Please NOTE: I wrote this essay in mid-January 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic swept through the public consciousness obliterating everything, back when, as I said, the fires were the only thing worth talking about. I didn’t publish this essay sooner as I had entered it in a competition (for which I was not selected). And I hesitated before posting it now as it all seems so out of date; January feels like another world away. But I think it is important to remember, in the midst of this crisis, that the climate crisis (like so many other ongoing crises) is still bubbling away. The next fire season is coming: lest we forget.
Tracey Clement, April 2020
I miss the Cold War.
You know things are bad when the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation seems like a soft option. But somehow the threat of sudden incineration seems preferable to the slow burning crisis that is the climate catastrophe. And here in Australia we are burning. Literally. In the second week of January, even as I write from the relative safety of Sydney, I can smell smoke and the sky is so filled with particulate that it’s like peering through dirty gauze. At night the moon glows red. It feels like the apocalypse. Now.
I’ve been expecting this moment. Although, unlike our sitting Prime Minister, I’ve never been a member of a Christian church or other doomsday cult, I have known that the apocalypse was coming for as long as I can remember. Born in the USA four years after the Cuban missile crisis, I was raised to believe that The End was nigh – not a biblical end of fury, glory and redemption, but nuclear Armageddon; the final move in a protracted ideological pissing contest. In fact, my father, a highly intelligent and very difficult man was so convinced that nuclear war was not only imminent but inevitable that he did what grandmothers and mothers, grandfathers and fathers, aunties and uncles have always done (and continue to do) in desperate and dangerous times; he tried to lead his family to safety.
In 1980, the whole nuclear family (pun intended) boarded a plane. None of us had ever flown before, yet after some 24 hours of driving, waiting, flying, waiting and flying we found ourselves in New Zealand; a place none of us had even heard of before Dad hatched his plan, a country deemed to be of such military and political insignificance that it wouldn’t be a target for a direct nuclear strike. And, so said my father, Aotearoa was also blessed with favourable wind patterns that would protect us from the radiation fallout which was bound to blight the northern hemisphere.
Then in 1989 the wall came down, the iron curtain parted and the Cold War finally fizzled out. As a result my father and I became something like legal and privileged refuges of a war that never quite happened, albeit, because we were white, invisible ones as long as we kept our mouths shut. We’d settled in as best we could, but the move was more than the family unit could bear and first my mother, then my brother, had already returned stateside. I don’t think either of them had ever been true believers in Dad’s apocalyptic vision anyway and getting away from him, and back to familiar territory, seemed worth the risk. But I’d been convinced.
At the height of the Cold War’s last battle, during the mid to late 1980s, I was a young woman in my twenties. I seriously did not expect to make it to thirty. Nuclear Armageddon would see to that. And I was not alone, welcome to the mind-set of Generation X. I remember a poster that seemed to grace the bathroom door of every ramshackle house I frequented all over New Zealand: Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher were locked in a passionate clinch thanks to bodies lifted from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. They gazed longingly at each other as the distinctive mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb – a sublime combination (in the true sense of the word) of horrific omnipotent power and terrible beauty – rose inexorably behind them, toxic and erect.
This was The End I thought was coming. Somehow the more likely slow death of radiation poisoning and nuclear winter, of persistent nausea, weeping sores and starvation, didn’t take hold. It was the flash of while light, the towering cloud, the orange sky heralding apocalypse that stalked my imagination. Hot and bright. Fast and final.
It is hot. And the skies are tinted orange as Australia burns and burns. The apocalypse is here, right now. But it’s not going to be fast. Strange what you can become nostalgic for. I miss the Cold War
The fires have been raging in Australia since September 2019. I could smell smoke in the air when I left Sydney in early November for a two-month-long artist’s residency in Paris. I was away when so much smoke and ash swept into Sydney that the city recorded some of the worst air quality anywhere in the world; when Penrith, at the base of the Blue Mountains, reached 48.9 degrees Celsius and became the hottest city on the planet that day; when Australia received the dubious honour of being ranked worst by an international think-tank examining the climate change policy of 57 countries; when the Prime Minister abandoned his post and flew to Hawaii for a family holiday in the midst of what was clearly an ongoing national emergency.
I’m in Paris but the fires at home dominate my thoughts. I’m scared. Terrified. I watch terrible scenes on the little screen of my phone: flames impossibly high, beautiful and deadly; charred and crumpled skeletal homes like crushed X-rays; the black silhouettes of kangaroos leaping for their lives. I cry and cry. Accounts by survivors make me cry, the righteous anger of fire fighters makes me cry, cartoons in The Guardian by First Dog on the Moon make me weep almost uncontrollably. Everything the Prime Minster says – and, more importantly, doesn’t say – fills me with impotent rage. By text, as we discuss the PM’s criminally negligent lack of leadership, his astoundingly audacious dereliction of duty, a friend says that Winston Churchill never would have abandoned his post. To which I reply, ‘Yah. I’m not enjoying this war at all.’ And it is a war.
