January 5, 2020, Totara Park in Auckland (Photo: Phil Walter via Getty Images)
January 5, 2020, Totara Park in Auckland (Photo: Phil Walter via Getty Images)

BooksJanuary 2, 2021

The burning world

January 5, 2020, Totara Park in Auckland (Photo: Phil Walter via Getty Images)
January 5, 2020, Totara Park in Auckland (Photo: Phil Walter via Getty Images)

On fire and hope and this time last year.

Extracted from Living With the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa, a BWB Text anthology edited by Tom Doig. 

The city below us looked nothing like Melbourne. Wreathed in thick brown smoke, it resembled some post-apocalyptic ghost town, an End Times vision from a science fiction film. Lights glowed weakly through the pall, our home town all but erased. Peering out the plane window as we ascended, I felt a queasy sense of dread. The world was on fire.

Beside me, my son was choosing a cartoon. The smoke had already lost its novelty, so he was unfazed by the view: he had a shiny new suitcase, a bag of Cheezels and a menagerie of animated critters. We were on a plane! Life was good.

Four days earlier a woman had stepped off a plane at Canberra airport and died of respiratory distress on the smoke-covered tarmac. Right now, the military was evacuating thousands of people trapped on Mallacoota beach by a violent firestorm. The bushfires blazing across Australia were so huge, so intense, they were creating their own violent weather systems – fire tornadoes, fire-generated thunderstorms. The smoke plume was visible from space, pouring across the Tasman Sea. Black Summer, they were calling it.

As Melbourne dropped away behind us, shards of red light shot across the plane cabin, a lurid sunset amplified by bushfire smoke. I reached for my son’s hand and tried to push the catastrophic pictures out of my mind. Hold on Mum, I thought. We’re coming.

It was early January 2020, and Australia had been burning for months. Fuelled by prolonged drought, lightning strikes, strong winds and the hottest and driest year on record, the fires had already destroyed an area the size of Cambodia. The toll so far: 25 people dead, 1,500 homes turned to ash, more than a billion animals obliterated.

Anxiety and grief hung in the air, along with a sense of helplessness: the disaster felt unstoppable. “Stay safe” became our new sign-off. I kept the radio tuned to the news, the volume low, ready to click it off when the details got too horrific. Protecting our six-year-old, but shielding myself too. The damage was sickening, the suffering too much to bear.

The bushfires also stirred a deeper unease. This was a disaster with symbolic weight: the climate crisis made manifest, a visceral reminder that humankind is in deep trouble. We live within sight of Melbourne’s skyscrapers, a long way from the fires. Yet those towers were now hidden by smoke haze, the air in our suburb rated “hazardous”: Keep windows and doors shut. Keep pets inside. Scouring eBay for child-sized N95 face masks, I couldn’t pretend the climate emergency was still lurking somewhere over the horizon. Now it was inside the house. We were breathing it.

The cracking BWB anthology we nabbed this essay from, and Meg Mundell’s cracking 2019 pandemic novel (Images: Supplied)

We landed at Auckland airport to find the smoke had beaten us across the Tasman. The passport officer shook her head over the devastation, offered her sympathies. She told us the glaciers down south were stained brown, the South Island engulfed in ashy haze, Auckland sunsets tinted apocalyptic orange. Yesterday the skies went dark at 5pm, the city cloaked in bushfire smoke. Drivers turned on their headlights and worried Aucklanders dialled 111.

Another, more personal, emergency had summoned me home: Mum’s illness, a terrifying series of ambulance trips, a brutal session of emergency heart surgery. That stretch of ocean separating us had never seemed so wide.

Driving south through the rolling Waikato landscape, heading for the Coromandel, I played I Spy with my son. Every trip home, without fail, I’m struck by the lushness of the place: almost preternaturally green, the saturation cranked up to 11. The grass so bright it hurts your eyes, the landscape bursting with chlorophyll: shades of emerald, viridian, jade, moss green. So different from Australia’s colour palette, a combustible mix of ochres and umbers, saltbush and terracotta.

I fiddled with the radio, hunting for some Kiwi music. Landed on the news instead.  … have died in catastrophic fires, and two people remain missing –

I snapped the radio off. Too late. A small voice from the back seat: “Where did the people die? Is there fires here too?”

