"I feel as if I’m watching an exploding bonfire of ideological and physical vanities at a scale and speed that I can’t comprehend"

Bathurst Burr: My going away to live at the beach has brought me here, to this page, tapping on its electric laptop face as I try to explain to myself out loud why I’m moving.

I’m unclear why but this late-winter should see me living there. Perhaps by then I’ll understand why I’m forcing myself to move from the place that’s been home for 40 years come June.

For many years now, most weeks I swim at the beach at sunset or dawn.

Before I swim business, political debates, other people, ideas and plans fill my head.

Afterwards, they’re gone.

In me is the joy of living, my body sensing its warmth and cold and wetness, breathing.

Swimming’s somehow given me the moving-home drug, and its powerful call is up-ending me from I place I’ve felt concordant with.

After trying to show at home and work by my actions how I love the air I breathe, respect the soil I grow food in and walk on, and the rain I harvest to drink and wash in, and to show how easily we all can do this at the places we live in now its, “Goodbye to all that”.

There are many ways to say goodbye to people, places and our former selves.

A year out from the end of his term President Obama became the first sitting President to visit the Arctic and the US state of Alaska. His strategy was to use the visit to negotiate tough air pollution targets at climate pollution talks due in Paris later that year, 2015.

Alaska depends on oil drilling and gas production for its livelihood. Temperatures there are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the US.

The key moment of the four hour visit to a remote coastal town disappearing under rising seas was for the President to take some selfies of himself in front of a disappearing glacier.  One of the few journalists on the trip records this question and the President’s answer:

“I’ve talked to a lot of scientists about climate change. A lot of them wrestle with how honest to be about what they see coming – how blunt, how optimistic. You obviously have a great responsibility on this – how do you gauge how much truth America can take?  Because you know what’s coming . . . ?”

President Obama answered, “Well here’s the thing. When I was a community organiser, one of our basic principles was, if you have a big problem, you have to break it down into pieces people can absorb. So if you talk to people about world hunger – their general attitude is, ‘Well, I can’t solve world hunger’.

“If you talk to people about, ‘Let’s solve this particular problem that alleviates hunger for these particular kids’ then you can get some action. So my job up here, the whole point of this trip, is to sound the alarm. But I want to make sure that I’m not presenting this in a way that leads people to think that we are doomed and there is nothing we can do about it.”   The Water Will Comeby Jeff Goodell, 2017 p 85.

A few years later the new US President Trump took over and said, “Goodbye to all that”, withdrew the US from the Paris agreement, and, still in office, says Earth’s air pollution isn’t a priority for his government.

A cheery goodbye of a different sort was given during an interview in 2008 by that wonderfully entertaining and innovative scientist, James Lovelock, who invented a way of measuring an Earth-threatening air pollutant called “CFCs” and convinced colleagues and governments it was damaging Earth’s atmosphere and achieved a stop to the pollution.

Lovelock made clear to the journalist that Earth has warmed past its tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable because of the air pollution already in the atmosphere; “. . .  we don’t have time. All these standard green things, like sustainable development, I think these are just words that mean nothing. I get an awful lot of people coming to me saying you can’t say that, because it gives us nothing to do. I say on the contrary, it gives us an immense amount to do. Just not the kinds of things you want to do.”

To be clear, in 2008, 10 years ago, Lovelock said in that interview, “Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan.”

None of us have saved a planet before, so it makes sense to be sceptical about any of our plans to save Earth from its collapsing climate. With his CFC victory, however, Lovelock, may hold first place in the research, planning and implementation of such a plan.

Each of us can also say, “Goodbye” to ideas we once held.

Our “Goodbyes” to those ideas or, more accurately for some of us, our suppression of ideas, can be strongly influenced by our relationships.

For example, a 2004 study revealed that “people with children under 16 are less likely to express fear about climate change than people without children.”

The study author said, “One way of explaining this is to say that parents are put in a difficult ethical situation. Here we are, through our own actions, creating a worse world for our children. When people have a dissonance between what they believe and what they do, they either change what they believe, or change what they do. And the tendency for most people is to reconfigure what they think about climate change, and to think ‘maybe it’s not that bad’.”

“Dissonance” is a useful word here as it describes how I feel about where I live compared to where I’m going; and it describes accurately how most humans are behaving and thinking about the fact that what they’re doing is changing Earth’s weather. (Dissonance was Word of the Day on Merriam-Webster’s dictionary page, and you can listen to a Sunday 16 September 2007 explanation of it here

(I have two children, aged 31 and 27, perhaps among the country’s lower polluters because of the mostly non-polluting house we grew up in. We don’t discuss Earth’s pollution. Dissonance has no seat at our table.)

Changing floods and cyclones are changing insurance prices in Australia, upwards. This trend is Earth-wide.

Insurers are refusing to insure houses and have dramatically increased premiums in Western Australia, Northern Territory and northern NSW and Queensland, particularly along the coasts. Some insurers have withdrawn from the markets there, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is holding an inquiry into affordability and availability.

