By Michael Mobbs

17 May 2012 – Walked into Sydney on Wednesday, to the top floor of the new renovation of the Museum of Modern Art at Circular Quay, functions only.

I took a coffee to stand outside on the roof balcony, to see what the city had to offer.  Cars on the Cahill Expressway to the south, like so many beached whales, banked way back, stuck, going nowhere in peak hour traffic. And to the east, near the Opera House, one of my Sydney favourites, the Oyster Bar, a place of respect for oysters where they’re served with the juice, unwashed.  So many fine margueritas, martinis and silent moments had there ­– Sydney Harbour at her best.

And why was I there?

To hear folks from the Ford motor company talk about their new energy efficient cars and how they’re seeking to cut the damage their cars do by polluting Earth’s climate. A presentation to fellow bloggers and media.

And here I was in this building, so new, hotly debated. What now, the first time I was in it, did I think of it?  Pity, mostly.

The Ford cars were, I bet, more sustainable than the building; the air con in the room didn’t work, the lights were soooo inefficient – with good design they wouldn’t have been necessary. It could’ve been done by someone designing in the ‘50s.

On the walk back the memories of traffic jam, failed building and ego-centric, ideology-driven architecture.  With each step, the facts began to fall into some kind of order. I get some of my best thinking done on my feet with my shoe leather on the street.

Firstly: no paper handout – all the facts were said to be on a USB I’d been given. Tick.

Great coffee. Tick.

Big gains in engine efficiency. Tick. Ford’s cars burn a lot less petrol than they used to, can be powered by electricity which may be less polluting than oil and gas, use recycled materials like left over denim jeans cloth and soy to make the seats.

Useful statistics: 750 million cars on Earth’s roads now; 2 billion expected in another 20 or so years; 33 water bottles recycled into each car seat. Biofuels made from plants are a key strategy for Ford; plant fuel holds more energy than batteries in electric cars.

Ford accepts climate change is partly due to human activity including the pollution from their cars.  Their goal is to sell cars that will meet the maximum level of carbon which will not cause catastrophic climate change. That’s 440 parts carbon per million, says the IPCC If the IPCC drop that to, say, 350 ppm then Ford is set up to achieve that, too.
The company will be ready to sell into markets where the rules change so that, say, only electric cars may be sold.   For every drop of carbon their engines cut they cut an equal drop of petrol consumption, so their energy efficient cars cost their buyers less to run with no loss of power.

I like it when the market drives businesses like Ford to make more sustainable wares. That way lies hope.

James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere, and World Made by Hand wrote in his blog this week, “Events are now in the driver’s seat. The long battle against the continuation of suburban sprawl is over, despite the happy-talk noises made by what’s left of the real estate industry. Half a decade of absolutely flat oil production — propaganda to the contrary — guarantees that the suburban project is finished. We’re done building things that way (even if we don’t quite realize it yet)”: www.kunstler.com.

Let’s not talk here about the long history of bastardry by the car industry; how they got governments to rip up competing tram and train lines of American cities, got the driving age lowered to 16 years . . . Who cares.  It’s done. It keeps getting done.

Things are serious now. Let’s talk about what matters.

Does it matter if Ford, and every car company, sells more energy efficient cars so they cause less pollution?  Does it matter if they don’t?

Truth is, we humans have never had to save a planet before from its own pollution.

This is our first go. Our first drive.

We don’t know if what we do will work.

We’re a bit like Apollo 11 when the engine failed on the way back to Earth and the captain only had one chance to fire his booster rockets to position the capsule for a safe re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.

This time the crew is all of us here and Earth is our rocket.  But we have no captain.  No crew.  Just a mutinous rabble.  People wanting to sell cars, drive cars, make money, pay the mortgage, get elected, take drugs, eat too much, text, tune out . . .

Going to the top of the hill is a good way to see what’s happening below. On top of the Museum I saw a traffic jam from a new public building that missed a chance to be way more sustainable than it is, and listened to some folks who want to sell more cars.

But that walk in the sun by the water into and out of the city – I saw and felt things, which matter to me most, that I can’t buy.

Which brings me to Genghis Khan, one of Earth’s greatest military strategists, destroyers of cities and anything that got in his way.

May I invite you to walk an hour into and out of your city centre, wherever you may be?  To walk those minutes beside cars a whizzing or crawling by, and, if you’re lucky, to also walk beside the brilliant, sparkling waters of a river or harbour or ocean?  Discover what your senses tell you.

Then to ask yourself this.

Is the car our Genghis Khan?

This article is based on an article originally published in Sustainable House