The Commons | Uncommonly Close To Home
Happy New Year from the burning lands of Australia. 5 million hectares & counting.
Visiting Australia to see family for Christmas (I picked a bad year), we watched the first episode of dystopian climate-disaster series THE COMMONS together. It made for uncomfortable viewing. Because in rural NSW where they live, it's closer to reality than fiction.
It's been more than a year since I've been back to visit, and while I knew Australia was in drought, I didn't fully comprehend just how bad it is until I got here - after a rushed trip through the Blue Mountains where fires had closed the train line, making it home just before they closed the road - and experienced it viscerally. Bushfire smoke hanging low across the land like thick mist, obscuring the sky, reddening the sun. Dry skin, chapped lips, bloody nasal membranes, restricted breathing, watering eyes. Dust storms blowing desiccated topsoil across dry fields, leaving you with grit between your teeth.
And so little water.
The land looks - and feels - parched. They haven't had significant rainfall now for years. 2019 was Australia's hottest, driest year on record with 2018 not far behind. I lived here for more than a decade through the 90s and mid 2000s - some of my most formative years - and during this time experienced my fair share of drought years and bushfires. Australia is a harsh, beautiful landscape of extremes - lush, fertile hinterlands and vast red deserts, alpine snowfields and beaches with sand like hot glass. People are used to tough weather conditions. Droughts and bushfires are not uncommon. But I've never seen anything like this. Billions of hectares of land, burning - consuming houses, towns, lives - across multiple states at the same time, for MONTHS? This is something else. Air quality is currently amongst the most hazardous in the world, and has been now as long as the vast fires have been burning. In years past we might have had smoke haze and ash fall once or twice, for a few days. But never at these levels, for this long. When I lived there, 'heatwave' temperatures were typically around 35 degrees. These days they're hitting 40-45+c. (In Penrith yesterday it was 48c.) That's a pretty big jump in twenty years.
As the dams and rivers dry up, so do community water supplies. In rural NSW most towns are on 'Extreme' water restrictions. Where my parents live, this means flushing the toilet only when absolutely necessary. It means limited laundering of clothes. It means a council mandated maximum of one 4 minute shower per person, per day, washing yourself over a bucket to collect the waste water for the garden. Because in drought stricken land, 'watering the garden' is not cosmetic, it's imperative. Mature trees and shrubs - and the shelter they provide from the pervasive sun, for humans, animals, birds, and insects - are dying. Plants and flowers are expiring. Vegetable gardens are barely surviving. It affects the whole food chain. Watering is restricted to just 30 minutes, twice a week, on designated nights. Everyone is collecting and conserving as much waste water as they can to supplement the allowance. Because it's not enough to keep things alive.
The hardest hit communities are already at 'Critical' restrictions, where each person is allotted a certain number of litres of water a day, and this has to cover everything - drinking, cooking, bathing, laundry, dishes, cleaning, and watering. I don't know if there are any levels after this, because by then the land is virtually uninhabitable. There's no water left to conserve. Some communities here are already at this stage, having run out of water and who are now reliant on charity donations being trucked in to survive.
So THE COMMONS' depiction of 'climate refugees' within Australia's own borders - people migrating from desertified regional areas to cities in search of survival - is not just realistic, but seems highly likely. Even if not in the immediate future, then still far too soon. Within a generation.
Here in rural NSW, houses are quite literally shifting off their foundations due to the changing composition of earth beneath as it dries (I've seen them). Deep cracks are visible in fields and suburban grassland. School kids are being kept indoors due to dangerous air quality, animals have respiratory issues, birds are falling dead out of the trees from heat exhaustion, and dust storms are now commonplace. For farmers, the situation is even more dire. Their livestock are dying, or being sold off at a loss because they can't afford to feed them. Grass won't grow. The land is no longer arable. There's nothing for animals to eat. And if you can't afford to purchase feed to keep them going, what else can you do but sell for whatever you can get? Because you might need that money to buy water. Farming has always been tough, but in certain parts of Australia now, it's damn near impossible. And with drought-fuelled bushfires, it's even worse. Entire herds decimated overnight because they couldn't find shelter from the fire.
Two weeks ago when I arrived in NSW, fires had already burned through roughly 3 million hectares of land. Some of them started as early as September up in Queensland (as opposed to the traditional bushfire season that begins in Jan) and they're still going. Hundreds of thousands of animals have died. As of today, the land area burned stands at around 5.8 million hectares and counting, including ancient, irreplaceable Gondwana forest - not to mention entire communities and their homes. The fires will burn for months, as long as there is fuel to consume and no significant rain to halt or stall their progress.