I reassured my son with platitudes, told him how clean and green Aotearoa is. Made some dubious claims about green places not burning easily, a piece of magical thinking inspired by nostalgia and that rich Waikato soil. Gum trees burn like crazy, I ad-libbed; kauri and rimu, not so much.

Never mind that at that very moment, fire crews were battling a huge blaze tearing through a pine forest near Napier. That these grassy farmlands were once covered in native bush, long since razed by flames, axes and bulldozers. That in truth the Waikato was swiftly turning brown, in the grips of an intensifying drought. I wanted my kid to feel safe here in my clean, green homeland.

Then, in the distance, I spotted a familiar landmark: the tall chimneys of Huntly power station, the aging plant still burning coal, belching out its toxic emissions. Clouds of smoke, or maybe steam, tumbled up into the clear blue sky.

“I spy with my little eye,” I said. “Something beginning with S … ”

Sea-level rise. Soil erosion. Salinity. Severe heatwaves. Shrinking sea ice. Species extinction. Spillovers of zoonosis. I had disaster on the brain, and it was proving hard to shake.

January 2, 2020, residents of Mallacoota, Victoria are evacuated to the HMAS Choules (Photo: Justin McManus/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

All parents lie; it comes with the job. We tell our kids there is no monster under the bed. We censor bad news, omit disturbing facts, tell them harmless lies to keep the horrors of the world at bay. Deception as protection. It’s necessary, but our duplicity has a use-by date. You can’t hide the truth forever – not when the threat is ever-present, when it will grow with every year your child inhabits this warming planet.

Sooner or later, our kids will find out what a mess we’ve made. How we could have fixed it, or at least slowed the damage. How we failed to do so. The destruction began long before I was born. Humanity was slow to connect the dots, but by the time my generation reached adulthood, we couldn’t plead ignorance: we knew climate change was caused by humans. If anyone could fix things, it should have been us.

Our son is not an anxious kid, and for that we’re grateful. But the true scale of the climate crisis can feel overwhelming, no matter what age you are. Unless you want to give them nightmares, you can’t inflict the full calamity on a young kid. This particular truth must be revealed gradually, in a way that does not cultivate despair.

Hope gets a bad rap: it’s been dismissed as passive, delusional, unrealistic. But as Rebecca Solnit argues, hope is also an act of imagination, an antidote to apathy, a call to arms, a catalyst for change. It lifts our spirits and gives us strength. For poet Emily Dickinson, hope was “the thing with feathers”. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger called it the “major weapon” against suicide. Psychology professor Angela Duckworth names it as a vital ingredient of “grit”, or passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Hoping is not passive: it’s an investment of personal effort, an active engagement with the future. Hope helps us cope with stress, illness and change. And for young people, research suggests it can be a major motivator for taking action on climate change. Without hope … what hope do we have?

So as parents we dole out the facts in small, bearable chunks, and offset them with small, bearable actions – things we can do to reduce our impact, steps that instil a sense of agency and hope. The illusion of control. Pick up litter, reduce plastic, recycle what we can. Don’t drive if we can walk, grow some of our own food, plant flowers for the bees. Front up to the climate strikes, join in the chants; watch Greta Thunberg’s chat with David Attenborough, where they express their shared love for the planet and its animals.

But always, that niggling thought: we could be doing more. We could be doing so much more.

Our boy hasn’t seen the video of Thunberg’s September 2019 speech to the UN Climate Council, where she tears a strip off world leaders for their failure to act on climate change. Where she talks about ecosystem collapse, mass extinctions, people suffering and dying. One day I’ll show it to him, but not yet.

Greta leans into the microphone: “My message is that we will be watching you.” Applause, a ripple of smug laughter from the audience. But Greta does not smile. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she says, her voice wavering with anger.

There’s a good reason why this speech has drawn so much ire from internet trolls, right-wing pundits and powerful bullies. Deep down, every adult watching that video knows it: Thunberg is not just chastising presidents and prime ministers. She’s talking to us, too.

“You are failing us,” she says. “But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”

The Black Summer bushfires in fact began in winter, along Australia’s drought-stricken east coast. The country was primed to burn. When summer hit, heatwaves and low rainfall had turned the landscape into a tinderbox, and temperature maps of the country glowed magenta with record highs: 48.9°C in Penrith, western Sydney; 49.9°C in Nullarbor, South Australia. By Christmas every state and territory was ablaze, thousands of fires burning across the country, some merging and advancing across state borders.

