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Is Sustainable Living Only For Rich Baby Boomers?

I asked the guy living in Sydney's greenest house whether I'm too poor to live off the grid.

by Nat Kassel
26 May 2016, 3:04am

Michael Mobbs the "off the grid guy." All images by author.

From the street, Michael Mobbs' inner Sydney terrace house looks like any other. But 20 years ago, Michael and his wife transformed their Chippendale home into an experiment in sustainable living: solar power, rainwater tanks, and a septic system to process their waste.

Michael nicknamed himself the "off the grid guy." His backyard contains laying chooks, honeybees, and a small edible garden. He even helps to cultivate community gardens around the neighbourhood. The couple still relies on gas for cooking but they're spending less than $300 a year on bills. Michael explains they're basically doing what farmers do, except in the middle of Sydney.

To me, Michael's life sounded like a cheap dream. Free power, water, and food with all the convenience and chaos of city life at my doorstep. The problem is there's a good chance I'll never be able to afford to buy a house in Sydney or Melbourne. Like most renters, I can't imagine convincing my landlord to install solar panels, a Tesla battery, or a rainwater tank.

And for me an eco-friendly house—just like that iPhone 6, a waterfront property, or having 50K Instagram followers—seems out-of-reach. So I decided to stop by Michael's place and ask him whether the carbon neutral existence is just a luxury reserved for rich baby boomers, or whether a poor 20-something like me could go off grid too.

Michael, a former lawyer, has published two books about living off the grid.

VICE: Hey Michael, how much money and time did you put into this house?
Michael Mobbs: It cost me $48,000 in 1996, but I made a lot mistakes because it was my first go. The water was $11,000, the sewage was $11,000, and the solar was $26,000. But now that solar is dramatically reduced in cost. You're looking at about $25,000 to go off grid. People can spend that on a kitchen, easily. It's quite a productive investment.

It took me three years of research because no one (that I was aware of) had done it in a city before. I went up a lot of dead ends but once we started building it only took three months. I wanted everything to be simple so local tradespeople could install it and fix it.

Were you aiming to make a blueprint other people could copy?
I didn't want the house to only be for rich people. I wanted it to be so that anybody can do this. My energy and water bills were over $3,000 [before renovating] and for the last 20 years they've remained below $300 a year. So if you were to spend $20,000 to go off grid you would save between $2000 to $4000 per year in energy and water bills. I pay no water or sewage bills, and no electricity bills.

Michael's homemade beehive.

For a lot of people my age, it seems like we'll never be able to afford a house in the city—how can I live a greener existence?
You don't need to own a sustainable house to have more impact than this house does. You can be a renter and save more energy and water just by buying straight from farmers or at local food markets or food box services.

Our stomachs use 20 to 40 times more power than our homes. The average Australian breakfast has to be grown, produced and transported, and all-up uses 1000 litres of water.

The backyard garden.

So as someone with no real assets, ethical dieting is the best place to start?
Yeah, exactly. In a four-person household with a water efficient showerhead you can save 60,000 litres of water in a year. But if you just stop eating red meat one day a week you can save 60,000 litres in a month, easy. Food is just this huge sleeping monster.

Can you tell me about your career before you renovated this house?
I practiced law for 19 years, specialising in environmental law, and I noticed that the more environmental laws there were, the dirtier the air got and the more energy we were consuming. I realised that law wasn't a solution and I wanted to do something. So when I did this house and took care of my own pollution it made me happier and I'm glad I made the career change.

From the street, Michael's terrace looks a little greener than his neighbours, but you'd never guess what's inside.

The house changed your life?
When I started doing this there was no one around. I had to learn to work with engineers, builders, and plumbers who hadn't been trained [to build sustainable housing]. I came across a huge amount of ignorance, that's why I wrote the book Sustainable House.

Then I wrote Sustainable Food because I'd discovered that the growing, production, and transport of food is the second biggest climate polluter in Australia after coal fired power stations.

How much of your food do you get from the garden?
Probably one per cent. Look at it, it's five metres wide and it's mostly overshadowed, but I've got a lot happening there. That's why I started gardening in the street. The neighbours liked it, the media loved it, then the mayor came and planted a fruit tree and now we have this policy where you can garden anywhere in the City of Sydney without government approval.

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