These fires feel like the end.
Teaching climate change, sustainability and environment education over the last 15 years, one would think I would be prepared for this.
Intellectually and politically I understood the science, the statistics and the solutions.
Spiritually I had no idea what to expect, what to prepare for.
Until this moment, I have maintained a level of buoyancy, what some people call ‘active hope’ – not denial of the “potential” severity, not deluded that regardless of what we do everything will essentially be alright, but up until now, not despairing. Now, my tone and tenor in talking about the climate crisis has changed irrevocably.
It’s so hard to concentrate on work when fires rage, smoke engulfs our bodies, becomes our breath. So hard to focus, when the atmosphere is so thick with smog seeping into everything, every body. This sounds trivial when compared with people dying, others losing everything and an estimated 1.25 billion – BILLION – animals dying.
After three weeks of being alert, consuming an endless stream of news updates, engaging in ongoing conversations, teary hugs, consoling, distracting and caring for children, I am spiritually and emotionally exhausted. And yet I’m in no direct danger of the fires, so comparatively, I am fine, and immediately I think of those who are in the direct line of danger. My heart goes out to all of the people, animals, ecosystems and whole communities who have been killed, displaced, pushed to extinction or the edge of extinction and who will never really recuperate.
And yet, when I say I’m in no direct danger, that is of course not entirely accurate. My 11 year old (like many millions of people) has asthma. The air in Melbourne (Wurundjeri Land) last Monday was hazardous. This affects us all long-term; it affects asthmatics and others with depleted lung capacity, imminently. This does affect me directly. Confusion and listlessness abound.
Five days before Mallacoota was in lock down, I was holidaying in houseboats on Mallacoota Inlet with my extended family. My 9 y.o. (pictured in the image above) was having a turn at skippering the boat. It was so fun, so freeing. He wore a wry smile and emanated a sense of utter joy. The beauty of the world’s light diffractions making it seem like the boat was in the boy and the boy in the boat.
Not a week later, the now famed picture of another boy in a boat—Finn, fleeing the encroaching fires, driving his family in a tinny to safety (below)—spread around the world, capturing the hearts and spirits in a planetary gasp of ‘FUCK! This is what climate crisis looks like’. The image of apocalypse.
These two very contrasting images ram home the fact that these are seriously precarious times: people and places safe today, can be under serious threat, or gone, tomorrow.
As well as all these seriously grave concerns, my heart keeps lurching to the worry that our children will have less opportunity for this kind of free fun, to play and exuberant joy. Yes, there are many children around the world who already don’t have these opportunities, who already live in precarity. So, as ever, the climate crisis will affect those already vulnerable first and worst. But, like many other parents in this place in time, my heart is suddenly ripped apart not just for the existential threat to our children’s lives, but to their sense of freedom, of play, of abandon. And on this point, I lose it. I just cry and cry and cry.
And yet this planetary moment of crisis, despair, sorrow and fear, also feels like the closest we have come to a sense of collective entanglement on such a vast scale – emotionally, materially and existentially, people (of all persuasions) are coming to finally understand that we’re all in this together.
First Nations people have always known this. This is the knowledge that settlers tried so hard to destroy and in so doing, destroyed not only cultures, languages and homes for very many Aboriginal people, but current liveability for very many millions of people and more-than-human places. Aboriginal people have not forgotten this knowledge. Aboriginal people, like many different First Nations people around the world, have known the end of times, the end of worlds and yet their knowledge persists.
This crisis might just help us finally surrender our savage settler ego and, along with the sorrow and deep, ongoing sorry work that needs to happen, support First Peoples to fully recuperate the knowledge of caring for this place in the ways that they have cultivated for millennia; the ways they know with every fibre of their bodies, works. For everybody’s sake please put your energy into supporting this work.
And more broadly, I beg you now, to seriously act on this crisis not just reactively. This crisis is a crisis of dramatically changing climate patterns but underpinning that, it is also a crisis of (Western, colonial, capitalist) culture and the economic systems that make these climatic and ecological crises possible. You can no longer purport to having a climate action plan with one hand while you recklessly log Toolangi and other old forests, with the other hand.
In the aftermath of fires still burning and the fires yet to come, in tandem with immediately healing communities, please pledge to invest in First Nations knowledge systems as well as other sophisticated adaptation systems – climate and disaster resilience education; exponentially improving building standards; ceasing logging Indigenous forests; investing in Indigenous Ranger programs for recuperating forests and other ecosystems (dune systems, mangroves); talking about climate change ongoingly – increasing community knowledge; building community’s capacity to more than survive through the increasingly dire crises to come; and helping cultivate the best (research informed) ways to talk with and care for children in this seriously changed world.
So, I return to where I began — this feels like the end.
But it’s up to politicians, like you, to finally decide – will it be the end of climate inaction, or will it be the end of our world?
In exasperation and tenuous hope