No significant rain is forecast.
The volume of rain the land needs in order to recover, and to replenish dams, is at a sustained torrential level. But the land is so dry, heavy rainfall at this stage would further decimate it - it's literally too dry to soak it in. In this case, the earth behaves like concrete - where water washes straight off and creates flash flooding because there's nowhere for it to go - or like fine, aerated sand, where the land is so fragile, under rainfall everything just washes away. Gentle, regular rain is the miracle people are waiting for. And it's a miracle that may never come. Even if restorative rainfall occurred in this case, it doesn't change the fact that all evidence points to Australia becoming hotter and drier, and extreme weather events - such as the vast fires and droughts we're currently experiencing - becoming more regular. Climate change isn't fake news. As bad as this is, it's only the beginning.
So THE COMMONS doesn't appear so much 'prophetic' as it does realistic - creator Shelley Birse and her team are logically plotting the trajectory we're already on, probing the question "if we keep going the way we're going, where do we end up?" With our dust storms, desiccated regional areas and extreme weather events, the 'future reality' depicted onscreen doesn't feel so very far away. Though we might like to pretend otherwise (please see this excellent piece from Sarah Miller about the magical thinking that goes on in similarly climate-affected Miami).
It's this lazy adherence to the idea that 'everything will continue as it always has' that is so much of our problem when it comes to facing the hard truth: that unless en masse, we fundamentally change how we live on this planet - and fast - we're fucked. Experiencing life without full access to water, while watching uncontrollable fires ravage land and lives around me, brought me face to face with my own apathy and naïveté. It was sobering. To be clear, I'm not ignorant of climate issues. I'm a fan of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. I recycle and minimise waste. I know the earth is struggling and that our current lifestyles are not sustainable. I know things 'need to change'. I know capitalism in its current form will be the death of us and that the developed world's unending lust for cheap products and dedication to materialism comes at a high cost to those in less developed countries (hello colonialism). I know I'm part of the problem. All of these things I understand intellectually.
But...where I live in New Zealand, things are ok. On a day to day basis, I don't think much about there being a 'climate emergency' because right now, none of this truly impacts the way I live my life. In notoriously blustery Wellington, we make dark jokes about global warming giving us more sunny days. Then we go to the beach. 'Climate change' is something that exists in the periphery of our consciousness. We know it's there, and it's a 'big issue' and 'something must be done' but we've got deadlines to meet, and projects to manage, and rent to pay, and the boss is difficult, and the kids need school uniforms, and our ageing parents need care, and we're planning a holiday because we're exhausted, and saving up for a house. We're all still living that capitalist life, earning money, saving, spending, consuming, accumulating. For those of us in cities and countries where climate change isn't affecting our daily routines, life goes on much as it always has. It's a little too easy for us to assume that it always will. And we're quite good at distracting ourselves from things we don't want to think about.
But in country Australia, you can't ignore it. Or pretend it's not real and dangerous. On a personal level it has quite suddenly and unavoidably become deeply alarming. Because as we ring in the New Year - with all of its fresh hope, promise and reflection - I'm acutely aware of the fact that there's not much point to any of our ambitions and endeavours, our bucket lists and #lifegoals, if we don't have a liveable planet or functioning society in which to explore and enact them. What's the point of 'personal-growth' or 'career advancement' or 're-modelling the house' if the need for survival narrows our focus to a literal 'how do we get enough water today'? This Christmas and New Year, glued to the 'Fires Near Me' app, I found myself actively resenting the carefree celebrations of others around the world. Watching Australia burn and its people suffer, I couldn't muster any energy for traditional end-of-year celebrations and rituals. Because what Australia, and by extension the rest of the world, is facing right now, is not just distressing or depressing, but bloody terrifying. I haven't been able to sleep. I can't un-see what I've seen. And I can't pretend any longer that climate change isn't going to have a devastating impact on those of us currently inhabiting the earth, within our lifetimes. Most especially our youngest generations. It's happening now.
I'm heartbroken, and ANGRY. At myself, for not caring enough about this until it touched my own life. At human nature, because as a species we're all a bit like this. Most especially at those in power for failing to step up and lead with compassion, empathy, wisdom and foresight. For not acting in the best interests of the people they purport to serve. For using economic growth as a marker of 'success' when in truth, the way our current economic system functions, is killing us - and the planet. For refusing to plan for a future in which they no longer exist, and denying the voices of scientists who have been warning us about this for decades. I'm not saying I can do a better job. But I am saying that maybe it's not the wisest move letting humans who have only ever known the privilege of wealth, class, and a lack of genuine hardship or hard work, govern people and countries. Because for the most part they seem to have no idea how to do this without cementing already entrenched political divides and power systems. Privilege tends to protect its own. A lot of us already know this. But...what are we doing about it?
