To Tanya Plibersek: The nightmares are better

Dear Tanya,

Normally when we write to politicians, we outline a problem, and what we want them to do about it. But you already know. You all know. Both about the problem and the solution. Its climate change. And we need to get to zero emissions, asap. No coal, no gas.

So here’s how I am feeling. You might not know this.

For over 8 years I have taught students at university about climate change. Over that time, I’ve been forced to gain skills on the run as a counselor, even though that should not be my job. My students cry in class, regularly. Sometimes they don’t show up and I worry about them. One of them once told me they were thinking about learning how to use a gun, so they could protect themselves when our food ran out. I can’t remember what I said, because I didn’t know what the fuck to say. I couldn’t have told her not to worry; these fires show she is right to worry. People are already struggling to find food – and water – in Australian towns, because of climate change. This is not a distant dystopia, it is here, it is now. So that makes me feel lost and inept. As a teacher, I am supposed to support and guide my students; but we don’t have a roadmap for this.

I’m writing to you because you are my MP, but you are also the Shadow Minister for Education and Training. So education professional to education professional, I want you to know this. Students don’t learn much when they are in the toilet retching with climate anxiety. Kids don’t learn much when their schools are closed, or evacuated, or burnt to the ground, because of climate change. Or rather, they don’t learn what you want them to, but they do learn other things. They learn that this shit is real. They learn what climate change feels like – terror, grief, hot flushes, the sting of vomit in your nose. They learn that decades of Australian politicians have abandoned them and their futures.

Smoky Sydney Sky
Smoky inner-Sydney sky

Across this summer, I’ve read the news every day, and sometimes watched all day, as these fires burned. That’s a lot of news. Its hard to do my job, or maintain relationships with people, when you can’t think about anything else. When you can’t sleep because you keep dreaming that you are frantically fleeing from flames, even though you’re nowhere near the fires. And then when you do wake up, your first conscious thought is that you don’t want to wake up because its happened. What you knew was going to happen, what you have worried about, taught about, talked about, what was predicted with incredible accuracy by scientists and firefighters yet was still literally unthinkable, happened. So you’d rather go back to the nightmares, because your world has ended. So that makes me feel childish, helpless, guilty, selfish and weak, because I am nowhere near as badly affected as those who were actually in the fires, and staying in bed is not an option.

Five years ago I wrote the following in a journal: ‘The future for me is dark, cloudy, a black hole of uncertainty.’ This was the visual that came up when asked to draw my feelings about the future in a climate grief workshop. I literally drew a black hole. Until now, I thought of it as metaphorical. I find it hard to make life decisions, because I don’t believe that any of those conditions that you normally assume will remain stable when making such choices will remain stable. How can I choose a job, a career, where to live, whether to have kids, when everything could unravel anytime – as these fires have shown. We know things will unravel, just not exactly where or when. I actually can’t envision growing old, or even older. My mind goes blank when I try to imagine such things. It’s a kind of living day-by-day, even though I am really well off.

Burnt leaves in hand
Burnt leaves in inner Sydney

But never did I think this vision would be a physical experience. I live in your electorate, the most inner city in the country, and I have blackened leaves falling in my yard. My windowsills are black with ash. We can catch it raining on us when we leave the house. Its blackening my lungs too, and knowing that the eucalypts live on, in a way, in my body, is not the nature experience I had hoped for when moving to Sydney. For those in Mallacoota, and Narooma, and so many other places along our east coast, the world around them has literally turned black, sky dark as night for hours of the day. But its longer term too: their whole worlds will be black with burnt bodies, those of trees, sheep, stumpy tail lizards, kangaroos, the whole place. It will be this way for a long time. So that makes me feel shocked, yet not surprised. And deeply, deeply sad. Even now, trying to write this letter, I can’t think about it; it hurts too much.

I didn’t want to write this letter because despite watching the news with an undercurrent of adrenaline, I’ve managed to maintain some sense of numbness. In some ways, I feel like I am losing a terminally ill relative – I’ve anticipated this coming for so long, and although I thought it wouldn’t be this bad for a couple more decades, I still feel that I have done part of the grieving already. So I am only partly shocked, or, I am somehow managing the shock. As a colleague said, after dreaming of this for so long, it now has a weird déjà vu quality to it all. So, the preemptive knowledge combined with utter shock makes me feel unreal. Like a fictional world has become real; but in reality it is the facts that have eventuated, and a fictional world – the one built on lies about economic growth protecting us from the environmental damage it causes – has ended.

I try not to tell people around me, but I do feel hopeless, useless and resigned. Like many, I feel I’ve been giving this my all for a while, and I don’t want to have to do it anymore. Of course, we have no choice. Those who lost their lives – including the animals and trees – didn’t have a choice. We have to keep fighting for them. So while I feel absolutely gutted, and totally exhausted, I also have moments when I feel energized. We must make this a turning point for Australia, and more importantly, we can. And you personally have more power than most.

So that’s how I feel. It took me some time to sit down and process this. What do you feel, in your heart? I encourage you to take the time to reflect on that too, and really ask yourself: can you really sit by while Australia continues to pretend coal is anything other than a death sentence for people, for places, for wildlife, for economies and for political careers?





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