Michael Mobbs gardening
Michael Mobbs

News from the front desk 456: Michael Mobbs, one of Sydney’s most established sustainability gurus looks like he’s thrown in the towel on hope. He might not be throwing himself down on the streets as the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters are, but what he is doing could be more subversive.

Mobbs says his recent “coming out” as a prepper – one of the growing number of people preparing for the breakdown of our climate, environment and consequently, social order – has gone viral.

A recent article published in The Guardian on his thinking about the impending breakdown of our climate and social order caused a storm.

There were “thousands” of responses on social media. The original piece had around 350,000 reads “still counting” and is one of the most popular articles ever, he says. And Catherine Ingram’s article that he quotes, Facing Extinction had 43,000 hits in the first day after his mention, he says.

There’s been contact from media outfits in the UK, the US, Sweden and “from across Australia”.

People have stopped him on the streets. Some amused, some bemused and others sad or outraged that he’d betrayed his brand of hope and optimism to battle climate change and create greater sustainability.

Certainly, we copped some of the flurry at The Fifth Estate where Mobbs has run an occasional series called Bathurst Burr. 

On Thursday he said: ““Personally I’ve been swamped with Facebook and social media; I’ve had to go off social media.”

The first he knew of the reaction was during a “slow train trip” from Sydney to Casino. There was no internet between stations so it was only when the train pulled in, that he realised the storm he’d unleashed.

We’re not surprised. Our own “prepper” investigation in July also had huge hits (for us) and likewise approaches from mainstream media to follow up.

And Mobbs is not alone. It’s like there is a parallel universe that not only believes in climate heating (or at least its consequences because many are also climate denialists) but that the game’s up. Just one outdoors equipment business in NSW’s Southern Highlands has about 2000 customers a month, about 30 per cent of these preppers, mostly high income urban professionals, we found.

As to be expected, Mobbs has been called any number of names.

“People have called me everything from a white supremacist to a kook.

“A lot of people, however, have said they’re relieved someone has come out and said it because it’s been on their minds for years.”.

Some have invited him to move down their way; others to help create a self-sufficient island in Canada.

What we don’t know is what this has done to the real estate prices in Bermagui, on the NSW South Coast, where he told the whole world he’s headed.

So what made him spit the dummy and what does he say to the people who feel he’s abandoned them after decades of helpful advice on how to be sustainable and move off grid?

One of the reasons is that he can’t imagine either the Australian PM Scott Morrison or the American president saying sorry: Sorry, we’ve made a mistake: climate change is real and we better do all we can to mitigate its impact because it’s too late now to stop it.

But to the people who are horrified or furious with the XR people throwing themselves onto roads and disrupting traffic, Mobbs says they need to consider how political change has happened in the past.

Not by polite conversations, collecting signatures or letters to the editor.

With women’s emancipation for instance: “English women chained themselves to Parliament and some were beaten but eventually they got the vote.”

He thinks Queensland’s premier Annastacia Palaszczuk would have done well to remember this when she threated this week to summarily throw XR protesters in jail.

She might also remember the shearers’ strike in the 1890s that led the formation of the Australian Labor Party.

There are very few alternatives to dealing with power structures that are implacably opposed to a growing body of opinion, he says. Or in this case, a screamingly obvious need to act.

Yes, there will be disappointed people but Mobbs is relieved. He imagines it’s like gay people in the 70s or 80s finally “coming out” and telling it like it is.

Mostly people are bemused or angry with Mobbs. But you have to wonder why.

Is Mobbs wrong?

Think about the fires raging in Australia before spring has even started, while the air is still cold. Think about fire fighters standing by and letting houses burn because there is no water to spare. Or of growing numbers of towns facing empty dams, farmers suiciding in a disintegrating landscape, food becoming harder to grow.

Think that in California 2 million people will have their electricity cut off for days to protect supply during imminent fire storms. And that because wild fires are in the US and Australia at the same time we can no longer share those giant water bombing helicopters.

