WONDERFUL to see so many of you turn out for the first open link forum at earthweal! We should all feel encouraged and affirmed that so many are willing to bear witness to a changing earth. I don’t know about you, but reading everyone’s comments on each other’s posts made it feel like a real community is helping to carry a very difficult burden. Thanks for participating and please help get the word out. Now on to earthweal’s first weekly challenge …
It was New Year’s Eve when I begin laying out the foundations of this first earthweal challenge. The latest climate news on the media radar is the wildfire season ravaging Australia. After an awful few weeks burning out of control in New South Wales, record heat returned to the tinder-dry southeast and the fires took off again.
In Mallacoota, on the coast near Melbourne, temps the morning of New Year’s Eve were at 49C (120F) and fires burned so close that thousands of residents took refuge on the beach. The eerie orange glow of midnight had replaced at daybreak an absolute darkness of smoke and ash. Sirens went off and emergency personnel directed residents into the water where they huddled or were picked up by boats.
From the town came the sound of gas bottles exploding and houses burning down. This past weekend, the fires have whipped up with greater ferocity with entire communities evacuated and most of the continent in smoke and on edge. The fires have grown so large and intense they are creating their own weather, with anvil-like pyrocumulonimbus clouds rising 10 miles high, creating unpredictable winds and spawning fire tornadoes. One firefighting volunteer was killed when a fire tornado lifted a 12-ton truck and crushed him.
In a New Year’s Day video, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison encouraged his countrymen to be brave, praised the work of firefighters, lamented the loss of human life and said that Australia was still a fine place to raise one’s children. Later in the week, photo-ops with the public staged for Morrison ran afoul of residents who had lost everything in the fires. Rupert Murdoch’s flagship Australian newspaper has been tellingly silent in its reportage, and far-right elements of the ruling Liberal Party have continued to beat their drum for Christ, Coal & Cops—the trinity of extraction politics.
For the past several years, wildfire has been a leading climate storyline across the world, on every continent and in both hemispheres. And for many where heat and drought are increasing, it is an ever-present, ever-rising concern—the next bad wind away.
Cracks are widening in the cultural denial which have kept us asleep as the dream of civilized progress devolves by fire into nightmare. “For a time we had come to believe that civilization moved in the other direction—making the impossible first possible and then stable and routine, ” David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth. “With climate change, we are moving instead toward nature, and chaos, into a new realm unbounded by the analogy of any human experience.”
In Borneo, illegal agricultural fires have eaten up 3,500 square miles of jungle to clear land for plantations making the palm oil which goes into half of all supermarket products. (releasing 626 megatons of carbon). Nearly a million Indonesians were treated for acute respiratory distress from the smoke. Critically endangered orangutan populations have lost habitat and less than 15,000 are believed to be in the wild.
Around the same time in Brazil, 80,000 fires were burning across the Amazon rainforest, many of them started illegally for agricultural clearing. President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-business policies have greatly weakened environmental regulations. 300,000 indigenous peoples are being forced from their land by encroaching development. The lowland, wetland rainforest is less able to contend with wildfire; less mobile animals like sloths, lizards and anteaters are perishing wholesale. The Amazon forest is the largest terrestrial carbon sink and plays a significant role in mitigating the effects of carbon change, but scientists warn of an imminent tipping point where enough rainforest is lost and the area transforms to drier savannah with far less capability for storing carbon. Some scientists warn that that tipping point immanent or passed.
Social media feeds of the panic and horror of these cataclysms unfolding in real time have lent a new sense of global witness to decimated fields and forest, homesteads and animal life. The 2018 Camp wildfire in Northern California erupted at the center of our cultural lens. Thought to be sparked by a faulty transmission line, the fire raced down hills into developed area, consuming the small town of Paradise, where cheaper housing had attracted retirees and working families.
The fire charged through the town so fast that it literally caught evacuees in their tracks, melting their sneakers as they ran and immolating others in their cars. For those who escaped, they recorded the hellish burning landscape with their cellphones and fed the footage into the social media firestorm.
The panic and despair of an irreversible change made it feel like instead of a new century of progress and achievement, we were entering a time of The Fall. The Camp Fire killed 85, destroyed some 11,000 houses and $16 billion in losses—a quarter uninsured. Most of the survivors have moved to states where property is cheaper; some live on in the ruins of their former dream homes.
Wildfires in the past several years also raged in Siberia, British New Columbia, Lebanon, California, Greece, the Congo Basin, Bolivia, and India, where smoke mixed with industrial pollution to create smog in New Delhi three time worse than the “hazardous” level of the global air quality index.
Wildfires are erupting so frequently now that it is becoming eerily normal. The Australian fires have been burning since September, and in California the fire season grows toward year-round. The frantic desperation of fleeing residents during the Paradise fire in 2018 is becoming an ostinato, a terror never that far and immanent. The sickening pall of smoke is now part of our common atmosphere, with megatons of climate-heating carbon is released by each new fire and the spectral remains of the dead settling silently over us all.
Maybe because the Australian fire catastrophe is so far away and has been burning for so long that for its scale—at present 14 million acres, 90 times larger than the Camp Fire—the cultural awareness has been fleeting. There’s always a next big bad event happening somewhere else, and if it isn’t at our doorstep, we don’t take much notice. Or won’t, until it’s our own house that burns, our own beloved local nature which vanishes.
Such fleeting attention is surely dulled by social media opiates and fossil-fuel industry ads for the happy suburban (commuting) life. We’re taking too many selfies for that world for the big picture of the real world to come into focus. It doesn’t help either that Iran and the United States are currently involved in some flashy saber-rattling.
Maybe what is coming to view is just too difficult to envisage. David Wallace-Wells, again:
… California governor Jerry Brown described the state of things in the midst of the state’s wildfire disaster: “a new normal.”
The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again. We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead. And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, the one that has bettered the planet again and again, is not our bleak future in purview. It would be more precise to say that it is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us into a dustbin of environmental nostalgia. (ibid 18-19)
How does anyone carry that dawning information? Can anyone carry it alone? What can the world’s poets do?
Earthweal’s first weekly challenge is Fire. How have you seen fire changing the world YOU live in? Maybe wildfires have come close or roared through. Maybe you are encountering smoke from distant fires. Personal witness of these events in the media have been shallow (has anyone seen accounts from indigenous Australians? Or read how their traditional methods of managing wildfire demand an intimacy with landscape?)
Is there something in the history and myth of fire you find compelling? Have you been burnt badly by fire or its emotional equivalents? Drank too deeply the vintage of what the Greeks called “the fiery drink of the black mother”? Perhaps you care to sing for a species of life which was devastated or vanished in the Australian fires, the koala or wombat or dunnart, the mountain pygmy possum or rufous scrub-bird or plants like the blue-top orchid found nowhere else in the world. What is signified by a burning tree?
Give us your news!
Click on the Mr. Linky icon below and you’ll proceed to another page where you can enter your link. If you would, enter your location after your name in the link.
The Fire challenge will be remain open Monday til Friday. Contribute several times if you like and be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment. It was wonderful to see so much rich commentary in this past weekend’s open link forum. Let’s grow a vibrant community!
Friday afternoon at 4 PM EST earthweal hosts its second open link weekend; the second weekly challenge follows on Jan. 13.
For more details about earthweal, see the Jan. 1 2020 opening post or click on the “about earthweal” link at the top.
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