TWO young people, fresh out of uni, meet in Brisbane, fall in love, get married and set off for India with wild dreams of making the world a better place.
A couple of decades on, they’re back in Brisbane – older, greyer, but as passionate as ever about their dreams.
Cathy and Mark Delaney have a different story in married life to most of their contemporaries.
They do have kids – Tom, 23, and Oscar, 17 – but that could be as far as the similarities go compared with many other Australian couples their age.
They don’t own a car, have never had a mortgage and have lived a lifestyle completely foreign to most of us.
The Delaneys have spent most of their married life in slums in India.
That was part of their dream when they left Brisbane after finishing university – Cathy having studied Mathematics and Computer Science, and Mark, Law and Commerce.
“When we were going out it was kind of on the basis that we had a very early discussion that we were both interested in working in the developing world and that we would explore that option,” Cathy said, as she and Mark told their story at the rented flat they share with Oscar in inner-city Brisbane.
“So we had our second (wedding) anniversary in Thailand on the way to India … Then we were there for about 20 years, and now we’re here.”
Neither Cathy nor Mark chose to follow the career paths they’d studied for, with faith playing a part in a change of course.
Another key factor was that each on separate trips to India were confronted by the poverty there and wanted to do something about it.
Cathy also had experienced poverty in community work in Logan City with homeless young people – “people who hadn’t grown up in a safe, cosy home, loved by two parents, but been through a lot of family breakdown …”
“I think my whole faith background, growing up with a sense of God’s love for the poor and the importance on social justice … (played a part),” she said.
“The Catholic roots played out big time in my sense of vocation, and what the world’s meant to be like, and our place in that.”
“Very much, the poor were our focus, because we believe that the poor are special to Christ, special to God …,” Mark said.
So, by the time they were married, India was calling them, and they went there with a mission agency.
“(With that agency) what we do is not only work with the poor but we live with the poor,” Mark said.
“We figured that is a good way to do it.
“If you want to help anyone, the first step is to understand what life’s like for them, and (there’s) no better way to understand what life’s like than to live with people.
“So, from Day 1, we moved into a slum.
“That was 24 years ago now, and out of those 24 years, I think we’ve been in India about 18 and, out of those 18, we’ve lived in slums for about 14.
“That’s been our life for the last two-and-a-half decades, and it’s been fantastic – really, really good.”
Before moving back to Brisbane this year with Oscar, who is completing university studies here, the family had lived the previous two years living in a one-room slum dwelling.
“This is a small flat but, for us, it seems palatial,” Cathy said, sitting in the lounge room of their Brisbane flat.
“But, for the majority of people (in the world), a single room is their home,” Mark said.
Showing a photo of their previous home in Delhi, he said it was “just one room and that’s the bedroom, study …”
“You’d put the mattresses out at night and go to sleep and, in the day, pack them up and it’s where you sit to have your meal and study and entertain people and whatever.
“It’s just everything, and that’s very, very normal for most people in the world but, for Australians, of course, it’s not …”
Cathy added that the family had use of “another half a room and a little outdoor area where we cooked”.
The whole experience has given them a clearer perspective on what is important to them.
“We just had different attitudes to owning stuff, to personal security and comfort,” Cathy said.
“Of course I still like a hot shower in winter, but I know that’s not the meaning of life.
“(It’s been) kind of like a long, slow detox from consumerism …”
The family made headlines in 2008.
It was about the time of the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire, and a friend of the Delaneys working in India for The Sydney Morning Herald did a story on their lives in the slums.
The headline was “Australians living on Slumdog Millionaire’s Row, and loving it” but it was the last line of the story that led the family to a new chapter of Christian zeal for social justice.
“The last line said something like, ‘And the Delaneys have a very low carbon footprint’,” Mark said.
“And that was kind of surprising to me. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting way to finish the piece …’
“I’d hardly even heard of a carbon footprint at that point.
“And then we looked into it a little bit and found out, ‘Oh, yeah, we do have a very low carbon footprint compared to the average Australian’.”
The more they looked into the climate change issue, the Delaneys felt more and more motivated to respond.
“(Reading about it), we thought, ‘Holy smoke … climate change is really very, very serious and it’s affecting everything’, and all of these development gains that have been made over the last 50 years are in danger of being wiped out by these things – sea-level rises and food production decreases …,” Mark said.
“When we came back to Australia in 2014 … we were planning to have a year in Australia.
“We came back thinking, ‘Australians are sensible people, they’re educated people, Australians will realise that climate change is THE issue of our generation and they’ll realise that their own carbon footprint is very large and they’ll be working feverishly to reduce their carbon footprint and to move to renewables, and all of that …’
“Well, in 2014, when we came back we were sorely disappointed to find it was hardly being talked about.”
Mark talked with politicians, ran education sessions in parishes, trying to raise awareness, but, for him, “it felt like it’s not going as fast I wanted it to, and so that’s what led to my idea to write a book”.
He co-authored the book Low-Carbon and Loving It, with his son Tom.
“Really, the guts of the book is we compare a normal Indian lifestyle to a normal Australian lifestyle in a whole range of (areas) – diet, accommodation, travel etc … (based on government statistics),” Mark said.
“We find that the average Indian carbon footprint is 2.3 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent per year, and the average Australian carbon footprint is precisely 10 times that – 23 tonnes per year.
“And what’s sustainable for a world to live under two degrees Celsius – if you crunch the numbers on it – what’s sustainable is about three tonnes per person per year for the rest of the century.”
The book moves to responses.
“We spell out what can the average Australian do to reduce his or her carbon footprint,” Mark said.
“We give a whole bunch of really practical suggestions, so it’s actually not that difficult to bring it down to more in the realm of 12 tonnes, which is still too much, but it’s whole lot better than 23.
“It’s actually not that difficult if we just ate half the amount of meat and we rode our bike two times a week – you don’t have to sell your car – and you take one international trip every two years, instead of two in a year.”
Cathy said it was “an issue of injustice because the people who are going to be suffering most and soonest are the people who haven’t caused the problem, and we who are still doing coal mines and living our grand lifestyles are stoking the fires of it”.
“And most people in Australia have the insurance policy or enough height from the sea, or whatever, that they’re going to survive it – that we’ll have enough food; we’ll get by,” she said.
“Whereas, for the majority of the world’s population, it’s not going to be that way.
“And future generations, who’ll bear the brunt of it the most, have not caused it all, obviously.”
For Cathy, there’s also a “kind of theological outrage”.
“I feel that God has created this beautiful, amazing, intricate, incredible thing and we’re destroying, so how does God feel about that?,” she said.
“I have a sense of the sacredness of Creation and that we’re just destroying it as though it’s ours and it’s there for free and we can do with it whatever we want to, rather than that we’re caretakers of something that isn’t actually ours, and our responsibility is to look after it.”
Low-Carbon and Loving It is available online from Amazon, and at Avid Reader, in West End, Brisbane. It can also be borrowed from Brisbane City Council libraries.