We Are All Australians Now
Fires in Australia have provoked powerful emotions from humans and animals alike
Posted January 12, 2020
Australia has rarely been interesting. Prior to becoming an independent state in 1901, it was principally known internationally because so many European philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists thought they could unearth the clue to human identity through Australia’s indigenous people.
The idea was that Europe’s brooding smokestacks, disputatious parliaments, class struggles, and disease-laden cities had obscured our true nature as people and what binds us together.
Once white people took over, Australia grew less interesting to outsiders. There have been exceptions: Crocodile Dundee, those cute-ish boys in Men at Work, swimmers every four years in the Olympics; perhaps some smart scientists. And there has been the odd Oscar or cultural Nobel Prize winner (but Peter Finch and Patrick White were born in Britain, Russell Crowe in New Zealand/Aotearoa, and Mel Gibson in the U.S.).
Suddenly Australia matters again, ironically as a consequence of those very smokestacks, parliaments, struggles, and cities.
The fires burning and churning across south-eastern Australia, and the extraordinary heat of a seemingly unimaginable southern summer, have brought the country unprecedented and unwanted headlines. Its plumes of smoke have reached as far as South America and incendiary headlines have crossed the Pacific and Indian Oceans. An area of 11 million hectares is affected—greater than the devastation wrought by similar recent fires in California and the Amazon put together.
The first reaction is horror, a visceral identification with the fear that living creatures must be experiencing. Images of native fauna in flight have dominated coverage, from kangaroos tearing down mountainsides in terror to koalas seeking water from people. It is estimated that hundreds of millions of animals have perished.
Beekeepers looking after their apiaries across the affected regions are in therapy, horrified by the screams of the millions of animals in pain and fear.
Climate scientists, too, must deal with the stress of seeing habitats and creatures disappear. They have studied places and animals closely for many years in order to do the difficult, slow work of observations. And they are shocked—not only by these dreadful events, but by “slow violence”—the dread hand of development, capital, international organizations, and states that imperils the Earth.
As a consequence, climate scientists have set up a remarkable self-help page, called ‘Is This How You Feel?’ in order to share their trauma in quite personal terms. They invite the rest of us to do the same.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the founding parent of evolutionary science, Charles Darwin, wrote movingly about his experience of emotions in humans and other animals: “he [sic.] who remains passive when overwhelmed with grief loses his best chance of recovering elasticity of mind.” He knew we need to express these feelings.
Another prominent emotion is the revulsion expressed in many reactions to press coverage of Australia’s tragedy, notably Rupert Murdoch’s ‘journalists’ attributing the crisis to firebugs or obstructionist environmentalists, despite the testimony of firefighters.
We cannot give you direct access to these distortions, because the Australian native-cum-Yanqui arriviste kindles many of his incendiary headlines behind paywalls (though you might be able to watch some of his Sky News Australia non-scientists moaning about climate science).
We can alert readers to the similarities between Murdoch’s provocations and the social-media activity that blames the disaster on tree-hugging and arson, from renowned conspiracy theorists to our own seat of government. The fact that less than one percent of the fires result from arson matters not a jot to these people. (The principal immediate cause is dry lightning.)
And we can note the actions of a brave whistleblower, a senior executive who resigned from the Murdoch media over these disgraces, cleansing her conscience by sending her letter of resignation across the company. It was also leaked to the wider media. Emily Townsend wrote, “The reporting I have witnessed in the Australian, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun [three of Murdoch’s many newspapers in his homeland] is not only irresponsible but dangerous and damaging to our communities and beautiful planet.”
The next emotion is a bizarre sense of irony. The world’s largest exporter of coal has a small population that luxuriates in the sale of dirty energy to emerging economies whose growth is based on large, docile, poorly-paid workforces rather than natural resources. It has become the first nation to suffer truly dramatic results from climate change.
More than a decade ago, the middle-of-the-road economist Ross Garnaut produced a report on the future impact of climate change in Australia. He devoted many pages to the risk of a massive increase in flames during the bushfire season and beyond. Successive governments, both social-democratic and conservative, did little to heed his warnings or implement the necessary policies.
That said, the country has become more careful and skillful in managing such outbreaks. But the level of this disaster has simply outgunned residents, firefighters, and policymakers alike.
For its causes lie far beyond what can be managed locally through prevention.
Michael Mann, who is among our most prominent climate scientists, is on sabbatical in Sydney, and took time out for a family vacation in one of the prime sites of the disaster. Here is his verdict: “The brown skies I observed in the Blue Mountains this week are a product of human-caused climate change. Take record heat, combine it with an unprecedented drought in already dry regions and you get unprecedented bushfires like the ones engulfing the Blue Mountains and spreading across the continent. It’s not complicated.”
This is a global problem, and Australia’s lust for money from sales of dirty energy sources is a significant element in it.
To labor the metaphor, Australia is the canary in the mine. As The Economist newspaper notes “Worldwide, fire seasons are getting longer and more damaging. The areas at risk include America’s west coast, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and swathes of Central Asia. If that sounds alarmist, remember that in 2018 California had the deadliest forest fires in its history, killing over 80 people and causing parts of Los Angeles to be evacuated, while over 100 people died in wildfires in Greece.”
We all need to deal with our emotions over this horror, animals and people alike. The way forward is to take an honest inventory of the disaster and its pre-history. Not to engage in the usual denials.
For this tragedy is a precursor to all our futures.