Michael Mobbs and favourite chook, Cleo

22 August 2012  – I looked at my favourite chook, Cleo, this morning, just after dawn.

And I see now the time has come to speak of chooks, food and love.

While her three sisters stayed where they were she ran, a-waddling side to side, to me.

You gotta see that; her gait gawky but engagingly vulnerable.

And I loved little Cleo in that moment.

We’re lucky to love someone, some animal, bird, worm, tree, plant.

Love can be a momentary thing, or more.

When I saw the other day a couple  – strangers to me, in a pub – sitting at ease, smiling, talking, listening to each other – lovers, obviously – in that moment I loved their humanity, the pleasure they took in each other.

Our luck holds, don’t you think, whether we’re with someone or some thing we love, or without them?

Love is, to me, having a smile in me when I think of the person or thing.  I don’t love some thing or person only if I ‘have’ or possess them.

Loving happens, do you agree, outwards’ towards someone or thing?

We can really possess only our own emotion, never someone or thing.

If we call it ‘love’ only when the person is downstairs or out in the garden or beside us, within cooee or a text away – that’s not really love, is it.

Let’s play with this idea of love, where it comes and goes, and let’s throw in some food and a chook or two.


If ‘yes’, go with me, back to Cleo and her sisters.  Absolutely vulnerable little critters.

Then, beyond her, think of the cows of Australia, or anywhere.

This is how I saw cows in my book, Sustainable Food:

“A gift of growing up on a farm can be the ‘eye’ it gives you, the knowledge of where food comes from. Many people have no idea that milk comes from a cow’s udder. I’ve leant my head against a cow’s flank on a cold winter morning while I’ve milked, the heat of the flank, the udder and the milk in the bucket, all warm to me, and my head there to calm the cow. Behind those containers of milk on the shop shelves I see real, warm-blooded and wonderful cows who made it. To know, if it’s the cheap milk, that actuaries have bulked it up with additives and watered it down, so they may sell it more cheaply, is deeply offensive to me. I refer to more than the quality of the food. It’s the lack of integrity and the worship of money that’s controlling the food system. Most of my fellow shoppers have no idea of the nectar that fresh milk is, no sense of the extent of the abuse of their trust by the food spruikers and of how careless government is today.” (1)

Get this; chooks, cows, plants and trees depend upon soil and food for living. So do we humans.  That’s it.

But some humans wish to burn food, including food waste, to make energy to make air con, electric light and to run the photocopier.

I want to say to you; you deeply misunderstand what’s needed to sustain human, plant and animal life.

May I spell out why?

Cleo says ‘cluck’, so here goes.

President Roosevelt, one of the bigger infrastructure builders in the last century, was one of few modern western political leaders to understand how food comes from soil and how vulnerable we – chooks, cows and humans – are when we lose it:

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”

Franklin D Roosevelt, US President (1933–45)

When we burn food and food waste we burn soil.

Roosevelt would never have contemplated burning food or food waste so he could turn the toaster on.

Food and food waste is soil in the making.  Anyone who does not get this should not be in the energy business.

There’s a piggery in Victoria. For many years it’s harvested pig excreta and burnt it to make energy instead of importing coal fired power and instead of putting the pig excreta on the farm to fertilize it or to treat the waste then irrigate it.

A good thing?

Partly but if you count up where all the farm’s energy comes and goes, “No, not sustainable”.

Where does the food for the pigs and the fertilizer to grow it, and the soil to grow the food, come from?

The total energy needed to feed and manage and ‘harvest’ the pigs is greater than that made from the pig excreta. (2)

And we humans are no different from pigs.  We, too, need food, we too need soil, water and energy to get our food.

Compare the piggery with our cities and the soil and energy we need to live.

If we burn our food waste to run lightbulbs and stuff does that makes our cities sustainable?

No way.

We in our cities are no different to the piggery.

To get our food we need soil to grow plants and our soil needs nutrients for that.  Nutrients can be provided sustainably – by using food and other plant waste to return the nutrients to the soil that were taken by the plants grown to make our food – or unsustainably – by using petrol and gas based fertilizers.

But what if we did in our cities what they do in the piggery; burn our excreta to make energy?

I like that question.

Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that there is an ‘invisible Venice of shit underlying our bathrooms, bedrooms, dance halls, and parliaments . . .”.

And where do we put our excreta; do we match the piggery?

When folks say they’ve been whale watching I’m glad to hear it.

But, just the same, it’s strange behaviour to me; those same folks go home, excrete and agree to their excreta going into the same water the whales swim in.  “I love to look at you but I excrete in your water”, sounds a little different to, “I went whale watching, wow, it was amazing”.

Some folks wish to ignore our excreta.  Instead of using it they plan to take food waste and pipe it to power stations to burn it in furnaces to run light globes and air con and stuff.

Is there a moment in the tide of a culture which, taken when soil and energy is running out, determines its collapse?

For those living on Easter Island the moment happened somewhere between tree number x and tree number y when, to enable them to keep building their statues to their gods, the islanders cut down the last tree.  Then, with no trees the islanders could no longer make the canoes they needed to get fish – protein – or grow the food on the land they needed to survive.  The island’s soil went then.  And they starved.

If we burn food waste to make energy it’s no different to the burning, logging and destruction of trees on Easter Island.

There the trees were connected to the soil, its productivity, the growing of soil.  No trees there  =   a lost culture.

Here, our food waste is – or can be – connected to our soil, can keep it productive.  If we burn our food waste we’ll lose our culture.

Energy, water, soil and food are connected.  When we break these connections we break the things which sustain us.

And Cleo and I don’t like it.

We feel absolutely vulnerable, don’t we Cleo?


(1)   Sustainable Food: https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/isbn/9781920705541.htm

(2)   There are no figures here; just common sense.  (I’ll put figures on my blog: www.sustainablehouse.com.au