19 May 2014 — COMMENT: As I walk around Chippendale, where I live in inner Sydney, I’m thinking about how it was to live in Hitler’s Germany before World War II.
The streets here are narrow, some only wide enough for one car to get down. Since 2008 we’ve planted our streets with fruit trees, lemon grass, herbs, bay trees, paw paw trees and flowers, and bright yellow metal planter boxes are here and there on the footpath. The idea’s caught on and road gardens are being planted in streets across Australia’s cities.
While I walk, my mind’s eye also sees Berlin’s much wider streets. I’m immersed in Gitta Sereny’s compelling, masterful biography about Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer – Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. It studies how we humans make decisions under pressure.
In 1933 Albert Speer’s architect father was 75 and retired. Young Albert’s architectural career was rocketing upwards with commissions from Hitler including one to redesign and rebuild Berlin. The city was to be rebuilt with huge new roads and government buildings. Only one outstanding architect refused Hitler’s commissions. When shown the model for the new Berlin, Speer’s father said, “You’ve all gone insane,” turned his back on it and walked out.
Much of the city rebuilding was halted as Hitler made war with the world and chose Speer to run Germany’s industrial system to produce the goods for war.
The rhythm of walking and thinking is perfectly matched. I ramble with my feet and my mind, switching between the flowers and the past to the present and the near future.
I’ve been wondering how I can protect those I love – my daughter and son, friends and this place I call home.
Questions I’m asking myself about human behaviour in the next decade have me stumped and worried.
Our behaviour is endangering my country, Australia, my daughter, son and friends – all that I love.
Earth’s life support systems are collapsing. Within the lifetimes of most of us, the increasing droughts, floods, crop failures, water and soil shortages will broaden the impacts of each disaster so they meld into cascading, widespread hunger, financial instability and social collapse.
I trained and worked for 19 years as a lawyer. I draw conclusions from facts then decide how to apply the conclusions. But I can’t make decisions without emotions directing my response to the facts, so I’m sceptical about my conclusions.
I’m particularly sceptical before I accept something to be a reliable fact or solution about Earth’s climate change, food and energy supplies. Respected scientists have several times predicted the collapse of modern society but here we are, nonetheless, tootling along.
But researching and building my sustainable house and starting the road gardens I’m walking by are no accident. I’m growing food where I live and work so that there’ll be some food in the streets if food runs short. In the meantime, I can stand still on my walk, look up to enjoy the sight of green paw paws waiting to be harvested; the chef at the pub will turn them into a salad.
And as I look at the paw paws I know from my work that much that’s said and done about these crises is based on the wrong facts and strategies. Most people don’t know, for example, that wasting food is the third highest single source of air pollution damaging Earth’s climate after the air pollution from the United States and China.
Those humans concerned about Earth’s future ask us to stop using plastic bags, make buildings sustainable, use energy efficiently, use electric cars – and suggest that will sustain our future. Most government policies mirror this delusion.
The fact is the pollution already in Earth’s air is causing the firestorm of storms and will at least double existing damage, crop failure and financial losses (1).
This April Earth’s air pollution for the first time exceeded the level said to be a safe maximum for our cultures to survive (2).
So no matter how much future pollution we may avoid our Earth is now in the intensive care ward. But we do not know how to get out the pollution in Earth’s air that is already enough to destroy us. We don’t know how to save the patient.
Speer explained he worked for Hitler because, “… simply being given the chance by Hitler to do the work – for him and for Germany – that was… happiness… it was enough to feel something; above all, it was enough to do something.”
Imprisoned after the war by the Americans, one interrogator asked Speer if he was sorry he hadn’t been able to carry out his plans for Berlin and he answered, “God no; they were awful!”
Another interrogator asked: “Mr Speer, I don’t understand you. You are telling us that you knew years ago that the war was lost for Germany… you were watching… those gangsters who surrounded Hitler… their methods were those of murderers, their morals those of the gutter. You knew all this. And yet you stayed, not only stayed but worked, planned with and supported them to the hilt. How can you explain it? How can you justify it? How can you stand living with yourself?”
Speer replied, “You simply cannot understand what it is to live in a dictatorship; you can’t understand the game of danger, but above all you can’t understand the fear on which it is all based. Nor, I suppose, have you any concept of the charisma of a man such as Hitler.”
Speer’s description of the pressures he felt applies to us but less obviously.
Is climate change our dictator today?
And are we several billion humans the Albert Speers of our time?