Back in Aotearoa, the kid safely tucked up in bed, I watched as Dad flicked through the evening news: raging vortexes of flame, burnt koalas, exhausted firefighters, wildlife carers breaking down in tears. The whole world was watching this unfold, every channel bearing witness to the horror, as if it held a message for us all. The footage cast an orange glow over the lounge room, my parents’ worried faces. Everything felt fragile.

I monitored the fire maps, texted my partner for updates. His parents live on a rural property outside Melbourne, hemmed in by bush on every side. If fire cuts them off, there’s no way out.

My Facebook feed was full of sadness, shock and grief – friends posting anxious news of family members trapped in fire zones, images of blackened landscapes, smoking ruins that had once been homes. Someone shared a photo of their elderly parents standing in the burnt-out remains of the family farm, looking down at the ground, their whole bodies freighted with loss.

“This is not normal,” said the experts. ‘This is unprecedented.”

The rest of us struggled for words. What could you say in the face of such annihilation? “Stay safe,” we told each other. “Hold your loved ones close.” “Kia kaha,” said the Kiwis.

January 4, 2020: Lake Jindabyne, New South Wales (Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Growing up in a damp green paradise at the bottom of the map, I’d never understood fire as a tangible threat. Despite New Zealand’s own ash-strewn history, fire simply didn’t register as something to worry about. Deep water was what terrified me. When you live in a long narrow country surrounded by ocean, drowning is a far more visceral fear.

Australians are different. They know they live in a flammable continent. The deadly potential of fire is part of their cultural fearscape, a trauma smouldering down through the generations. Australia has used up every day of the week to commemorate its grievous fire events: Black Saturday, Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday. But still, nothing could have prepared them for this.

The day we flew back to Melbourne, it had the worst air quality of any city in the world. Fire alarms blared all night, set off randomly by smoke haze. Beaches were closed, building sites shut down. Bunnings sold out of P2 face masks. A tennis player at the Australian Open dropped to her knees in a coughing fit. Bushfire smoke was drifting onto train platforms at Melbourne Central Station, 25 metres below ground. It slunk into hospital birthing rooms, stopped MRI machines from working. Stay inside, we were told, shut the doors and windows tight. Sitting in our kitchen, I felt it in my chest: a tightness, like a fistful of grit.

At the best of times, city dwellers tend to forget the world beyond the urban fringe: the rural hinterlands where our food is grown; the national parks, wine regions and coastal communities we visit on occasional holidays. When tragedy strikes elsewhere, it’s easy to mute the news reports, to turn away from those distressing images. Out of sight, out of mind.

But smoke has its own psychology. It’s not just knowing the health hazard, the respiratory risk. Smell taps into the limbic system, a deep-set tangle of our neural circuitry that deals in memory and emotion. You can switch off the radio, scroll past the images. But you know the smoke haze drifting in your windows and filling your chest – a mix of poisonous gases, harmful chemicals and tiny toxic particles – came from somewhere. You know you’re inhaling the residue of what has happened to all those people, plants and animals, all the forests, habitats and homes that have been destroyed. It’s hard to block out tragedy when you’re breathing in its ashes.

“It stinks,” said my son, wrinkling his nose.

“It’s just smoke, sweetheart,” I said. “Keep the windows shut and we’ll be fine.”

January 10, 2020, Sydney Town Hall, a rally against Scott Morrison / for climate action (Photo: Jenny Evans via Getty Images)

As Australia burned, the prime minister’s popularity ratings went south. Famous for waving a lump of coal in Parliament during a heatwave, Scott Morrison is a pugnacious populist and evangelical Christian, a man with cosy ties to the mining industry and a track record of denying or downplaying the climate crisis. “This is coal. Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared!” Morrison smirked, brandishing his prop. As his colleagues guffawed behind him, the then-Treasurer sang the praises of fossil fuels and taunted the opposition for its “ideological, pathological fear of coal”.

Now the mood of the country was shifting. Back in April a group of veteran fire chiefs had warned the government that bushfires were being “supercharged” by climate change, and the coming fire season would be brutal. Morrison ignored them. When their warnings became reality, he persisted in slyly dodging the link with climate change. Before Christmas, when the fires claimed their eighth victim, the PM was mysteriously missing in action, then found to be secretly holidaying in Hawaii. Subsequent PR visits to burnt-out rural towns backfired badly, exposing Morrison’s bluff aggression, his lack of personal grace, and the anger of traumatised communities who felt they’d been abandoned.