I don't pretend to have all the answers. It is overwhelming. One thing I know is that 'business as usual' is not gonna cut it anymore. It's too late. We are facing imminent, catastrophic climate change, which will alter our lives irrevocably. Choosing not to think about it, or convincing ourselves 'it won't happen to me' is a luxury we won't have for much longer. Fear and anxiety are natural responses. Action and engagement are the solutions. Maybe we could all face it head on, together, figure out how we're gonna tackle it, and what we can each contribute.
And if all it takes is $300 billion to buy us another 20 years in which to get this right, then Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and their mates - the top 1% of the top 1% - could easily foot the bill, with money to spare. Seems like a plan to me. How about it, lads? Use that white privilege for good!
In the developed world there's no getting away from the fact that, in order to enact meaningful change in the exploitative systems responsible for causing this crisis in the first place, the most privileged amongst us will be asked to give up some of that privilege. We need a readjustment of our values. And I'm not just talking about rich, white billionaires. I'm talking about all of us - finger pointed firmly at myself - who currently benefit from the societies and products we've built on the backs of poorer nations, and the depletion of our own resources. We're all complicit (hell, if we use something as simple as a smartphone we're complicit). And things will get a little uncomfortable if we start shifting systems. That's to be expected. We've been too comfortable for too long.
But this is our life now. It's not an issue of 'the left' or 'the right'. Climate disasters don't take sides or care for political and religious beliefs. Destruction on this scale affects all of us alike. If we want our kids to grow up in a world that even marginally resembles our current experience, we have to get a grip and take action. To stop thinking about ourselves and our lives as individualistically as we've become accustomed to. As if our choices don't affect anyone or anything else.
This inherent interconnectedness is both a great strength, and a weakness. A strength in terms of our collaborative, creative ability, the fact that when we work together, amazing things are possible. Ideas and actions none of us could realise and achieve on our own. But ecologically, our dependence on other species for survival - whether through bees pollinating crops or the factory farming that supplies so much of our food - makes us vulnerable. Because if various species are destroyed through the kinds of serious disruption to their natural habitat I observed in Australia - searing heat, destructive fire, hazardous smoke, a lack of fresh water - that food chain breaks down, and things start to get dangerous for us very quickly. Even economically, the collapse of other countries and peoples due to climate disaster, has a huge effect on the rest of the world, further stressing an already stressed system. We can no longer afford to pretend that we're not all intimately connected and reliant on each other. And that helping others survive and thrive is in our own best interest as a human collective. If we can't come together, leaving our egos, self-interest, infighting and desire to dominate, at the door, we won't survive as a human race.
As I write this, I'm sitting on the floor of my living room back at home in New Zealand, looking out of the window. The pōhutukawas are in bloom, and the birds are singing. I'm enormously grateful for what I have. I don't take my clean air and fresh water for granted. Not anymore. It's so beautiful and so peaceful, a 'climate emergency' seems impossible, improbable, something happening far away somewhere else to some other people (which right now includes the people of Jakarta as much as it includes those in Australia). But I don't want to lose the sense of urgency I touched out west, in Australia. Because it suddenly became clear how quickly our current way of life could be obliterated, and how tenuous our position on earth is. It's why THE COMMONS is so prescient. It's a story that makes visible the invisible, that draws the near future into present consciousness, and brings some of the most pressing issues of our time, home to our front doorstep. Maybe it spoke particularly to me because it featured the landmarks of my own life, in Sydney and Central West NSW. Or because I spent my holidays experiencing a 'future reality' unfolding in real time. But I hope it's a story that transcends cultures, making these issues easier to grasp for those who can't yet imagine what our future could be.
I don't know yet how I can best contribute to change, but I'm working on it. We created this problem, so it's our responsibility to find solutions. All of us have a part to play. And if all you have is money to give, right now throw some at the volunteer firefighters in Australia whose bravery, dedication, stamina and self sacrifice is truly awe-inspiring. I've included some links below for ways you can contribute practically, either with your time, your money or physical donations of goods.
AID FOR AUSTRALIAN FARMERS + RURAL COMMUNITIES
I'll leave you with the words of Lanz Priestly, a grassroots activist currently organising water deliveries for drought stricken communities in the Australian outback:
"We’ve politely asked governments, we’ve done protests. I’ve come to the realisation the fastest way of getting any action is beating government to doing something. I’m not prepared to ask any more in the futile hope that government might do something. Here we’re just mobilising people. Here’s a solution, let’s just get in and do that.”