As I walked down a Newtown street this week I saw a sign on the front door: “No fracking”. I could see a gas line into the house. A lot of Sydney’s gas now comes from fracking. It’s a fair bet the house uses fracked gas. So it’s a house that’s all talk and no action. Is that true, too, of some of the stories in The Fifth Estate?

In his essay, Why I Write, George Orwell said, “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living:

  • Sheer egoism – Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm – Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.
  • Historical impulse – Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  • Political purpose (using the word “political” in the widest possible sense) – Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

All four motives make me write for The Fifth Estate.

There’s a trick I play to see how words work: I read aloud what I’ve written.

In the last 10 or so years of his life, Orwell was increasingly ill. The throat injury he suffered when fighting in the Spanish war weakened his voice, and his poor lungs from childhood declined and brought him debilitating respiratory problems so overpowering sometimes he could not type or write. In his weakened condition Orwell read some of Animal Farm and most of Nineteen Eighty-four to his wife, Eileen, asking and taking her advice. These books read very differently to his others – simpler, sharper, and they’re clearly a product of the spoken voice (1).

There’s a humbug in some stories in The Fifth Estate, and from the spruikers of sustainability generally. Each issue has at least one glowing tribute to a project, saying it will move the sustainable use of resources to a new level. It may. Or not. But rarely is there a follow-up article saying what worked and didn’t.

Bathurst Burr is here to poke humbug wherever it’s in the “green” space, including what’s in this publication.

I’d like to make each person claiming a project’s sustainable accountable for the claim, to see the facts about how it performs and to withhold or make publication dependent upon an account of what happens in practice at some agreed future time.

Accountability for sustainable projects is becoming important to more of us now, fortunately. Some companies are publishing annual, measurable data of their projects. Some superannuation, university and other investing institutions are moving their money from oil, coal, fracking, forestry in Indonesia and Malaysia and other highly unsustainable projects to sustainable projects, and accounting for their decisions.

Orwell writes in his essay, “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.”

To me, sustainability, and this column, is not only about exposing a lie, it’s about honour: the chance to practice respect for Earth and her gifts, to seek truth, be open about our successes and our failures.

All of us, writers or not, get up each day when that day Earth melts more, and our cultures – all about us – are facing collapse in the next 20 or so years.

Trying to do better is no longer an option. As Yoda says to Luke Skywalker, “No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.”

We can only restore and sustain Earth if every new aspect of our cities is sustainable.

And if all maintenance of roads, buildings and infrastructure needs is sustainable.

How can anyone claim any building is sustainable if it’s made of “new” stuff dug out of or cut down from Earth? Surely a building can only be sustainable if it’s made entirely from recycled steel, concrete, timber and materials?

When Antony was besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, he heard the sounds of instruments and voices in a procession, which made its way through the city and then passed through; the god Bacchus (Dionysus), Antony’s protector, was deserting him (2). Constantine P Cavafy’s poem The God Forsakes Antony calls us to be with grace and courage when our world about us is falling:

Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

I try to look Earth in the face each day and say to her what Leonard Cohen says in his poem based upon Cavafy’s, and which he entitled, Alexandra Leaving:

And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving…

If I have the honour of writing this column, of creating a sustainable project, of walking down the road with clean air, of saying my project wasn’t as sustainable as I’d expected, don’t I thereby have my own honour restored?

And isn’t it the same when we make a building or thing only from recycled materials? And by that honour leave the Earth restored?

Orwell concludes, “Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

The mystery for me is, why do so many claimants for sustainability shy away from accounting for, and being proud of being open about, their failures?

By sharing the things we’re yet to get right we can invite others to help us get them right; these are the things we need to solve if we’re to honour both Earth and ourselves.

I can’t resist talking about the things I’ve tried to get done and not succeeded with.

Join me.


(1) George Orwell, a political life, Stephen Ingle, Manchester University Press, 1993
(2) The story is in John Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives: … up?num=674

4 replies on “Bathurst Burr: On why there is no “try”, just “do or do not””

  1. This promised to be an must-read article about the difficult and important task of dealing with a widespread and nasty weed species. As such, I opened it with great interest. Sadly, it waffles on about literature and doesn’t mention Bathurst Burr at all.

  2. Balance. We are so far from it in Australia right now, which (to an optimist) means there are lots of opportunities…

    Building purely out of recycled materials may not be the long term solution, but it is a solution we could be using right now. I totally concur with you Michael.

    “but it cots more, it takes more time, it is more complicated”

    Yep. So don’t spend 60K on a new car, forget the gold watch, work out if you really do need to knock the old place down and get your priorities right.

    I can tell you from experience, the satisfaction of turning junk into shelter is hard to beat. Mind, body and soul nourished. Planet a little happier.

    We are so lucky to live in a country full of wasted resources. There is more than you could possibly use being thrown away every day and it is easy to find what you need. Focus your mind, knock on the door of the house being demolished down the road, visit the salvage yards, raid the tip shops, cruise ‘Gumtree Freebies’ & ‘Freecycle’ & ‘Build Bits’, give something good away and hope for karmic payback, just talk to people and don’t be in a rush! Open yourself to the possibility that what you need doesn’t have to come from Bunnings. At least not every time 🙂

  3. Hi, Moz in Oz

    Thank you for your feedback; I appreciate your time and comment. Yes, a few examples would have been helpful, I agree.

    In my book, Sustainable House, 2 Edn Choicebooks, 2010, there are lots of stories of mistakes and tragedies and tears over the 18 years I’ve been living in my house since I disconnected from mains water and sewer in 1996 and put in a solar PV system. From a sewage treatment system that failed, to incorrect installation of the solar system . . . and many more. And there are practical tips for buying and building a sustainable house, office, subdivision and dealing with the process of trying to get what you want.

    Good luck with your project and congratulations on going green.

  4. We’re currently house shopping and it’s disturbingly hard to find someone who can measure the performance of a house. Even relatively straightforward things like “is it airtight”, let alone complex things like “what’s the temperature like in there?”. And according to even the basic building-and-pest inspectors we’ve dealt with not a lot of people pay for inspections of newly completed homes or monitoring while the build is in progress. And since legal requirements are almost all “as designed”, that’s a strong incentive for the industry not to measure delivered performance.

    I think your article would have been stronger with a bit of leading by example – how have you screwed up a sustainability project?

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