Enduring the Ending of the World

To those living in nations not yet consumed by fire, flood, or frost, we can report that for the most part, life seems to go on pretty much as it always has. There are some slight adjustments to be made. The morning routine now begins by checking the news to see which of the hundred or so fires raging out of control across the coast have joined forces to become super-fires, and which of these super-fires have united to become mega-fires.

On Australia’s climate crisis

Madeleine Bialke, Burning World. 2017, oil on linen. 16 × 20". Courtesy of the artist.

A recent cartoon circulating on social media depicts our current situation well. The illustration shows Australia burning in a cage held aloft by an outstretched arm upon which the continents of the globe are inked. Inside the cage, our country lies on its back, eyes crossed, singed legs sticking up in the air like blackened twigs. We are, in other words, the proverbial canary in the global mine, and we are already dead. But, the common refrain goes, our nation’s death might yet have meaning. Australia, fossil fuel–greedy country that we were, can perhaps serve as a cautionary tale for our friends across the seas.

No doubt you have seen the photos of the towns reduced to cinders, the satellite images showing immense pillars of smoke billowing out of our eastern coast like arterial blood leaking from punctures in the landscape, the footage of shell-shocked townsfolk, their faces covered in soot, huddled on beaches looking out over the waters in expectation of rescue from the ruin of their communities. Beyond the bewilderment and fear that comes from the need to flee from Nature’s rage, there is also the sense for many of us here that we are facing off with something sublimely unnatural. When great black clouds swallow the daylight, it confounds the instincts; some reflex in the body braces for rain and storm, but it doesn’t come, except in slowly dropping sheets of ash.

There is a disbelief in the air, a kind of hebephrenic denial. We move about in a daze of refusal, carrying on in a state that’s not quite calm, unable to fully accept the meaning of what is happening around us. I have seen it on the faces of the fire season refugees, those people who have come closest to the destruction, but it is there on the faces of spectators and audiences too, those watching at home on their televisions, checking the news on their phones, and on the unnerved faces of people in the street who stop to look up at the eerie flat circle of red sun behind a shimmering screen of white and black debris. On the news we watch families huddled on rafts and boats, if we are lucky enough not to be among them, and I cannot help but wonder if I am alone in feeling a sense of shame that in recent years, Australian elections have been fought on variations of a call to “Stop the Boats” of refugees who, perhaps misled by our national anthem’s claims of “boundless plains to share” for “those who’ve come across the seas,” try our nation’s hospitality.

To those living in nations not yet consumed by fire, flood, or frost, we can report that for the most part, life seems to go on pretty much as it always has. There are some slight adjustments to be made. The morning routine now begins by checking the news to see which of the hundred or so fires raging out of control across the coast have joined forces to become super-fires, and which of these super-fires have united to become mega-fires. Time between breakfast and the daily commute might well be put aside to send text messages to friends and relatives closest to the hundred or so blazes lately listed as “out of control,” or whose last known location is in danger of immolation. Keeping tabs on where the destruction is taking place is made easier by an app called “Fires Near Me” which sends you an alert when any major fires are moving into your preselected “Watch Zones.” It has become commonplace for social gatherings to end with someone glancing down at their phone and exclaiming “Oh dear, the fires are coming round my place, I better be off.” It is strange, too, that this instinct to run home and fight off the fires is so common. Intelligent, rational people, who know full well the inherent futility, turn to arming themselves with limp garden hoses and standing in their front yards like gimcrack Gandalfs trying to chase off an immense and amorphous Balrog.

Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, didn’t seem to suffer from any urge to face off with the elements; he was adamant he couldn’t cut his holiday in Hawaii short for the sake of a few fires. In a radio interview, he defended this reluctance to lead from the front, explaining, with a bold assertion of his own superfluousness, that he wouldn’t have been any help because he doesn’t “hold a hose, mate.” Scott “Scomo” Morrison’s government recently spent close to $200,000 of tax payers’ money on “empathy consultants,” hoping this would give the appearance of caring about the plight of drought-stricken landowners. It is safe to assume that Morrison’s “I don’t hold a hose” line escaped the outsourced empathy-vetting process. The nation’s collective response to his remark was perhaps best articulated by a volunteer firefighter from the small town of Nelligen who, hanging halfway out of a firetruck door as he drove past a local news crew, asked them to deliver the following message: “Tell the Prime Minister to go and get fucked.” This, too, is a statement unlikely to be endorsed by any empathy consultant, though it has resonated well with the public.

Another lesson from the end of the world is that these political matters are best left to social media pundits, dis-info bots from unspecified post-Soviet nations, and anonymous edgelords on the dark side of the web. For the rest of us, ignorance is bliss, and we must quietly go on living what’s left of our lives. Just last week I did my bit for the “new normal” by attending a show at a theatre in town, and I found the only real disturbance to the experience was a thirty-thousand person protest march coming down George Street, waving banners, beating drums, and shouting withering political songs of solidarity like “Hey-Hey, ho-ho! Scomo’s got to go!” One shirtless man, standing on a giant speaker that his companions were wheeling about on a trolley, led the nearest marchers on a call-and-response chant of “when I say ‘fuck,’ you say ‘Scomo!’” Later, as I waited patiently for the crowd between myself and the Town Hall doors to dissipate, I saw the same shirtless man shoving his face up against another protester in a Hawaiian shirt. The dialogue between the two consisted of them alternately asserting that it was the other guy who was both “a clown and a joke.” Behind them were three women with their faces painted to resemble koalas. In their hands were banners reading “We are the voice of the koalas.” This seemed a somewhat problematic anthropomorphism, and a frightening one too, since anyone who has heard the actual “voice” of a koala knows that its cadence oscillates between a goblin-like squeal and a demonic groan, the sum effect of which evokes a violent congress being undertaken behind a closed door in hell.

The koala, an indolent, short-sighted, and small-brained mammal riddled with chlamydia, has become the unlikely ambassador for Australia’s climate crisis. Their small sad eyes look out at the world with a pitiable innocence. What we see in the face of the koalas, bearing the burns and wounds of the catastrophe on their bodies, is the raw horror of our own role in their suffering. Despite the desperate protestations still being made by climate change deniers seeking to assure us that all this abnormality is business as usual, most of us cannot help but feel that there is a dimension of judgment in this ongoing disaster. All of us, no matter how much we have done to prevent what is happening here, hold a share of guilt, not only for what has been lost already, but in the loss that is yet to come.

But, since the United States’ own commander-in-chief recently put out the call at Davos for people to cheer up about all this climate change business, I will offer my own particular prescription for enduring the ending of the world. In these times, it is important to look for those moments of beauty that still remain, and conserve whatever you might hold dear. For instance, on Friday the 17th of January, Sydney was blasted by a much needed rain. People took to the streets and stood in the shower, parents let children run around dancing and splashing in the puddles, and the sound of the heavy drops pounding down on the rooftops gave the city such a cool that you could taste it. Firefighters and others on frontlines across the state sighed with the first great relief of the season. It was a moment of indiscriminate joy for our city. Admittedly, even this respite came at a cost. While the change in the weather helped to tame the raging fires, the conditions soon turned to storm and hail. The intensity of the downpour washed the rivers and dams with so much ash and silt that entire ecologies of fish choked to death on the sludge. Areas flattened by the fires were newly vulnerable, and so were devastated by flash flooding. Then again, even in that destruction there were faint signals of beauty, with the layers of rotting fish releasing a green bioluminescent algae which was admittedly pleasant to the eye and added an otherworldly flourish to the rose-pink streams of fire retardant that were also flowing into the local waterways. It is true that we can no longer see the stars at night, but—as W.H. Auden wrote—“Should all stars disappear or die, I should learn to look at an empty sky, and find its total black sublime, though this may take me a little time.”

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