Bushfires and Burnt Koalas

3,138 total words    

13 minutes of reading

Wildfire smoke near Sydney, Australia

It is high summer in eastern Australia in January 2020. I have meteoranxiety. The red, orange, and yellow colors on the satellite weather screen indicate the intensity of precipitation. Yellow is moderate; red is heavy rain. I am being teased by the rain. Only the top of my head is wet, but the most savage drought I have experienced in my lifetime may be ending. All around, thunderstorms are delivering deluges, but some give nothing but dry lightning. A fire or a flood? The Earth emotions of it all. I have “delugenvy,” as I am jealous of people and places getting heavy rain only a few kilometers away, when I get almost nothing. What I crave is “tinpany,” the rhythmical drumming of constant, hard rain on a metal roof. The depth markers on my water tanks are getting lower every day. My solar panels are filthy.

Every so often the clouds lift and the sun shines on the Friedensreich Hundertwasser 
landscape.[1] The artist taught me that after rain and when the sun shines, the true colors in a rain-washed landscape get revealed. As the patina of red dust and dirty ash is removed, I finally get to see with clarity what the drought has done to Wallaby Farm. Evergreen forests have turned Northern Hemisphere autumnal due to the death drought. Maple reds, oranges, and yellows show the colors of life bleeding from evergreen eucalypt forests. Yellow is sunburnt; red is intense loss of life.

My region looks like a bushfire has been through it. At a glance, some trees look as though they are actually on fire. Whole ridgetops are stained dead-leaf brown. I want the dilute sun to go away. I prefer the night when I cannot see the dead and dying trees. However, even at night, I know something is uncanny. There is something new in the soundscape, the constant jostling of dead, dry leaves. Death rattles. I am rattled.

The sun has not been fully present for weeks now. The bushfires, so huge in extent and so intense they raze the forests, have blotted out the sun with thick, acrid smoke. In some places, day has turned into night. In others, the color of the sky is burnt orange. The normal blinding rays of the sun have been rendered “harmless” by a cataract that has covered half of Australia and my eyes.

People now openly talk about the recent fires as “apocalyptic” (meaning massively destructive), and it is worthwhile remembering what this word means and where the association with fire comes from. The Greek word apokalupsis (apocalypse) means both disclosure and a revelation. The Book of Revelation in the Bible is about the divine foretelling of disasters that befall sinful humans on Earth.

In Revelation, there are many references to the power of God via his angels to use fire to destroy all life. An angel allowed fire and smoke that turned the sun and the sky black to issue forth from the bottomless pit of a great furnace. Forests and green things were wiped out by “hail and fire mingled with blood,” and then, if that was not enough, human sinners were killed “by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone.”

Australia has become a “book” of revelation in that the fires have disclosed or revealed the powerful impacts of global warming to all who have been touched by the fire, smoke, and brimstone. The combination of record heat, a record drought, and strong winds has produced “unprecedented” wildfire. The bottomless pit has turned out to be global warming.

While wild fire in the past has killed many more people—Black Friday (1939), Ash Wednesday (1983), Black Saturday (2009)—the hyper-fires of the spring and summer of 2019–2020 in eastern Australia wiped out over 18 million hectares (46 million acres) of forest, farmland, and settlements. Millions of Australians have been directly impacted by the fires or indirectly impacted, through the experiences of their friends and relatives.

Ecologists estimate that over one billion vertebrate animals have perished and, clearly, trillions of invertebrates were consumed by the fires. Nothing on this scale and ferocity has happened before in the last three hundred years, even in Australia, a land well used to fire. The economic cost of these events will be in the billions, and the restorative efforts will be ongoing and may not succeed as a new abnormal landscape emerges.

As part of the ongoing “revelation” produced by the fires, there is the political fallout where, for decades, government inaction has been driven by denial of the basic scientific facts on climate warming. The political system has been corrupted by the influence of the fossil fuel industry to such an extent that it no longer represents the interests of the people of Australia. Politics no longer governs; it is governed.

