George Orwell

21 May 2010 – In his searing, timeless essay, “A hanging”, George Orwell describes an execution he witnessed when he was a policeman in Burma. I read it when I was about nine, during a year when I devoured a book a day and read the Forbes town library dry.

This sentence from it occurs to me occasionally but never more so than in the last few weeks. Recalling how the condemned man walked towards the gallows, Orwell writes:

“And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle in the path.”

I’ve often asked myself, if I knew I was about to die in a few moments, would I care about dirtying my shoes?

In the heat of sudden danger, like when I was the only person able to sail the boat during a cyclone off Gladstone, my heart sang with the never-before-seen raw beauty of the sea and I barely gave a moment’s thought to death. So, too, when at about 3am one morning at about 17,500 feet on a pass in Nepal, when a snowstorm so brutal and utterly complete filled everything with so much snow I could not see my hand or feet, no thoughts then of dignity or ‘stuff’, just raw thoughts of survival. Immediate, unexpected danger brings with it the gift of lovely simplicity, of things we may do to survive.

Friday mornings have sometimes had a special reverberation for me ever since that young boy, the convicted Aussie drug courier, Van Tuong Nguyen, was hanged early one Friday morning in Singapore.  During the furore over it we were told of the national ritual that country follows. Every Friday, year in, year out, Singapore hangs between five and 10 people.

These last weeks every day has dawned like a Singapore Friday for me.

Here’s why.

I know over the next 10 years I will experience traumatic, drawn-out and awful change. It will be all about, filling every day and night across Earth.

We in my Sydney street; my mum up north; the hangman in Singapore; the presidents of Russia, China, the Koreas, France, Spain, Thailand. No matter where we live on Earth. No matter how rich or how poor. No matter.

Hungry to escape this overpowering dread, I went for an early morning swim at Bronte. Beautiful. A new young day, and cold sea water over the whole of me, the baptismal crunch of cold water shook me free of my head. But drying myself, I could see the ocean pool metres below the terrible new sea and the sanctuary inside was gone.

This certainty of Earth-wide ruptures, first awoken in me about 25 years ago when I was researching sustainable living hungrily and positively, but afterwards mostly subdued by focusing on building things, was reawoken by reading a new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben.

It catalogues changes to our oceans, forests, ice caps, climate and atmosphere that’s gathered such momentum nothing we humans do can undo it. Excuse me. I can’t go over the details again here. Read the book if you wish to form a view on the merits of his arguments. McKibben, Ross Garnaut, Tim Flannery and Clive Hamilton will be talking about Earth’s future in Sydney’s Town Hall at 6 pm on May 21 as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.,com_events/Itemid,124/agid,1936/day,21/month,05/task,view_detail/year,2010/.

What I’m seeking to say here is just this: I have no answers any more. I have some ideas for doing the best we can, and growing food where we live and work is probably the best of them.

There are moments most days when I do not know how to talk to myself, or to anyone about the next 10 years of my life, or theirs. But I don’t talk of this with my children; we parents have a clear duty to give our children hope.

It’s weird to live like this, every day a long goodbye, but to carry on as though it’s not happening. To seek to persuade councils and developers to develop and behave more sustainably; to listen politely to folks who laugh at climate change; to observe the banks gorging themselves on money, and to contemplate the day’s stockmarket news, of the fat controllers of commerce fattening themselves from their day’s takings.

Le me just ask this question, if I may, please. Why do most of the people I see so hate Earth that they live so as to kill her, to dig and burn coal and petrol to heat her up, to cut and kill forests, to fish until there are no fish left, to poison the water, the soil and the air until so much life there is killed?

I just don’t understand why we’ve chosen to hang ourselves; how easily each day so many of us step into the puddle that we’ve made Earth into.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy.

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