By Michael Mobbs

23 November 2009 – A week ago I watched two lines of ants going up and down a tree. “Where are they going to?” I asked Frances Bodkin, or Auntie Fran as the local Aborigines call her.

“They go up to an aphid’s nest at the top. They stroke the aphid and get sap from it. Then they take the sap down to their nest in the ground for their food.” Imagine that.

I’ve walked in Sydney’s Centennial Park dozens of times over the past 40 years, but in 10 minutes with Fran I learned more about what was there than I can believe. She showed me tracks of a large and a smaller echidna. A possum had passed by a while ago; this faint mark made by its front paws and others by its back legs. Other tracks showed a wallaby had been in the vicinity. “I’d like to be here tonight and see this lot when they come out,” Fran said.

She showed me native grasses, trees and other plants, and explained their function and significance. The bush came alive as I’d never seen it before.

“This is the plant Burke and Wills ate stacks of, Nardoo,” Fran said. “They saw the Aboriginals eating it but they starved because that’s all they ate and they didn’t learn how to cook it. They died of vitamin B deficiency.”

Burke and Wills wouldn’t take food from Aborigines because they didn’t want to accept their charity, and they were rude, so the Aborigines left them alone. The Aborigines also ate other things that provided vitamin B, but Burke and Wills didn’t like these other plants, or wouldn’t accept them from local inhabitants

Burke and Wills are misnamed ‘explorers’; they were really distance travellers for whom the ground underfoot was best experienced as quickly as possible. “Let’s get it over and done with” sums them up.

King, a third explorer, survived because he left Burke and Wills and for two-and-a-half months accepted the food and charity the Aborigines offered and was helped back to a white settlement. (1)

After my walk with Fran, I ran over her words in my mind so what I had learned would stick. I got to thinking about a nearby Western-designed house I’d worked on. My job was to turn it into something that used water and energy sustainably.

It was an unlovely thing, built in the early 19th century. No light. Useless windows. A dark, tiled roof that made inside the house between six and 10 degrees hotter than it could otherwise be. The garden was a typical English decorative monoculture with no native species like those in Centennial Park.

Solar panels were something I’d designed for the roof. “Ahh, but it’s a heritage item,” the planner warned. Solar panels, it was asserted, might detract from the house’s heritage qualities, in particular from the appearance of the red roof tiles. Common sense prevailed and the panels went on, but not until thousands of dollars had been wasted circumventing red tape.

Remembering this experience, I realised that Australian cities have a kind of vitamin B deficiency. We have a Burke and Wills’ blindness that stops us exploring what’s in front of us. We cannot accept the heritage of the bush, the charity that’s to be found here, and we rarely listen to those who would share it with us.

There are whole suburbs in Australian cities where solar panels – Western things that honour and harvest light, the sun and nurture our Earth – are banned by red tape to protect red and green roofs. The houses that bear solar panels are usually occupied by the richer, more financially privileged in society who, it seems, yearn for a veneer of tradition, and ‘heritage’ is one way to get it.

Excuse me. The planet is dying of heat and we can’t stop that because it would offend our heritage; something we knocked up 80 years ago on some roofs here, mainly because the tile-makers of the time happened to dominate the market.

As I write this, a top of 37 degrees is predicted for Sydney and it will be 40 degrees out west. Burke and Wills’ weather has come to our cities. Between two and six degrees of that heat is caused by black road surfaces, and by black, red and green tiled roofs, and lost tree canopies.

Councils are the cause of a lot of this avoidable heat. Show me a ‘heritage’ house where a council has stopped solar panels going on and I’ll show you, on the same roof, a satellite dish, a TV antenna and red or green (heritage) tiles, which double the heat inside the house and compel the owners to bang in a dead-ugly air-conditioning unit that pokes out of a heritage window.

Here is a short list of some Burke and Wills’ thinking that is killing our cities. Each example is matched by Earth’s response. A full list would fill several hundred pages.

Council goal

Council policy

What Planet Earth sees and does

Green and red tiled roofs are heritageYes, we do want to be sustainable but not if it means putting hot water panels or solar panels over our heritage roofs.A hotter Earth.

Sun heats up roofs and the suburb is six to 10 degrees hotter than otherwise.  More air-con used; burns more coal.

Cut energy use from street lightsPut in energy efficient lights.A hotter Earth.

Energy efficient lights are the wrong design choice.

Sun doesn’t stop heating up black roads during the day and the roads are driving up air-con use

Black road absorbs more light than is saved by energy efficient lights so until road pavement is pale, the goal of using less energy is not achieved.

To go sustainableCouncil wants to cut energy and water use.

Require efficient taps and rainwater tanks in private-sector development.

Over-irrigated farms; highways of food-carrying trucks. Most energy and water use in cities is not measured by meters – water and energy bills only show about half of the water and energy used in cities.

Councils are usually the biggest single landowners – they own the roads, parks, etc. Most water that is wasted from land is by councils, not by the private sector.

Grow trees and food gardens on the road vergeHave a policy for the road verge.Trees need water to thrive and a lot of road water is wasted because the parks folk cant get their hands on it because the roads’ engineers own that part of the road
Infrastructure for private buildingsConditions require developers to get design approved by local energy and water monopoly.More coal pollution. More dams, more desalination plants.

Why? Government monopolies use this condition to force developers to increase the amount of energy or water used in buildings by getting developers to pay for electrical substations, even when the project uses so little energy it does not need an substation, and to prevent developers using cost-effective on-site water and recycled water solutions

Earth can’t negotiate with us, not even about heritage roof tiles. She responds to what we do, not what we say. The only spin Earth knows is the one that gets her around the Sun – and she’s taking us with her, no matter what we say.

How one-sided is that? Well, Burke and Wills found the answer to that question. They saw only what they wanted to see. What they didn’t want to see killed them.

What, really, is the difference between Burke and Wills and Australia’s councils, consultants and experts spruiking sustainable solutions that ignore what the Earth sees?


Michael Mobbs’ web page lists the services he provides, and some projects he has designed, obtained approvals for and published data about: His best-selling book Sustainable House, published by Choice, is in its 12th edition:

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