Yes. The fear of a collapsing climate and affluent life, of ever-increasing firestorms has created fear in our minds like Speer’s.
Our “game of danger” is our fear of the gangster coal, gas and oil miners, the huge agricultural and chemical companies that surround us and our governments.
Overwhelmed by their power, increasingly helpless, we choose to stay in the game, to work and to support them.
A typical gangster response to those who question things is from a leading climate breaker, BHP, which refused a plea from islanders to visit their island already sinking under climate change waters partly caused by coal burning: “… coal is needed to lift 1.7 billion people out of poverty.” Or, in plain English, “We need to drown you to make money.”
Speer-like, we choose affluence and play a game we furtively know is killing our future.
Our war on the Earth’s climate is as all-pervading as was Hitler’s. The scale of today’s mines, for example, dwarf the grandiose plan Hitler had to rebuild Berlin.
Eighty years after Speer’s father turned his back on the model of Berlin, miners today at Gallilee in Australian’s northern Queensland plan huge coal mines. If put into trains the coal would be 2.5 million kilometres long, or six-and-a-half times the distance between Earth and its moon. The miners will put 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into Earth’s air each year so they may put money into their bank accounts (3).
Australian governments get royalty monies from mines; they, too, are the young Speer, hungry for money and power today and careless of tomorrow.
In the introduction to her book, Sereny explains why she wrote it: “… what I felt neither the Nuremburg trial nor his books had really told us was how a man of such quality could become not immoral but, somehow infinitely worse, morally extinguished’.
By her postscript, 718 pages later, Sereny concludes, “This was a very serious man who knew more about that bane of our century, Hitler, than anyone else. This was an erudite and solitary man who, recognising his deficiencies in human relations, had read five thousand books in prison to try to understand the universe and human beings, an effort he succeeded in with his mind but failed in with his heart… It seemed to me it was some kind of victory that this man – just this man – weighed down by intolerable and unmanageable guilt, with the help of a Protestant chaplain, a Catholic monk and a Jewish rabbi, tried to become a different man.”
As I see well-fed walkers on the street around me, the vast range of cars, bikes, trucks, offices and houses that have consumed so much of Earth’s resources and know that in them are friends and strangers trying to put bread on the table, I know doubt. Not about the numbers, the data – the fate of my streets.
And I know that we billions don’t have the 20 years in prison that Speer had to garden, to re-think, to be forced to question our self-deceit.
Tragically, we’ve made the whole Earth our prison. There’s no escape from it, no time to undo our addiction to our awful plans.
(1) “Previous extreme weather events, which scientists warn may be exacerbated by climate change (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/extreme-weathercaused-by-climate-change/), offer insight to the types of failures they’re talking about. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, the loss of electricity (https://www.cfr.org/world/katrina-oil-prices/p8834) in the region meant that several major oil pipelines could not ship oil and gas for several days, and some refineries could not operate. Gas prices rose around the country (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/01/business/01oil.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).
(2) – over 400 ppm: “The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere averaged more than 400 parts per million throughout April, the first time the planet’s monthly average has surpassed that threshold.
“The data from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, shows how world leaders are failing to rein in greenhouse gases that climate scientists say are warming the planet… The finding adds to concerns that a buildup of carbon dioxide is damaging the atmosphere, making storms more intense, melting glaciers and putting at risk the future of seaside cities such as Miami. The level of CO2 broke 400, as a daily average, for the first time last May. Less than a year later, the average for a month has exceeded a threshold not seen in the measured record dating back three million years. Concentrations of CO2 are rising at about 2 to 3 ppm a year. The United Nations has said that in order to maximise our chances of limiting the global temperature rise since 1750 to the internationally agreed-upon target of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the concentration of all greenhouse gases should peak at no higher than 450 ppm this century.”
Impact of coal: “The amount of carbon dioxide emissions that Australia exports is already double the amount that is emitted within Australia. Australian coal exports contribute around 3.3 per cent of total global carbon dioxide emissions and together with domestic emissions this puts Australia in sixth place after the far more populous nations US, China, Russia, India and Indonesia. And even though the federal government has committed to reducing domestic carbon emissions by five per cent on 2000 levels by 2020, exported carbon emissions over the same period are likely to increase by more than 100 per cent.”:
For the past 17 years Michael Mobbs has lived in his Sustainable House, disconnected from mains water and sewer using the sun and rain to live “an otherwise ordinary life”. His books include Sustainable House and Sustainable Food.