Some people are angry because we need hope and they say Mobbs’ is a nihilistic kind of response. To be clear, he’s not moving away just yet. Yes, the house is on the market but he’s still gardening and consulting on sustainability. If he doesn’t leave, or even if he does, it’s a brilliant piece of media impact that will leave a nice chain reaction/wake up call in its wake.

What’s the attitude in Queensland where the climate agenda was smashed in the federal election earlier this year?

The Fifth Estate was this week in Brisbane moderating an event on timber construction at what could be the world’s tallest timber office building at 25 King Street, organised by Bates Smart and Aurecon.

We asked the Uber driver. Yes, he was furious at the XR protesters, saying they could endanger potential heart attack victims if an ambulance couldn’t get through.

The concern about climate was alarmist, he said. There were signs detected by new super computers of new climate patterns; the earth would heal itself, stabilise.

(Sure, we said, but in a way that’s friendly to humans?)

Fusion was the answer to our energy issues, he said, had been for decades (then why was it not a commercial option?).

Besides, coal was worth $5 billion to the state. What’s the alternative? He had us there.

Our timber event offered a clue. The room was fully booked. Here is an industry that’s new and bursting with enthusiasm and opportunity to be developed with plenty of “jobs and growth” potential, not just in growing the trees but in building sophisticated prefabrication technology that could slash waste, carbon pollution and onsite challenges of regular construction.

How much economic potential is the subject of new investigations by the University of Melbourne, we heard (more on this panel event soon).

But notice the subtle shift in rhetoric in our Uber driver who was clearly a smart man and who we bet was previously a climate sceptic. It’s no longer outright denial; it’s more a she’ll be right attitude, and dare we say, a surfeit of hope that looks a tad unwarranted from where we stand.

That subtle shift is not just (we’re guessing) from the Uber driver but from some of the pollies. Like Drought Minister David Littleproud the other day, shifting positions within a week from a climate change is crap to a climate change is real stance.

Same with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

In corporate land the shift is also powering through like a rent in the earth during an earthquake. Biggest news this week was the Minerals Council “capitulating to investors” and bringing on a climate plan – with no little thanks to Rio Tinto which threatened to quit the council if it didn’t get its climate act together and to BHP for clearly signalling a similar possibility.

Pressure behind these giants is coming from outfits such as the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility and investors such as AustralianSuper, which have warned that commitments to reaching for the Paris climate goals need to do more than pay lip service to them.

BHP is listening. It’s flagged it’s got to not just maintain a social licence to operate; it has to create social value. And that means being a positive contributor to the Paris climate targets.

All good signs.

Who knows what particular mysterious catalyst has put a fire under the belly of these behemoths. But something has.

As Mobbs points out who could have thought a year ago that a 16 year old schoolgirl from Sweden Greta Thunberg could have stirred pretty much the entire world to stand up for action.

There is an energy and urgency underway that’s unseen in this 40 year campaign.

Say what you like about Mobbs, criticise his methods, but some things really do need a big, sometimes shocking shake up, to shift the thinking and stir action.

Judging by the early signs we’d say this chain reaction is well underway.

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  1. > while I was cheered by Greta’s impassioned speech which had that line… > “And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

    But not long afterwards I got a message from my local council which contained the following;

    Growth provides opportunity. In Lake Macquarie, population growth has the potential to stimulate investment, construction, employment and consumer expenditure within the City. Increased economic activity will ensure our City is recognized as a leading contributor to the region. By making plans now, we can influence local growth and help increase economic activity so it enhances the lifestyle of our residents.
    It seems that the threat from climate change deniers is being eclipsed by those who cannot see growth fairytales.


  2. It’s been obvious for decades that the end result of no action on global heating is a planet that is dead to most of us. Our government is criminally negligent. Royalties from coal are too important for our economy for a stubborn government to manage without. Preppers or Survivalists are forward thinking, but there may be no escape for anyone. Our forests (the world’s forests) and farming country need urgent action – remineralisation is of the utmost importance to stop sick forests burning like matches. First the forests will burn and then the ice will return – how can it not?

