Urban Off-Grid Living with Michael Mobbs and Morag Gamble

by | December 14, 2022 | Permaculture Podcast | 0 comments

In the new episode of Morag Gamble’s podcast, Michael Mobbs shares insights from his 50 + years experience living and breathing environmentalism and sustainability.

Starting out as Australia’s first environmental lawyer in 1978, Michael went on to create an off-grid home for his family in the 1990s – right in the heart of Sydney. His passion for sustainability led him to write two books: Sustainable House, and, Sustainable Food.

Michael’s off-grid home is featured in Zac Efron’s latest season of Down to Earth on Netflix, and a model of the home is on display in the Powerhouse Museum Sydney. (here’s a link to the trailer – Michael is featured in the Eco-Innovators episode)

As for the need for climate action, now? Michael says:

“The best way through (the climate crisis) is by consuming food that you grow or buying locally grown. And when you grow food, do so with the compost that you create from your food waste. There’s no such thing as waste, just a failure of imagination. Don’t be without imagination – be with compost, be with the soil, be with plants.”

Resources and links:


This show is hosted by speaker, filmmaker, humanitarian, author, global teacher of permaculture teachers and Permayouth mentor, Morag Gamble of the Permaculture Education Institute.

This podcast is an initiative of the Permaculture Education Institute and our Permaculture Educators Program – teaching permaculture teachers on 6 continents.

Full Transcript Below


Welcome to the Sense-making in a Changing World Podcast and thank you for joining me again here on the show. This show is hosted by the Permaculture Education Institute and I’m Morag Gamble. Today we have a wonderful guest, a friend of mine who lives in the city of Sydney in a very special house, a sustainable house, that’s an off grid house, a tiny house, but it’s not actually a tiny house as we think of today. But it’s a terrace home in the middle of Sydney that’s been an off grid house for over 25 years now. So my guest is Michael Mobbs. Now, Michael not only focuses on sustainable homes, but also thinks much more broadly of what it means to live a sustainable life. 

How is it that we can engage with this? How can we engage with local communities through food systems? How can we engage with local businesses and even institutions? It has recently been featured on Zac Efron’s Down to Earth series on Netflix and we’re hoping to screen that together soon. So welcome, Michael Mobbs, to the show. It’s lovely to have you here.


Hello, Morag Gamble! You have a beautiful voice.


Thank you, Michael! It’s lovely to lovely for you to join me here. We were just having a chat before we turned on the record and we were asking where the change is? You’ve been doing this for a really long time. We met over 20 years ago and we’ve continued to be working in this space of demonstrating what sustainable living can look like in our different contexts of opening up our homes and our vibes and our thinking to possibilities of living in a different way. What was the first inspiration for you to do this? What was that spark and has that spark changed over time? Is there something else that tends to your inner flame at the moment?


I have seven decades of being on earth Morag and the first decade was a gift really because I grew up in the country and I think I was given different eyes and senses to people who grew up in the city. Let me describe my somewhat biblical arrival. Over the Blue Mountains at an inland city called Orange, my mother came home with me, her first child in 1950, through the 1950 flood and to the farm downstream on a [inaudible] from Forbes in New South Wales. The only vehicle that could get through the flood was a horse and carriage and apparently I was held in a shoebox in her arms as the horse and carriage went through the waters to the farm where the house was on a hill. I didn’t quite float away into the ball rushes and so on, but I learned from the get-go about water and drought, about rain and the seasons, because for farmers that’s equivalent to money and to crops and so on So for example, in 1956 flood when we didn’t get off the farm for three months, my neighbor who owns a gypsy-moth clients – that’s a double wing fine with somebody was joining the wings together that you apparently called put a burden then wouldn’t be able to find its way out. Anyway, he’d fly over and throw a sugar bag and tinned food out and kids came on horseback and boats to the school that was on the farm hill. 

So I learned in an animalistic way about the power of water or drought, I was lucky. Imagine that upbringing with somebody in a family just trying to tap on. They’re quiet and aware of what water is and how you see and use water and energy depends where you grew up. So you and I, you’re in Queensland and New South Wales. If I was talking to you from Adelaide, in Australia’s second rice city, 47% of households have rain tanks and the South Australian health agency works closely with those people because that’s a major source of water supply. Due to the theft by the Queensland, New South Wales Victorian farmers upstream on the Murray Darling with more water than they’re entitled to. But talk to New South Wales Health here about rain tanks and they go together and they revise narrow, because they’re in a different cultural environment with water. And then imagine you’re in Singapore where Singapore gets its water from Malaysia and Malaysia looks wistfully in the distance and says, “Well, we think this week the price of water is x.” So Singapore says , “We’re tired of being screwed” and they start recycling sewage and the Prime Minister of Singapore plays tennis, drinking from a bottle called new water. So I was lucky. I’m gonna go to the real cause of biblical bathing and water and energy.


