and suposedly only a select few, have been told they can be environmental ‘connectors’ but cant pitch ideas at the commitee! Oh well, i’ll see how it goes 🙂

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