As the end of 2019 approached, I had planned to write one of my usual New Year posts here, something about my top posts and the best papers I read last year.
But as January approached, the escalating crisis we are currently experiencing made all of that seem frivolous and pointless.
I’m an optimist and I don’t like to dwell on despair. But this climate crisis ravaging our beautiful country is too critical to ignore. This post is more personal than usual – I’ll write something about insects and ecosystem services when I have time to get my thoughts together.
I live in northern New South Wales, where this crisis started back in early September (update: much earlier in other parts of northern NSW, see Greg’s comment below). Numerous fires struck our already drought-ravaged region, affecting small regional towns with depleted water supplies, and tearing through the national parks along the north coast, some of the most beautiful forests in the country.
While Armidale itself was not directly in any fire path, everyone suffered indirectly, particularly through smoke inhalation, but also through friends, families and colleagues on the frontline of the fires, and numerous inconveniences, like cancellations, regular flight delays and road closures. Other communities in the region were not so lucky.
Due to the close proximity of the fires, we were breathing bushfire smoke daily – which, of course, medical experts advise you shouldn’t do. Some days were worse than others, and occasionally we would have clear skies for a few days in row. But the most horrible periods lasted for days on end, the sun a dim glow and the smell of acrid smoke permeating the house even with the windows shut.
Armidale air quality about to get nasty. A quick wind change & the smoke from Carrai rolls in pic.twitter.com/7yI1XqnfZt
— Dr Manu Saunders (@ManuSaunders) November 16, 2019
600km drive through this today…All. The. Way. Home just in time to shut all the windows before the nightly easterly blows the relentless smoke blanket across town. After 3+ months of this, people I’ve talked to aren’t whingeing, they’re really worried #bushfirecrisis pic.twitter.com/fSGC4CZh2Q
— Dr Manu Saunders (@ManuSaunders) December 9, 2019
It pales in comparison to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods. But it was the relentless anxiety wearing us down over weeks that affected many people’s mental health, and the relentless smoke that has affected our physical health. Some of those fires are still burning today, and more have started since.
At the time, we received only a little attention from national or international media. I and others tweeted regularly, but I often felt like I was tweeting into the void. I’m not saying this to complain, it’s understandable: the fires were mainly burning deep in remote national parks in a less densely-populated part of the state and, with the exception of a few major fire events at coastal towns around Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, most of the ongoing fires have not directly threatened large residential areas.
This is a curious human condition: ‘out of sight out of mind’. Some people don’t see the need to engage with a crisis that is not impacting them directly. After a bit of a look and a gasp, they’re quick to move on to something more relevant. The problem with this crisis, is it will affect every one of us.
It wasn’t until weeks later, when more fires started around Sydney and massive amounts of smoke affected the biggest city in Australia, and then other major cities like Canberra, Albury and Melbourne, that the fires started getting more media coverage. But our northern NSW losses are still mostly out of sight out of mind (and don’t forget Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania).
Fast forward to now…I don’t need to detail what is happening. On a personal note, it hurts. My husband and I used to live in southern New South Wales, where the fires are now raging intensely – we met and married there. We already know of many friends who have lost homes, livestock and property, there may be more we’re yet to learn of. Many, many of our favourite places across southern and eastern Australia are now devastated. The ecological toll on wildlife and ecosystems is the most concerning – this massive loss of biodiversity will restructure ecosystems and have long-term impacts on ecosystem services.
I don’t want to dwell on the devastation. There are many stories of hope and beauty among the ashes. I do genuinely feel optimistic that this horrible event is a catalyst for change and we will finally see some evidence-based policy action on climate change. It’s a tragedy we had to lose so much to get there.
What I have found most upsetting during this crisis are the lies being spread on social media about science and environmental policy. Especially the tired old flogging of derogatory myths about ‘greenies’ to avoid any legitimate environmental policy, action or regulation. And not just by bots and trolls. By elected politicians and real people in my social media feeds, desperately trying to keep grasp on their vested interests and cultural norms as the world sinks around us.
Last year, Polly Higgins died. She was an inspiring environmental lawyer who worked hard to get ecocide recognised as an international crime against humanity. Her legacy continues and I hope it gets renewed support.
I read this great article about her after she died, and was struck by this response when she was asked about why the ecocide cause had not reached mainstream popularity:
Higgins says [the cause] doesn’t wholly rely on public awareness “because it’s not the number one issue of concern,” she says. …
That doesn’t mean public support for the idea isn’t useful — “it does help to have public support without a doubt,” she acknowledges — it just may not be necessary. If the International Criminal Court agrees with her, her job is done.
This is something I think we can all remind ourselves when we’re faced with pot-stirring trolls on social media. It doesn’t matter if some misguided people want to believe conspiracy theories, hype and lies.
What matters most is that our elected leaders and decision-makers, whatever political party they belong to, are strong and informed enough to adopt evidence-based environmental governance of our country. Our lives depend on it.
© Manu Saunders 2020