Tell us a bit about how that translates into what you’re doing, where you’re sitting right now. So you’re in your house in the middle of Sydney and you’re off grid. What was that transition like? And how possible is it for other people to do that, too? I think most people think in the context that you’re in, that that is just impossible.


Yes, well I knew it was possible. So I grew up with rainwater and recycled sewage on the farm. What happened was I practiced law. I was the first so-called, quote unquote, environmental lawyer in 1978. I was involved in drafting legislation setting up the environmental Defenders Office, the Environmental Law Association, etc. Anyway, fast forward to 1993-1994 when there was a lot of poo washing up on Sydney beaches. So it became an issue because the humans saw it and didn’t like it and the 18 month New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into what to do with Sydney’s water and sewage was fortunate enough to have the good taste to appoint me to write the report and do the technical research and I was unfortunate enough to have most of my ideas parked and get the dust. So I was married then and we had two young children. We needed a bigger kitchen and bathroom and during that three month renovation, I decided to get my revenge and to show that it is safe to drink water in the city. That it is safe to reuse sewage. So for the people listening, imagine you’ve been to a restaurant and you see a fish tank. The fish in the tank are swimming in their own excreta. It’s not rocket science, this stuff, and so it’s commonly available. In those days, Google wasn’t born. So I did the off grid work in 1996 during the three month kitchen and bathroom renovation and two years later, Google as a company was born in 1998. Before then, we used to travel around all of us in Australia and most countries to building information centers where product suppliers would display their gutters, the downpipe. 

We used to treat two building information centers where different building products will be displayed. It took me three years to research it and to get the design for the water sewage and energy systems together. Nowadays, you can see all that stuff online. You don’t need to leave your computer. So in summary, I was being told I couldn’t do it, knowing that it could be done and having to make a bigger kitchen and bathroom seemed to me to be an ideal opportunity. The renovation took three months and the rain tank, the sewage system, and the solar panels were installed. To anybody wanting to copy or do something like this. Let me please give you two tips. Firstly, you don’t have to be a disappointed policy consultant or lawyer or anybody other than who you are. I’m just doing in the city what farmers do in the country with rainwater and energy. Secondly, because it’s so simple. Why is it so hard? And the answer is because engineers, architects, planners, hydraulic engineers, and bureaucrats are terrified of it. They’re actually not more worried about their bottoms than about the Earth. They don’t want to approve something because it might be in a blow up. So they have a sustainability building fossil policy, they’ll probably have a sustainability officer and that means nothing. If they were to go home and not come to work, it would mean anything wouldn’t make any difference. 

So to deal with the red tape and the fear in the bureaucracy, you have to back yourself and here’s a couple of ways of doing that. Don’t like a supplicant, or a worshiper, lay your application for your project on the doorstep of the temple at the local council and hope that they’ll bestow your dreams upon you. Work out the conditions of approval you want and say, “Please give me an approval with these conditions of approval.” and the risk of seeming commercially focused, some suggestions room in my book with chapters of different pros about what they might look like? Why would you do this? And the answer is, that’s what the coal miners do. That’s what the aluminum smelters do, that’s what the developers of the big industries do. They go to councils, and they say, “Here’s our application and the conditions of approval. We want to go with it.” and the staff say, “Oh, that’s good, I might do this.” So when I was worried about getting approval to drink rainwater, I went to New South Wales Health with a letter in my back pocket, from them to me, a senior person who can actually make a decision and said, “I’d like a letter of approval for me to drink rainwater.” You could see them scratching around their head saying, “What would that say?” So I said, “This is how I’d like the letter to read.” and I handed over that second in charge, couldn’t hold himself back and grabbed it to read from his boss. Anyway, I got the letter.


I think maybe it has something to do with being a lawyer that has helped you with the thinking process of how to negotiate these types of conversations or where the conversations need to be had. Like watching the process rather than going, “Okay, I’m told I have to go this way.” But you go hang on at it. Let’s take a metaview of this. In order for it to happen here, there’s other types of conversations that need to happen first. I wonder, too, because of what you’ve been doing here for such a long period of time, that the doors have been opened in other places, or that people have been able to point to what you’ve done, then get change happening in other places. It’s kind of like the kind of the seed that ripples out that change and you said you’ve had like 10s of 1000s of people coming through your place and your place was a model,  I don’t know if it’s still there in the Powerhouse Museum as an interactive model.