    I don’t believe that in a social collapse such as the one Survivalists expect that people staying in a city will be more likely to survive. Maybe in a breakdown but not a collapse. In previous collapses people who survived moved back to small villages. I am thinking five thousand years ago not any recent turmoil. The Australian military is no doubt planning for this even if the government is not.

  3. It’s getting close to panic time and social collapse, if we are reading the signs right.
    It’s dumbfounding that the vast majority though, those outside of my ‘echo-chamber’ are shunning the thought, ignoring the science, posting on FB that XR should be run over and thrown in jail for eternity (8000+ comments on Jonathon Sri’s FB account).
    Most don’t have an inner city pad to sell for $$$ to move out and prep.
    I don’t even have water tanks; it’s next on the list of jobs around the house. It’s despairing, the future is so bleak. So dry, so hot. The population needs to be brought under control and the rampant car use has to be curtailed and phased out.
    (But try telling 85% of the population who drive to work every day. What a way to burn through the carbon budget – driving to work!)

  4. Like a party that has gone on too long, and reasonable calls for moderation ignored, the party is coming to an end and the hardcore revellers appear more disinterested than ever in helping to clean up the mess. In fact, they feel this is the time to jump on the tables.

    In this context, the fact that the reasonable people like Mobbs are heading for the exits is no surprise.

  5. The prepping approach is also applicable at community level, beyond the family/individual focus that is often given air time. As the matters to be dealt with cross the broad spectrum of human needs, as impacted not just by current events, but the accumulation of legacy issues from past decisions. As example, a post-wildfire rebuild in my region was stymied because the fencing installed at first European settlement 140 years before was found to not match the land title system. Thereby throwing out the entire subdivision, because houses were ‘on their neighbour’s land’. That is, a tipping point event had the effect of bringing to notice dormant issues which everyone had happily ignored across the generations. With large communal consequences, extending across into all the human needs areas listed by Michael.

  6. Erin

    I hear you.

    And I don’t have answers to your questions.

    My heart goes out to you, any aged parents – any person anywhere – in these unchartered moments.

    I tap these laptop keys as the wonderful, renewing sound of rain on my tin roof fills my lost ears. Rain falls so rarely now in Chippendale, Sydney, that when it does it feels almost as tho’ I don’t deserve it, that its some kind of treat or trick of the gods.

    Or a blessing of some kind.

    We – all of us 7 billion human animals – will come to treasure rain, water and food as do those who live from day to day now, aged parents or not.

    Good luck to you and to all of us.

    With love, laughter, acceptance and appreciation, Michael

  7. I read the article on Mobbs in the Guardian. Several times. I shared it with my partner but he didn’t want to read it and I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s terrifying. The fact that he’s moving is not the issue, it’s that VERY VERY FEW people have the means and ability to do what he’s doing. Would you bug out if you had aged parents that need you? What if you’re only renting and you can’t afford a massive rainwater tank, let alone the land to put it on? If society really were to collapse… maybe that is what we should be discussing. If we can face it.

    1. These are really important issues. One thing that might help ease your concerns is that in talking to one of our keynote speakers at the upcoming Tomorrowland19 conference Tyson Yunkaporta an Indigenous academic and author of Sand Talk (brilliant, just brilliant) he says that in past experiences when society broke down the people who survived best were those who remained in the city and developed their social resilience. If you speak to the resilience experts in various organisations from the major city councils to outfits like Landcom in NSW they will say that building social resilence is out best bet. Tyson says those who went bush didn’t fare so well… Sorry Mike… have yet to find the time to discuss this with you, but will be the subject of upcoming stories. As well as a big session at Tomorrowland19 which is entitled Ihuman, so it covers how to maintain our humanity with all that’s on the way.