17 September 2010 – Let’s see if we can join up some dots.

The first dot is: Dust

It’s heaven, but I don’t know it then.  Not ‘til much later.

I’m in the back seat, window down, the cold wind of evening cooling me down.

The world is turning but the sun sets steady on the far, flat horizon in front of us.  Dust reddening it and air all about. Our car rushing into the red dust, westward ho.

Going back to the farm from town. The Saturday trip for the groceries, done.

And, sweetest of all, the latest Phantom comic in my hands. The drawings of my hero in lush Bengali jungles, his tough knock-out punches. A world far from these dry paddocks along the Lachlan River in NSW.

The Lachlan.  Lost in its own thoughts, sunken and lurking out of sight behind the riverbank trees, flowing just off to our right, the road tracking beside it way on past our place. Coming from far away and going far off.

And in my mouth the once-a-week luxury of a Freddo Frog, one of the spoils of my sixpence of lollies.

Mum and Dad talking.

My sister and I not fighting, distracted by the bounties of town.

I got a gift then of smells, colours, tastes, truths.  And forebodings.

Smells, sounds, memories from childhood are hard-wired into our senses. The bones of that world – water, river, heat, distance – are in my psyche’s skeleton.

Sometimes I’d gallop my horse full tilt at the red bloody sun. The three of us: sun, horse and me, horse-mad,  trying to beat the night to the other side of the paddock.

Or maybe I was trying to stop that red dust. I can’t remember what clearly, though I do remember thinking something like, “That dust doesn’t seem right to me”.


Riding a horse full tilt at the sun through wheat straw on a hot summer evening thrills the bejesus in you better than anything, and dust was the least of my worries then.

Carpark excavation, Frasers Broadway

The second dot is: Dust in the city

Today I see dust in the sky and dust on the ground as lost soil, less life on Earth for my city, me and my kids.

I see dust watching my son play soccer on a buggered up, worn out and poorly designed soccer field, or walking down a street during rain while the gutter fills with soil running off building sites and road verges.

We’re “lucky” in Sydney to have a grand dust-making opera production. It’s the huge excavation for 2400 cars in the Frasers development that’s a drawn out striptease, a curtain raiser for the truth of the rest of the show. It’s the developer as emperor taking off his clothes on a stage of six hectares of development for a “world’s best practice sustainable project” – offices, units and shops.  Just walk by and you’ve got front row seats.

This excavation is five minutes walk from Central Railway station and beside a road which carried 15 buses past me during my walk past the site when I took the photo. The car doesn’t provide sustainable transport.

The third dot is: “natural’ disaster trends

Trends in natural disasters

What’s the picture when we join the dots?

Earth is in man-made convulsions. She’s in a fever from lost soil, droughts, floods, food scarcity.

As her fever grows so does the conflation by humans of truth and deception about what’s causing the convulsions.  Saying something is ‘sustainable’ does not make it so.


Too many projects claim to be sustainable but are in fact quintessential displays of what truth and deception look like when squished together into a building site.  Claims to be ‘sustainable’ are in truth just a wasting of soil, water and fuel; the whole site is a metaphor for the self-deceiving greed that’s causing Earth’s convulsions.

What’s the solution to the fever in the picture?

I suggest we put more energy into solutions than we put into politics, sustainable policies, complaining, criticism and despair; that we spend less time and energy on projects such as Frasers and more time on what we can do each day without governments, without spin, without “sustainable development”.

I reckon we can stop the floods, droughts, food scarcity in our cities and culture by stopping the waste of soil, and by growing and buying local food.

It’s us who choose where and from whom to buy food. When we do this we don’t need government, although it can make a difference when it actually does something.

We can make these choices whether we drive a bulldozer or tinker with sustainability policy, checklists or little words on a computer screen.

Come on, get in the saddle with me and try these dust busters. It’s spring time in Oz, let’s give it a go (and there’s no need to dress up like the Phantom):

Ten ways we can grow soil to grow food to sustain our country

  1. Say after me, “One man cannot stop the dust from blowing but one man can start it” (Farm Security Administration, quoted in Dirt, by David R Montgomery).  Then promise yourself: “I will not be the person who starts the dust blowing in my country’.
  2. Turn your house roof drain into a leaky drain to keep rainwater where it falls at your house and out of the road gutter (for a “How to see: https://sustainablehouse.com.au/extras/how-to-water-street-trees/).  If it’s a city terrace your no cost, half hour job will bless your road verge with over 30,000 litres of rain a year and three to six times that amount if it’s a 250 square metre roof.
  3. Write to Bob Brown, copy to your state and federal MPs, and say: “No more funds for hospitals, roads, fast trains, slow trains until they’re designed to cool cities down instead of heating them up with dark roads and roofs and no trees or local food.  Please condition funding so they use pale road materials, buy local food direct from farmers, and grow trees to cover half their roads”  (see this article https://thefifthestate.com.au/archives/12932
  4. Write to Bob Brown, copy to your state and federal MPs saying:  “No more funding to federal, state and local governments ‘til they remake their tax, rate and valuation systems to give financial concessions to land and building owners who keep all rain water on their land, don’t waste soil but grow it, and grow food”.
  5. Plant a tree, bush or herb today out the front of your place, preferably something anyone can eat.  We’ve got to rebuild our roads if we’re to sustain our cities.
  6. Don’t buy food from Coles or Woolworths; they exploit the farmers who grow it and, to survive, the farmers exploit the soil, reduce its productivity and turn it to dust in the same ways which have undone civilisations for thousands of years.
  7. At work and at home buy your food direct from farmers or from those food box services that buy from them.
  8. Invest in farmers growing soil on their farms: just $50 a month can grow dozens of tonnes of soil.
  9. Wherever you eat or hand over your money ask your local restaurant, café, council, employer, state agency to buy food direct from farmers and give your custom mostly to eateries that buy from farmers
  10. Read these two books: Dirt, the erosion of civilisations (David Montgomery), and The coming famine (Julian Cribb)

Why these 10 things in particular?

They cut down city temperatures, which dry out soils and drive up air con use, and keep rainwater where it falls to grow soil. They make life in soil more viable for bugs and insects so, in turn, the soil can grow plants.

And we can do them today.

I know soil’s a remote, mostly unseen thing for city dwellers, and most politicians only know about the dirt they throw at each other.  Show me a union factionist or career politician who knows about dirt and I’ll show you a dead man. (Katter, Oakeshotte and Windsor know more about soil than almost all the other 150 odd politicians there: Australian politics just got lucky, and richer.)

Make no mistake, soil’s a life and death thing for Earth and for us all.

No soil, no plants . . . no us.

So when you’re done reading this try some of these solutions.

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. www.sustainablehouse.com.au

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