Descending down from the altitude above Sydney, the first thing you see is not the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the serpentine sandstone coastline billowing around the blue water, nor the endless suburban sprawl that characterises Australia’s biggest city. Instead, you are greeted with a thick cloud of yellow-grey haze. When the plane hits the ground and you lean forward and look out the window, you realise it is still there, hanging ominously in the air and covering everything you once saw as familiar in an alien sheen. You are filled with a sense of genuine dread because you know that your country has been burning endlessly for at least three months, and with no end in sight.
Australia is a bizarre country; any Australian or someone who has lived in Australia for an extended period of time is familiar with its stark polarities. The breezy attitude of its citizens and their quiet sense of distrust towards outsiders, the searing heat of summer and its torrential downpour, the most beautiful landscape in the world with its arid soil and deadly wildlife. Each year, Australia is marked by an increase in each of its extremes. The summers grow hotter and drier, and the storms stronger and wetter. The politics grow more apathetic and the citizens more aggressive. More trees burn and more reefs bleach. A country as enormous in size and as thin in population as Australia is likely to bear the brunt of the new global condition of extremes more so than those more developed or populated because it genuinely feels at times like you are in one of few places where humans remain at the mercy of their environment.
One of the biggest tropes in Australian culture is this sensibility: the colonial anxiety of white settlers in a strange, alien land that seems to any normal person incredibly inhospitable, filled with dangerous plants and animals, extreme weather conditions, and dry, untenable earth. Australians remain both deeply proud and fearful of the natural environment we live in. We read reports of dingoes eating babies, tourists drowning in rough seas, and crocodile hunters killed by stingrays with cautious curiosity and reverence for our land and its inhabitants. We are reminded endlessly that we cannot control the environment around us and we must accept its decisions.
Why do these bushfires, then, feel so different? Why is it an event that seems to have galvanised the country, and the world, so intensely against a government and its prime minister – whose entire mantra was little more than “things just are the way they are”? Why is it that Australians, calmly enjoying their highest quality of life in the world, their high wages and low crime rates, feel so compelled to criticise a government they voted for just 6 months earlier?
The governing coalition in Australia has operated a brutal program of human rights violation in its detention of migrants, it has flagrantly supported the coal and fossil fuel industry and declared climate change a conspiratorial fear of the opposition. It has slashed budgets endlessly – on a state and federal level – to protect communities from drought, fire, and the destruction of habitats. It has done this without fail since returning to power in 2013. Why have we changed our minds?
The dread that you feel in seeing the haze blanketing Sydney, and the even denser toxic smog that made Canberra the most polluted city in the world earlier this month, is emblematic of the same sense of dread of infanticidal dingoes and homicidal stingrays. The misery of seeing a swathe of land larger than several European countries, entirely burnt without the chance of full regeneration for several decades is the same as the misery of a year without harvest because the soil is too dry and the sun is too hot.
Australians are no stranger to the climate anxiety that has gripped the world in recent years, but this time there is a feeling of genuine existential dread that has turned to universal anger at those that are responsible for this condition. The government had assured Australians that they would maintain things as they were, and we would be all the richer; they failed, they continue to fail pathetically, and now there are 33 dead, over 6000 homes destroyed, potentially half a billion wildlife extinguished, and over 18 million hectares of land in cinders.
It is precisely this sense of dread – that we cannot master our environment and that it will return our violence back in kind– that has changed the discourse in Australia around climate change, and around our relationship with our government intensively and perhaps permanently. The breezy smiles and handshakes of Scott Morrison are now met with disdain as the “quiet Australians” have realised that prayers for rain and pats on the back cannot bring back your homes or your loved ones, and that the government’s love of coal and gas which has made Australia one of the biggest polluters per capita in the world, does not bring wealth without destruction. Almost everyone I know at home has at least one, if not multiple people, in their life who have been seriously affected by these fires; people from all sides of the political spectrum have admitted the failures of the government and its responsibility in these fires, and the growing necessity to take climate change seriously.
Australians must also remind ourselves that this destruction has taken place on land that has been stolen but whose first inhabitants have never ceded their sovereignty to it. Their methods of protecting this land, living in harmony with it, and valuing its cruel beauty are crucial to the survival of the Australian landscape in contemporary times, and we should take seriously their suggestions of landscaping, bushfire prevention, and community development. This cannot be done under our existing political circumstances but demands the revival of Aboriginal languages, religions, and cultural practices, an Aboriginal parliamentary body: a united movement of civic activism that is dedicated to the preservation of humanity’s oldest extant civilisation and the most unique and beautiful land in the world.