The “closed system” of lobbyists—senior executive corporate managers, private think-tank researchers, retiring politicians, senior public servants, and the boards of directors in large corporations—contains members that have all become interchangeable. Their sole purpose is to maximize corporate shareholder profits (and their own) via donations to political parties, usurpation of the role of policy making, influencing election outcomes via social media, sowing “doubt” about science in mainstream media, and the old-fashioned forms of influence via brown paper bags full of money.

So bad is the corruption, I have called it “corrumpalism” after the Latin corrumpere, to destroy. While achieving success at maximizing corporate profit, the fossil fuel industry in particular destroys the social and biophysical foundations of humanity and all life on Earth. Ecocide is preferred over threats to profit.

After the fires have been extinguished by firefighters and rain, perhaps the public of Australia—and, indeed, the rest of the world—are ready to accept the horrible truth about global warming?

Many, myself included, have unleashed anger about this state of affairs, blaming the politicians for not acting on the science. My “terrafurie” (Earth anger) has found a worthy target. On the left and the right, Australia’s politicians and their climate policies have been an unmitigated disaster. They have even been called out at international fora by nations already suffering discernible impacts from climate warming (e.g., sea level rise). However, in analyzing my anger, I have come to the realization that the blame game must go further. We must dig deeper into the psyche for what is really happening to our emotional compass.

The emotional and psychological toll of the fires on humans has been enormous, and many are still coming to terms with their raw personal reactions. So, too, are the mental health professionals who deal with the emotions and feelings people are experiencing. There are the standard diagnostic categories that apply to people who experience trauma and loss, but over and above that, there are new, uneasy feelings connected to a malevolent cause. There seems to be a conceptual and therapeutic mismatch between emotions like grief over the death of loved humans and the feelings of loss over negative transformation of the climate. Nobody knows what to do.

Our response to distress in the non-human, while perhaps novel because of the scale of the disaster that has affected our wildlife, is consistent with our fine traditions of caring for the non-human that have developed over the last fifty years. The New South Wales Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service Inc. (WIRES), along with other caring organizations and their armies of volunteers, has shown us and people all over the world that we care for the non-human.[2]

When the Koalas scream in pain in the wildfires, we all hurt and feel the tierratrauma. When images of burnt Kangaroos on barbed wire are graphically presented to us, we all despair. Film and photography of the non-human fire victims force us to bear witness to that which we would normally evade or ignore. Despite that, many still cannot bear to see these images of death and avoid viewing such images in the media.

The same applies to the human element of the death and injury caused by the fires. There is an understandable lack of openness when it comes to the human toll in fire. We “list” the people who burn to death, but social convention hides their death from public eyes. We watch the mourning and ritual associated with the victim’s loved ones, but we do not want to get too close. It is too confronting, and we do not wish to invade the privacy of others.

The encounter with the horror of fire as affecting both humans and non-humans has not, as far as I can discern, given rise to a deeper level of analysis that addresses the evasion of our own roles in creating the conditions of catastrophe. We have “externalized” the fires and failed to acknowledge our own complicity in their origin and impacts.

What I think is needed for the Australian psyche is a confrontation with that which has been avoided for many decades now: a confrontation with ourselves. We seem willing to blame everyone and everything else for the death and destruction, except ourselves.

I had insight into this “failure” when developing the concept of solastalgia. A classic case study in the lived experience of environmental desolation is the salt-affected areas of the wheatbelt of southern Western Australia (WA). As a result of over-clearing the native vegetation, ancient salt layers have risen to the soil surface, lifted by a rise in the water-table. The water table has risen because there are no longer trees acting as landscape pumps transpiring the water back into the atmosphere. Salt rises.