Many insurances in Australia and globally exclude floods no matter the location of the property. Choice MagazineApril 2018, said, What price a life in the sun? It included a table comparing four customer scenarios in the capital city and one high-risk area in each state.

It’s the same “I’m-polluting-and-being-dissonant” story cross Earth, including in Australia where I am, the UK, and many other countries working under the Paris agreement.  Each year in those countries millions more new polluting cars and trucks take their exhausts to the roads. Pestilential coal fired power stations and gas and oil dominate energy production.

In the city and state where I live, in Sydney, NSW, the state government is polluting more than ever:  it’s felling more trees, selling cheaply more river and ground water to more mates, digging more coal and drilling more gas than ever, demolishing more precious buildings, giving more public land to more mates, weakening more and more pollution laws.

This month NSW sent a record tonnage of coal to overseas coal-burning countries.

I feel as if I’m watching an exploding bonfire of ideological and physical vanities at a scale and speed that I can’t comprehend.

The failure of Earth’s governments reminds me of the failures of the generals in World War I.  For years they intentionally ordered millions of young men and women to certain death, directing them to run at machine gun fire.

Yes, governments have achieved wide-spread change for the common good, such as the ban on CFCs. The catastrophic loss of topsoil caused by poor farming and drought in the US during the 1930s which caused the “Dust Bowl”and agricultural collapse forcing some 3 million rural folk to abandon their farms also triggered government to expand its services to improve soil and farming practices.

The US New Deal changed the way governments manage the banks and financial system and proved the need for regulation (for a while, until greed triumphed and rules again today; some 20 years ago The Netherlandschanged their country-wide use of water and food growing systems under a national plan and now are second only to the US in their food growing capacity as measured by food value and there are many more examples.

Those whose work requires them to deal with floods, disease, poverty, farming, disaster teams, civil and hydraulic engineers, military planners have no dissonance when it comes to discussing Earth’s changing weather and what’s causing it.

It’s when our jobs aren’t directly affected by weather, natural disasters, illness that we can be dissonant or just not care about what’s ahead for Earth and how we live where we are.

This is true of the scientifically literate and intelligent. A recent study found “a stronger link between scientific literacy and less concern [about Earth’s changing climate]”. It found “Higher scientific literacy and reasoning skill correlated with lower levels of concern about climate change.”

The study suggests its personal relationships that most affect our attitude to the science; so giving more climate science or facts to people won’t change their opinions when they’re in relationships or social groups that have prevailing values at odds with the science. The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate change Risks.)

So I may as well go to the beach.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which is disconnected from mains water and sewerage and electricity, and is powered by solar energy. www.sustainablehouse.com.au  For the last 21 years, with two children, the house energy and water bills have been less than $300 a year. Michael offers four day intensive courses to anyone wishing to achieve low bills living: https://www.sustainablehouse.com.au/lowbills-course

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  1. Thank you Michael. I hear your frustration and sadness and I’m glad you are choosing to be kind to yourself in a clean new environment. Very best wishes. I look forward to reading more from you and hope to hear you’re enjoying the beach. With love, and gratitude, Mimi x

  2. Geoff, thank you for staying in touch and for your comments; I appreciate you. Yes, perhaps the solution is ‘equity’. Food for thought and I’ll take this with me to the beach. Good travels and times to you, Michael

  3. Michael, you have expressed my feelings so well. I too would like to sell up and move out of Sydney for pretty much the same reasons.
    I know I am of an age that it is doubtful I will be around to see the worst of what is coming however, I would like to build a really sustainable home in an area where my daughter and young grandson would eventually be able to move to, so they have the best chance of minimising, as much as is possible, the effect of our changing climate on them. I keep looking, but it is hard without more expert knowledge to work out just where.

    You have been a wonderful example of what can be done, and what needs to be done, and I know you have tried, with some successes, to educate our governments to do better, and then along comes the destructive state government we now have.
    Yes, it is hard to comprehend why those in power do not take climate change seriously – and now the world has Trump as well.
    Thank you for being you, thank you for all you have done, and tried to have done. Enjoy your beach.

    1. Lorraine, Thank you for your thoughts and feedback here. I’m still working just making it easier to get a swim in each day, and making a space to do a bit more writing, research and designing. After some 30,000 people through the house it’s time to get a little distance from it. Fortunately the new tenants love my three chooks and will keep them fed and looked after ’til I return. Warm regards, Michael

  4. Hi Michael. You taught me environmental law 25 years ago…it’s good to hear how you are travelling. I support your move, thinking you have done a great deal to further this cause, and deserve a little respite (I’m sure you will keep fighting from wherever you are). I wonder if the solution is equity. By that I mean that decisions are currently made by powerful elites with vested interests. Perhaps the only way to change that is via education of the next generation, and by that I mean an excellent education for all, including the poor. Then I think we need some form of positive discrimination in all areas of government so that people with greater wisdom and awareness of the needs of everyone are making decisions on behalf of the whole community, rather than the powerful. Just a thought…