Not that anyone in their right mind enjoys a war. However, if all those books, movies and TV series are to be believed, WWII did engender a certain bonhomie; a feeling of shared purpose and stoic determination in the face of a common enemy. But unlike Winston’s war, or the Cold War, or any other conflict between political entities, this is not a battle of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is only us. We – in the broadest sense of the term – are our own worst enemy. Despite the fact that these catastrophic fires are a seemingly unstoppable foe with ‘firepower’ we simply cannot defeat with the meagre weapons we have, this is not a battle against nature. What we are seeing is anthropogenic climate change made manifest.
I watch a clip of a fire in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Apparently defying gravity, and with nothing visible to burn, the flames scale a sheer rocky cliff in the Grose Valley near Blackheath. I imagine this fire front sweeping through the region, each eucalyptus tree a natural Molotov cocktail exploding in its wake, to join another fire front on the other side of the mountains. This vast inferno, now kilometres wide, marches inexorably east down the highway, much faster than any army, pushing huge balls of flame before it. A cloud of smoke as high as the fire is wide rises, roiling and spitting out black hail and jagged lightening. It’s making its own weather. The noise would be deafening if there was anything left alive that could hear. Asphalt buckles and bubbles, power lines snap and spark, glass shatters and Sydney burns.
I return to Sydney in early January. It’s dark and almost miraculously cool, but I can still smell smoke. In the taxi from the airport I talk about the fires with my driver (there’s nothing else worth talking about). He’s a migrant, like me. But unlike me he’s a highly visible ‘man of Middle Eastern appearance.’ Without prompting, he too compares the situation to a warzone, and I wonder if (unlike me) he has seen warzones before. We agree that the fire fighters are poorly equipped for the fight, that the Prime Minister’s behaviour is shocking, but he is also quick to point out, with obvious pride, that Australia is the best country and Australians are the best people because of the millions they have donated already to help the underfunded Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers, the poor scorched koalas, the people whose homes have been destroyed. I feel like crying again, right there in the backseat of his taxi.
I too have already donated. And while I feel teary and vaguely proud listening to him I also know that all this generosity is, if not futile, definitely unsustainable. These fires may be ‘unprecedented,’ but that does not mean that this catastrophic fire season will be a one-off. This, I suspect, is the new normal. Apocalypse now. Donations and kindness may help in the aftermath of battle, but they cannot win the war. Altruism cannot replace long-term planning for climate change mitigation, intensive Federal funding and proper visionary leadership. We need a change of government. We need radical action.
Sucked in by social media, another kind of cult in which people are literally preaching to the already converted, it’s easy to forget that not everyone feels the same. My feed is full of petitions for royal commissions, for deposing the PM, for funding the RFS. I click away, using the angry red face emoji (as how can you ‘like’ any of this?). I feel like I’m doing something, sorta. Surrounded by so much well-meaning anger I feel small glimmers of hope. Maybe things will change?
Two days after getting home, still discombobulated and jetlagged, I go to the mall. Throngs of people are shopping. Nothing has changed. It’s business as usual. I feel like running through its glitzy interior screaming, ‘Don’t you fools know the apocalypse has come?’ But I’m here too. And that’s the thing about this war that we have brought on ourselves. We are all culpable, every single one of us. Even if we shop local with our own eco bags. Even if we recycle. Even if we reuse and refuse. Everyone who drives a car, everyone who rides a petrol fuelled bus, everyone who buys something they don’t really need, everyone who flies anywhere, everyone who isn’t completely off grid: we are all part of the problem. Even if we voted for the Greens. George Romero set his seminal zombie flick in a shopping mall, the coalface of capitalism. And here we are, zombies staggering through an anthropogenic apocalypse, stupefied by the heady drugs of comfort and convenience. We will shop ’til we drop.
Or burn. Or flood. Take your pick. While Australia has been on fire other places have been inundated. Venice flooded in November, so did other parts of Europe. Some three million people on the east coast in Africa were affected by floods in December, and at least 250 people were killed. Back in August, Greenland lost a staggering 12.5 billions tonnes of ice in one day. It’s all happening and happening so much faster than anyone thought it would; although not fast enough to put us swiftly out of our misery. There is much more misery, much more privation and suffering to come. There are billions more lives (both non-human and human) to be lost.
It’s the apocalypse. Now.
This all makes me sound like a nutter, I know it does. But people thought my father was crazy too. He was, actually. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right. He could see a clear and present danger and his instinct to head for the high ground, to go somewhere safe, was sound.
In the early 1990s, in that all too brief moment after the Cold War and before the climate crisis really started heating up, we both left New Zealand. I came to Sydney and he returned to the US. We had already gone our separate ways long before. My father died before the calamitous scale of anthropogenic climate change became quite so obvious to all but the most self-interested or deluded denier. And while I wouldn’t wish these ‘interesting times’ on anyone, in a way it’s a shame he isn’t here to see it. He risked everything and lost – lost his wife, his son and eventually his daughter- in his determination to take us somewhere safe. But looking around today he may have felt vindicated in this decision nonetheless. Afterall, right now New Zealand seems like just about the best place to be. There are plenty of mountains, it still rains there and they have a leader who actually leads. I’m thinking of renewing my Kiwi passport.
Tracey Clement, January 2020