I mean, the visibility that your house has had through the media, through museums, through other people, through your book, and I wonder what you’ve noticed being the impact of that and you even said you’ve had hundreds of kids come through the other day? What have been the possibilities of change by what you’ve done? What other things then moving on from that do you feel expand the possibilities of what that has opened as a seed?


To add to my answer Morag, firstly, seeing and touching and feeling is very persuasive. So when I asked the school kids to turn on the lights, which they did. I said, “How was that?” and they looked at me, and they said, “Fine.” I said, “We just operate the solar system.” This house is just like yours isn’t it and I suppose it takes away the fear, it takes away the uncertainty, it also shows the weakness of primary, secondary and tertiary education. When I give lectures in university on sustainability, it’s often towards the end of the course and the students look as though they’ve aged decades during the process. They were beaten down, bored and listless and they came alive as I showed them real stuff. Academics have rarified sustainability, they’ve got all this jargon and so on. Just as no legislation ever rises above the level of its administration, so there’s no teaching ever rises above the level of the words and images used. So that’s one of the reasons I agreed to come on your program. I love what you do in your social media to teach gardening and the power of what you’re doing and what permaculture does, it was made clear to me.

I get interns from America several a year and maybe one has known what compost is and there’s a real disconnect in universities, but they studied sustainability. What was happening in those universities often made me wonder if I stopped doing anything would it make no difference. I certainly think it would make no difference or before many of the sustainability courses were taught in an unreadable language. When the students say [inaudible], mystified as they are with the language they’re familiar with, it’s offered by the students. The teachers are really unhappy with the teaching of sustainability. It’s so ineffective and disconnected from real life, but you give it to a child a plant to raise or a bit of compost and they see the worms that come here and see the [inaudible]. Though, they have an innate sense of what is real and our education systems, I think, have found us on sustainability which leads me to that question I’d like to put to you that I’m asking myself. I know most of the people in the game know that the UN said in April, “If we don’t stop pollution by 2025, we can’t stop it. We lose the prospect of stopping the climate collapsing in a way we can’t pretend to control.” So we’ve got about 20 months left now. I feel like a failure. I know that there have been people here and they say nice things about it. But there must be something we’re missing and lately my respect has grown for the people largely in Europe and in England where a lot of women are, in particular, throwing oil on the protective covers for works of art or breaking the windows of banks. I really respect the extinction rebellion because it’s the other extreme of useless university education. It’s by saying this is real and combined with that assertion is the courage to go to jail. So I’m thinking of reaching out to the extinct rebellion people and saying, “How can I help?” I’ve started using social media to explicitly support them and I think they’re having an effect, Morag. What’s your feeling on this?


I was in the UK at the time when the boat was in the middle of the street, that first massive campaign in London, and I was part of the marches out in the streets and then had the opportunity to go into Westminster into the halls of Westminster. A friend of mine is one of the MPs there and was introduced all throughout Westminster and then they said, “Oh, we’ve got to go. We’ve got this big thing to do.” What they were doing was declaring the first national climate emergency and I said, “What is it that made you change?” and they said, “Well, just look outside.” It’s the impact of the climate emergency, the Friday’s for future extinction, rebellion, all of that was having a direct impact. I don’t think that they’ve carried through any of the policies necessarily that they’ve said, but the impact of people being on the streets and voicing that is so powerful. So I’ve also reached out to the extinction rebellion and I have been offering a permaculture rebellion type of concept because one of the things that inspired me a lot was I have teenagers. My eldest children are teenagers and they’ve been out on the strikes and then they say, “But what about today? I thought it was yesterday. No one’s really listening. What are we doing today?” and so they started up this thing called Permayouth, they call it positive practical practivism permaculture for youth, getting out and doing everyday activism through permaculture, with the express understanding that they are addressing climate, that they are regenerating landscapes for biodiversity, that they are communicating through one another in a way that invites people in. 

So extinction, rebellion, and permaculture together kind of offers this really nicely connected way of approaching things, but also that it provides a place when people are going out to the first sort of the so called frontlines that they have somewhere to come back to that can hold them that they’re eating local food, that they’re nourished by that supportive place. Now, I think this is interesting, because it brings a wholeness to activism as well. A lot of people say, “Yeah, it’s all right.You can go and complain about that, but then you’re gonna come back and live the life of the consumer society.” So permaculture creates in a way that holds space which is kind of being in a way of living in an everyday practical activism that I think connects us and I noticed that you did that rippling out from your house, it wasn’t just what you’re doing in your home, you’re reaching out to the streets, you’re reaching out further beyond and focusing on food as being one of the powerful agents for change. This is why decades ago, I actually chose food as being the main focus of the work that I do, coming in from a systems perspective and coming from places like Schumacher college and learning from places like Ladakh, where is change possible? What if I can dedicate my life to this? Where is the place in which the biggest potential for shift can happen? And I think it is in this food system, but I often question what you’re doing? Is it fast enough? Is it at the scale enough? Is it reaching the people that need to be reached? Maybe the energy should be focused on shifting subsidies like what Helena Norberg-Hodge talks about, her whole focus is about really localizing the food system but targeting thinking about where are the global subsidies and now the benefits of the whole food system isn’t enough to be working in this groundswell of of action, whether it be extinction rebellion or permaculture rebellion or whatever it might be, is this enough? These are my questions that I have that I’m gonna throw the ball back to you. I definitely support the extinction rebellion and connecting permaculture with that and I am really open to finding ways to nourish that relationship.