By mass clearing of trees, dryland salinity is an environmental problem directly caused by human agency. I went to this area while based in WA and asked landholders how they felt about the emergence of this land degradation. Many said that although it was their own grandfathers who were responsible for clearing the land, they still felt a layer of guilt for what had happened to once-productive paddocks and the once-healthy ecosystem that was in situ before it was cleared. A sublimated additional emotional awareness was their knowledge of the salt rubbed into the wounds of the Indigenous owners of that place. They cared for that country for over sixty thousand years; the colonists had rendered it lifeless in less than two hundred.

The solastalgia—the distressing lived experience of the collapse of their own farmland and its health—is heightened by the known historical culpability of those who lived on that land and have been responsible for managing it. They caused their own dryland salinity by ecocide and with it the extinction of cultural and biological diversity. The distress of solastalgia is deepened by the knowledge of their own families’ historical culpability. 

In the mega-bushfires, there is a similar narrative that needs to be unpacked. Although I will focus on the areas most devastated by the recent bushfires, I wish to make it clear that my analysis is one that could be applied anywhere, in any location badly affected by wildfire.

The people living and holidaying in eastern Australia—including camping near the idyllic beaches, national parks, or those on Kangaroo Island in South Australia—do not have impacts like clearing the “wheatbelt” with bulldozers and big chains. However, there is a big metaphorical bulldozer hard at work achieving much the same result in relatively undeveloped natural landscapes that have survived because of their exceptional beauty, flood risks, utility, or sheer ruggedness. It is no surprise to learn that most of our national parks and uncleared land are in areas where clearing for agriculture is not viable. Too steep for bulldozers, too steep for firefighting.

Since the introduction of cheap cars and petrol in the 1950s, these areas have become like Mecca for country living, tourists, and holiday makers. The tourists pour out of the cities in jets, ferries, RVs, campervans (motor homes), caravans, camper-trailers, and cars filled to the brim with all they need for camping and recreation. Caravans are now expensive condos on wheels. Everything is powered by fossil fuels, and the carbon footprint to go “on holidays” is enormous. Not that each family holiday has contributed much to the national greenhouse gas quotient, but their cumulative impact is like that of an out-of-control bushfire. It is a subset of the claim made by many Australians that “we” do not contribute significantly to the global greenhouse gas total because our population is so small (25 million) and our fossil fuel exports are all burnt overseas and are not “our problem.” Those who choose to live in these loved places are all “making a living” by resource extraction, agriculture, tourism, and the service industries needed to meet human needs. They have built their houses, often in steep, remote country and very close to the much-loved, “beautiful” bush.

Kangaroo Island, for example, was home to extensive plantation forest industries and remnant native eucalypt forest containing Koalas and other charismatic fauna before the fires that razed over half its land. The island had become a major international and national eco-tourist destination. It was also undergoing an industrial boom, featuring plans for a new port for woodchips and drilling for lithium and other rare metals. Kangaroo Island represents a miniature version of “Australia island”: under the forces of global development and climate warming, no island is an island.

The bushfires that forced thousands to evacuate their homes and holiday places on Kangaroo Island and in eastern Australia were made possible by extreme heat and dry vegetation, or what is known as “fuel.” So important was the concept of fuel that some pyromaniacs even suggested that we should eliminate all fuel in fire-prone areas so as to totally eliminate the risk of wildfire. Of course, that would mean the defoliation of the very places where people go “bush” to have their holidays. It erases the very possibility of water catchment areas for natural rainfall and runoff into our dams. Wild and managed forests for timber products become too risky, and they, too, must go. National parks become disasters waiting to happen. We eliminate the essence of wild eastern Australia and an endemic sense of place. Goodbye Lyrebirds, we will miss your imitation of fire alarms.

The ultra-dry vegetation was present mainly because of a hyper-drought. Over the last two years, a savage drought had sucked the moisture out of landscapes and dams. The area that burned was like tinder; one cigarette butt, one bolt of lightning, and all hell broke loose. Layered on top of the record drought was record heat from the late spring and early summer of 2019 through January 2020 in most of south eastern Australia.

