By the light of the bushfires
currently burning in Australia I write these words. A sickly, slightly orange glow from a shrouded sky filters into my work room and on to my screen. It is even possible to look directly at the sun, which is barely discernible as a red circle behind a thick smoky haze. This haze has crossed the 2,250 kilometre wide Tasman Sea, and travelled another 250 km across the width of the South Island to reach Banks Peninsula. Whenever the wind is from the north and the fires are burning strongly, the clouds come and cover the sun. When it does get through, its light falls on the walls as a strange orange-yellow glow. This has been happening ever since the fires (which started burning as early as September 2019) reached emergency level in December 2019 .
This is not the first time that an Australian ecological disaster has crossed the ditch. In Call of the Reed Warbler Charles Massy recalls climbing the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand in 1974 and chipping into a patch of ice with a reddish tinge, thinking it might be some sort of algae. His Kiwi companion set him right, saying “No, that’s not algae. That’s your Mallee drought from the early 1930s!” Massy explains that farmers in the south-eastern states had created their own version of America’s notorious Dust Bowl by over-cropping and over-grazing the land. When drought came in the 1930s, millions of tons of the red dirt of Australia blew over 3,000 km across land and sea to turn the Southern Alps red.
Massy’s book is a wake-up call. If Australian farmers refuse to learn to farm in regenerative ways, instead of destructive ones, there will be nothing left to farm. It will have dried up and blown away – or burned down. As has happened to many farms since European-style industrial farming for export came to Australia two centuries ago, including Massy’s own family farm, which was in a badly degraded state before he began farming it differently. But it’s not just farmers who need to heed the call. It is also the people who eat what they produce without thinking about how it is produced, and it is the decision-makers at local, regional and national levels – the elected representatives and the unelected corporate powerbrokers – who favour and subsidise destructive activities like coal and water mining, and are hostile or indifferent to citizens trying to care for their country and their communities.
As the fires began to become more fierce and widespread in November (with catastrophic fire danger being declared in the Greater Sydney region for the first time since the introduction of this level in 2009) Australian representatives were preparing for the COP25 global climate change conference in Madrid. By December 7, when the COP25 talks still had six days to run, two million hectares had been burnt or was burning in New South Wales, and the other states were also suffering from fires unprecedented in their extent, number and ferocity. None of this had any impact on those at COP25, where the climate diplomats were busy cutting a dirty deal which would allow Australia to do even less, not more, to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The deal involved a lot of creative accounting to reduce the amounts by which emissions were required to decrease, to levels which are completely unrealistic. Especially when Australia is burning now.
What next for Australia (and those downwind of its pollution)? I know what I hope, and also what I fear. It’s hard to see clearly through the toxic haze…
* On the evening of Wednesday January 1, 2020 The Guardian on-line reported that
“AAP have put together a wrap of the bushfire season so far.
Australia’s catastrophic 2019 bushfire season at a glance:
* 15 lives lost, four in the past 24 hours
* Two people remain missing
* More than 100 bushfires burning
* 3.6 million hectares burned, greater than the size of Belgium
* 1087 homes confirmed destroyed
* One person dead, four more missing
* More than 40 bushfires of significance burning
* More than 500,000 hectares burned
* 68 structures confirmed destroyed but this number is expected to rise significantly
* Two lives lost
* About 20 bushfires burning, seven of significance
* More than 60,000 hectares burned
* More than 90 homes confirmed destroyed
* 7 bushfires burning
* 250,000 hectares burned
* 45 homes confirmed destroyed
* More than 40 bushfires burning, two of significance
* 1.2 million hectares burned
* One home confirmed destroyed
* More than 30 bushfires burning, seven of significance
* 8000 hectares burned
* One home confirmed destroyed”
And if you can bear to imagine what these fires are doing to Australia’s unique flora and fauna (such as almost a third of the koalas in New South Wales killed by the fires) then this has to be added to the loss of human lives, the loss of homes and farms and nature reserves, and the illnesses and premature deaths caused by smoke pollution. The costs of ignoring the realities of climate change now far outweigh whatever benefits there may be to denial.