I’m getting tired of the sound of my own voice. So I want to finish up with this suggestion. Firstly, I agree with you that food is the key to quick action. We all, in rich countries, eat two or three times a day. Just saving food prep, or plate scrapings and composting them and composting that food and buying that food or growing it locally can stop climate change. The UN says that food waste is if you graph it as a bar graph as a country. It’s the third greatest polluting country after China and America. So I want to end on this brief oral roadmap: get your food waste, your food prep and compost it. There are so many options. I’ve created a new design where people can sit on, a thing called a cool seat, outside cafes in Chippendale and New South Wales. Just go to coolseats.com.au. They don’t know they’re sitting on compost because it looks like a seat. It’s stylish, doesn’t look like something that bald headed okd (27:07) fats wouldn’t deal with and the cafe uses shifts and baristas can take their food waste and put it there. The second oral roadmap is: do what we did in Sydney. There is a policy called the footpath gardening policy on the Sydney City Council website. Under which any person in the city of Sydney may garden the footpath without approval. The approval process slows things down if you’re a citizen and your first question is, “What would the council say?” and the answer is, “The council says you can do it. Just do it.” So South Perth Sydney, I think some bits of Brisbane. 

Anyway, I’ve logged it on my website. There’s a blog on my sustainable house website about footpath garden policies and it’s just a three or four page policy with a checklist. Make sure you don’t put it on the corner so that your obscure view is really simple things and when you garden in the street, outside your place and grow something – it  need not be edible – you start to see the plant more clearly, you start to see water or the lack of it more clearly. You start to see the power of your compost and also on the cool seats thing. There’s a free calculator you can calculate the pollution is saving basically, depending on assumptions you make and that calculator clicks clear about the assumptions it makes for every kilo of food waste. You compost, you save roughly one and a half kilos of carbon dioxide, it could be five or six. It varies according to the assumptions you make. But imagine that you can say, “ I composted two kilos of food waste in my house today, I stopped two or three kilos of carbon dioxide going up and I got some soil and my plants will fit and I’ll be able to eat the little critters. I’ll be able to look at the beautiful flowers.” 

What happens is you become, without consciously deciding, you become an immediate change and then other things will happen. You’ll start to look at the garbage and say, “Hang on. Even if I make no waste, I’m still paying under this fixed charge.” Then you might Google Michael Mobbs and his blog and say that in America, there are states which have entered foodways. Because if you don’t throw, you don’t pay. We pay according to the amount of energy we use petrol, electricity, water, but we don’t pay according to the amount of food waste we throw in. If we stopped throwing out food waste, we would still pay.


I think there’s something about what you’re doing, too, that is also calling the streets and where we’re going with climate change. This is an incredibly important part of what we’re doing too. So there’s the taking, drawing down the carbon, producing local food, calling the streets. I wonder how much food you actually grow in those sorts of places? How possible is it for Sydney to feed itself? 


We’ve got 1000 fruit trees, herbs and plants in about 30 city blocks in Chippendale, a very small suburb. In the streets, where we’ve got some surface irrigation using a drainage coil at the edge of ponds, the streets are 10 degrees cooler than streets with all three or plant growth. So we would grow no more than one or 2% of our food needs. But what we do grow as a cooler suburb, we grow that wonderful thing called community and we also grow self confidence and awareness. It’s the best education you can get at a university. So what will wind down if you don’t mind, Morag. I’ve got a thing to look at in a moment by saying, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are listening to this, you can do this and the best way through is by food that you grow or buy locally and do so with the compost that you use from your waste food. There’s no such thing as waste. Let me be a nag. In a concluding note, there’s no such thing as waste. Just a failure of imagination. Don’t be without imagination, be with compost, be with the soil, be with plants. Lovely to talk to you more, I have to scoot.


Yes, thank you so much, Michael. It’s been lovely to chat with you. I look forward to seeing you again soon.


You too. Lovely knowing you more, bye-bye.


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