The record heat was present because global warming has inexorably made every place on the planet hotter than in the past. Australia was experiencing record heat waves and record maximum temperatures. The chance of catastrophic wildfire was an outcome of multiple risk factors all coinciding with maximum intensity. The ancient three elements—earth, wind, and water—all conspired to give birth to the fourth, fire.

The scientific explanation for the record heat lies in the relentless emissions of greenhouse gases into the global atmosphere, particularly in the last fifty years. These gases warm the world like a blanket. The direct cause of the increasing greenhouse gases is the burning and exploding of carbon-based energy (fuel) in every internal combustion engine and furnace in the world. The coal-fired power stations, the billion or so vehicles (cars and trucks), the jets, running the internet, air conditioners, and fossil-fueled agriculture (meat- and plant-based) are all implicated in the complex causality of the problem.

The people of eastern Australia are no different than people in other parts of the developed world. They are contributing to this problem with every aspect of their lifestyle. However, Australians do have one of the highest per-person carbon footprints of any people on the Earth, and it just keeps getting larger, along with our RVs and houses.

There we have it—the “wild” in wildfire is now anthropogenic (human-caused), and every single person living a normal lifestyle in contemporary Australia contributes to it. No longer can we blame others for our own failings and sins. It does not even make sense to blame politicians, since we keep voting parties into power that have no effective policy to mitigate climate warming by divestment from fossil fuel industries. Corrumpalism starts in the lifestyle of the average Australian.

The Book of Revelation is the book of the apocalypse; however, this time it is not God, angels, nor the four horsemen of the Apocalypse who are responsible for the inferno. While not all are equally to blame for the predicament we are in (our children, for example), responsible adults must look in the mirror and ask: Who without carbon sin will cast the first brimstone?

Our mirror image offers a stark revelation about our own culpability for the wildfires. Each one of us must accept some blame and respond. Such a revelation is transformational. We can shift from feelings of anxiety, solastalgia, terrafurie, or blame to deep mitigation and the elimination of a carbon-based economy. Our personal lives, our patterns of consumption, what we demand of our politicians and those in other countries must now align with ethical and practical precision in the urgent elimination of excess greenhouse gases from the totality of our lives. A transition from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene is a necessity if we are to avoid collapse.[3] The politics of corrumpalism must end. The evasion of real causes must be exposed. Who tried to kill the Koalas? We did. 

Postscript

As I edit this essay in August 2020, good winter rains have extinguished the short-term threat of anthropogenic wildfire in the southern half of Australia. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, sadly, taken much of the oxygen away from both physical and mental post-fire recovery efforts, along with the attention of the media. However, as massive fires rage in Siberia and California in the late northern hemisphere summer of 2020, Australians must be reminded that the problem has not gone away. The global record high temperature set in California’s Death Valley is a clear warning that the meteorological and landscape conditions that caused the Black Summer of 2019–2020 in Australia are not only likely to return but will become even worse in the future. Without deep mitigation of the cause of climate change, we will not be able to adapt to extremes that are beyond human endurance. In Australia, our politicians continue to promote coal and gas as a way out of the COVID recession and even support logging in the forests that escaped the fires. The surviving Koalas are under attack by a systematic chainsaw massacre. Deep denial and deep adaptation are being confronted by the urgent need for deep mitigation. As I have argued in my book Earth Emotions, the Symbiocene will be the only place safe for our children and wild Koalas.

Image Credits

Wildfire smoke, Australia, Courtesy of simonrumi (PDM-owner 1.0)


[1] For more information on Friedensreich Hundertwasser, see https://hundertwasser.com/en.

[3] See G. Albrecht, “Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene,” Minding Nature 9, no. 2 (2016): 12-16.

  • Glenn Albrecht

    Glenn A. Albrecht is an Honorary Associate in the School of Geo-sciences, The University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. He retired as Professor of Sustainability, Murdoch University, in mid-2014.

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