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Fanning the Flames

By March 21, 2020 No Comments

The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.

The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.

The bora ring is gone.

The corroboree is gone.

And we are going.

Australia’s pre-colonial history reflects a rich tapestry of connection and cohesion with the natural world. For over 60 000 years preceding invasion, First Nation peoples drew upon physical markers to craft intricate knowledge systems. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the land is a vessel for cultural meaning and understanding. Listening to the land, and the stories and spirits it holds, guides survival.

It is undeniable that colonisation brutally tarnished this precious, custodial relationship. However, though White Australia views land through a Western lens of ownership and wealth accumulation, there remains a certain awe and wonder that still characterises our relationship to the landscape. Australia’s vast, all-encompassing plains are a perennial source of beauty that captivates and inspires.

Most importantly, the land offers inimitable insight into a cultural continuum of past and present: of tradition and ritual, song and dance, history and survival.

Source: Octavia Chandler [Photography].

A nation in crisis 

The Australian Bushfire disaster lasted roughly 80 days, claiming at least 33 human lives, killing an estimated 1 billion animals and burning almost 12 million hectares of bush, parks and forest. The skies of major capital cities were stained a sepia, smoky hue, and the festive season was naturally sombre. These unprecedented scenes of destruction have rattled and ravaged communities.

As the nation mourns the loss of land and life, this emergency has shone a light on the precarious Australian political arena and how we engage with the human experiences of pain, loss, empathy and trust, in a broken system.

The bushfire crisis has exposed Australia.

While fires burnt through the country, projecting horrific scenes across televisions worldwide, one could not help but conjure images of 2017 when a man stood in Australian parliament with a lump of coal in his hands and proclaimed, “this is coal… don’t be afraid!”

That man, Scott Morrison, is now our Prime Minister.

Sadly, this is emblematic of a government that has spectacularly failed in adequately addressing the climate crisis, too often silencing educated voices and minimising truths to placate the right wing. Australia’s humiliating environmental stance is clear when considering the outcome of the Paris Agreements. The 2030 NDC target of a 26-28% reduction is one of the weakest among G20 nations, described as “highly insufficient” and not reflecting a “fair share of global effort,” that would require other countries to step up with deeper reductions to mitigate this inertia.

Australia’s shaky efforts come even more undone with the Carmichael mine, under construction in central Queensland. The $12.5bn project will be the biggest coal mine in Australian history, predicted to add 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon pollution to our atmosphere, require roughly 500 more coal ships to travel through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area annually, and destroy the ancestral waters, lands, and culture of First Nation peoples without their consent.

These pathetic climate commitments tell a story of inaction and incapacity.

Truth-telling

As former Prime Minister, Malcom Turnbull, writes, “this is a time for truth telling, not obfuscation and gaslighting.”

Shockingly, the bushfires have been unveiled as both predictable and preventable. More than a decade ago, the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review cautioned that Australia would experience a more dangerous fire season by 2020, foretelling:

“fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense.” The report more broadly concluded that “Australians are facing risks of damaging climate change.”

It has also been revealed that as early as April 2019, 23 former fire chiefs and emergency leaders issued a letter, alerting the government to these looming threats. They “knew that a bushfire crisis was coming” and thus also requested a meeting with the government. It was declined.

The Australian government has clearly demonstrated a complete lack of respect and regard for expert opinion. As former NSW fire chief, Greg Mullins, stated: “This government fundamentally doesn’t like talking about climate change.”

On the question of linking the bushfires to the climate crisis, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack rejected climate concerns as superfluous and unjustified, purporting his concern for those in rural communities by saying, “they don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes.”

But, if now is not the time to discuss the climate crisis- as lives, homes and communities are torn apart, then when is?

McCormack’s words have proven to be extremely misguided, but they operate as part of a bigger pattern of trivialising valid worries and fair concerns when it comes to the climate emergency. While experts have concluded that a variety of issues have probably contributed to the bushfire crisis, the role of climate change is irrefutable, and simply irresponsible to ignore. The claim that “we’ve had fires in Australia since time began” just doesn’t stack up anymore.

In the former fire chiefs’ open letter, they describe how “climate change has supercharged the bushfire problem,” citing that “the extremes are far more extreme, and it is placing lives at risk.”

First Nations People have also predicted a bushfire crisis for years, warning of failures in land management. First Nation fire practitioner Victor Steffensen speaks of how he “was looking at it and thinking ‘this is a timebomb, it’s going to go off.” He continues: “The bottom line is that we need to start looking after the landscape.”

This elite consensus still appears to be insufficient in creating any real change.

The post-bushfires National Inquiry has been criticized for its “narrow scope,” that offers only an investigation into short term improvements to “preparedness, resilience and recovery” in the event of crises. There is a clear absence of any mention of long-term goals pertaining to the impact of the climate crisis and Australia’s international climate agreements. In fact, the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia the lowest in its Climate Policy rating. A focus on adaptation is simply not enough.

The currency of compassion

Amidst this onslaught of misinformation and mayhem, a spotlight has fallen on Scott Morrison. As the smokescreen lifts, it is clear that Australia’s conservative Prime Minister possesses a jarring inability to lead a country in crisis. His absence of national leadership is embodied in both a failure to govern and a failure to exhibit any sign of humanity: regret, empathy or genuine compassion. 