Sinking polls forced the government to dial down its denialist rhetoric. But lies and misinformation were already swirling. Coalition politicians and climate sceptics fanned false rumours that the fires were caused by arsonists, or by phantom greenies who’d supposedly blocked hazard-reduction burns.

In truth, most fires were sparked by dry lightning. A single lightning strike lasting just 518 milliseconds hit a stringybark tree in remote New South Wales bushland. The tree exploded into flame. Strong winds fed the blaze, flinging out sparks and embers, setting nearby trees alight. Gathering speed, the fire roared through kilometres of national parkland, growing so huge it created its own thunderstorm event, which sparked new fires. Five weeks in, it merged with several other fires to form a ferocious megablaze. It became known as “the monster”. The Gospers Mountain fire burned for almost three months, destroying over a million hectares, razing a hundred homes, and bearing down on Sydney. Thousands of firefighters battled it, to no avail. It was finally extinguished by a storm that The Climate Crisis internal dumped three days of torrential rain and caused flash flooding, evacuations and power blackouts.

Extreme weather: this was Black Summer’s other calling card. One day Canberra was choking on bushfire smoke, the next day hailstones the size of golf balls were pelting down, smashing windows, shredding trees and knocking birds out of the sky. Thunderstorms swept the east coast, washing bushfire ash into rivers and killing hundreds of thousands of fish; just days later, 4,500 native fruit bats died of heat stress in one Melbourne park. In Queensland, floods caused bone-dry dams to overflow. Massive dust storms smothered inland towns, blocking out the sun. Brown rain fell on Melbourne, filling bird baths and swimming pools with mud. The sunsets were breathtaking.

As events took a biblical turn, people joked about moving to New Zealand. Other nervous jokes began to circulate: what would come next – a plague?

January 17, 2020, regrowth in Rappville, New South Wales (Photo: Nathan Edwards via Getty Images)

For many, the bushfires were a climate crisis wake-up call. The smoke plume circumnavigated the entire planet, spreading a potent message: this is not an isolated event. It will not be contained by geographic boundaries. It will affect us all. The fires sparked climate demonstrations across Australia, and as far afield as London, Berlin, Madrid, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Huge crowds rallied to protest government inaction. “The moment of crisis has come,” said David Attenborough. “Australia: you have just experienced the future,” tweeted a UK climate scientist. Fire historian Steve Pyne warned that humankind was entering a new age, the Pyrocene – essentially the opposite of an ice age, a planetary upheaval wrought by fire.

By early March, when Mum finally had a pacemaker fitted and the daily terror of losing her began to subside, the fires were all out. In a rampage lasting nine months, Black Summer destroyed 3000 homes, razed one-fifth of Australia’s mainland forests, and killed 33 people, including nine firefighters. Toxic smoke killed 445 more. Nearly three billion animals were displaced or wiped out.

I’ve lived in Australia for two decades, long enough that the smell of smoke no longer conjures up childhood hāngī, bonfires on the beach, winter evenings feeding macrocarpa logs into a crackling hearth. Now it trips alarms in my synapses, my cells. Our son was born in Australia. We shielded him from the worst, but kids pick up on ambience. For him, that burning smell will always signal danger.

How do you steer your kid through a burning world? Experts say denial is unhelpful. That for younger kids, we should give simple, truthful answers to any questions, and show them how small daily actions can help the planet. For older kids, we should encourage hope, avoid despair, watch for anxiety, and press it home: taking action can make a difference. For every kid, feeling connected to nature is good for both their own well-being and the planet’s future.

Our boy is a born optimist. He is kind, fierce, silly, thoughtful. He is my favourite smell. Together we read The Lorax, plant seedlings, put out water for the wildlife, ride our bikes along the river. When he grows up, I hope he breathes clean air. I hope he doesn’t become overwhelmed by the magnitude of what we’re facing. I hope disaster does not pile upon disaster. I hope the future is inhabitable, and that it leaves room for joy.

I hope. I hope. I hope.

Living with the Climate Crisis : Voices from Aotearoa, edited by Tom Doig (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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