Aside from his antiquated views regarding the climate crisis, he has revealed a complete failure to connect with the Australian public and foster any trust or hope during these dark times. As rural communities burnt, and many faces accrued post-apocalyptic masks, the Prime Minister, returning early from his ill-timed Hawaiian vacation, appeared out of touch.

His clumsy damage control efforts have been disingenuous and performative, as Morrison has been filmed entering ravaged communities and forcing handshakes with those who have lost everything, as well as any trust in a government that was meant to protect them. Such opportunistic acts of service have been described as “evasive,” ”tepid” and, above all- “tone deaf.”

One only needs to take a short, almost three-hour flight, to New Zealand to be truly struck by Morrison’s incompetency. In Jacinda Ardern’s response to the 2019 Christchurch massacre, she had to address a nation disarmed by grief. Ardern demonstrated nuance and integrity in both generating national unity and recognising the global context of such a disaster. Most importantly, she was a human first, and a politician second.

It is easy to see how Morrison lacks the same shades of human emotion, even going so far as to claim that volunteer firefighters, risking their lives for our country, did not deserve compensation, because they “want[ed] to be out there.”

This depth is so important. In the wake of tragedy, politicians must have the ability to unite people in a common, collective humanity.

This unique challenge means that compassion is key, as survival is not a partisan issue.

Such national emergencies inevitably test our political system. The climate crisis is a question of existence or extinction – one that is irrefutably human at its core, and thus demands that politicians cross party lines.

In such circumstances, hubris becomes deadly.

A call for change 

Greg Mullins talks of the time someone said to him, “it would take a huge disaster for this government to acknowledge that there is such a thing as climate change.” 

Perhaps this is also true for the broader Australian public.

As new information rises more and more to the surface, Australians have finally felt what climate inaction looks like: the tangible, devastating effects of ignorance and weak climate policy. The searing public backlash and Morrison’s ineffective damage control efforts have generated an incredible lack of trust in his leadership, as well as galvanising calls for climate justice.

The Guardian reports that the bushfire crisis has created “a spike in concern about the environment,” with ANU’s Centre for Social Research and Methods uncovering a “significant and substantial decline” in the Coalition’s vote from 40% in October 2019 to 35% in January. Moreover, regarding confidence in party leaders, Morrison scored an average of 3.92 out of 10, a net negative score (he rated 5.25 in June 2019). The poll also revealed a record number of voters citing the environment or global warming as their greatest concern, with 72% now believing that global warming or the greenhouse effect would affect them.

Australia is not the first country to experience the effects of climate change, and it will not be the last. We know that the climate crisis is disproportionately burdening developing countries. As it stands, Western media is still notorious for mainly highlighting issues that represent a direct risk or immediate threat to our cushioned bubble. But, maybe now that tragedy has struck the developed world, this incident will force change.

More than ever, we have a clear impetus to mobilise developed populations, those of us endowed with privilege, opportunity and resources, to demand concrete action.

Connecting to humanity in crisis 

The Australian bushfire crisis has shone a light on the intricacies of climate justice. It is the nexus of a myriad of issues that force us to reflect on how our world is run and who runs it: the white encroachment that has led us down this rickety path.

Our treatment of, and relation to the land, is a by-product of so many cultural issues, and historical hierarchies and biases that we have struggled to fully unlearn. Our global system still thrives off a yearning for “more” – whether that be power, wealth or influence, or often the coalescence of all three.

In recent months, Antipodean affairs have also brought venerable displays of community, in these times of despair for Australia’s land, people and our collective planet. Incredibly successful fundraisers have indicated that there remains a firm and unwavering belief in the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

This will be one of our biggest assets as we move forward, united. 

The Australian people deserve a government that isn’t afraid to utter the words “climate crisis.” We deserve a government that will listen to the experts, centre the right voices and demonstrate basic humanity in the face of crisis.

As our time to act quickly expires, this is no longer just about Australia; the world deserves it too.

The time is up for hiding behind a smokescreen of arrogance and indolence.

It is an especially important time to illuminate the way First Nations Peoples have lived for generations and generations in harmony with the natural world, harnessing practices that nurture the land, treating it with respect and dignity. When Michael McCormack speaks of how “we’ve had fires in Australia since time began,” perhaps this is our incidental cue to turn to First Nations communities, and their traditional burning practices that have sustained ecosystems for centuries.

As Lorena Allam, a descendant from the Gamilaraay and Yawalaraay nations of north west NSW, implores:

“Our memories, our sacred places, we are losing what forever connects us to a place in the landscape. But we can help… We know what it feels like to lose everything. And we know the rage of helplessness in the face of government indifference. Maybe this summer is the turning point, where our collective grief turns to action and we recognise the knowledge that First Nations people want to share, to make sure these horrors are never repeated.”

So, why is compassion so important? Because compassion means listening.

Now, more than ever, it is the time to rethink which voices we value and which we reject. Compassion means honouring and respecting those that carry experience that travels thousands of years into the past.

These are the voices that we need to listen to, if we want a future.

 

The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.

The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.

The bora ring is gone.

The corroboree is gone.

And we are going.

 

 

All images: Octavia Chandler. [Photography]. 

 

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