First published on Overland Journal, 18 March 2020.
I’ve just come back to Canberra from a visit home to the West. I’ve been living in Canberra for four months, and it’s been rocky. People keep saying I’ll get used to it, that it’s so ‘easy and convenient’ to live in the capital.
But how I feel about Canberra is not really the point.
The point is that this is the first time that living away from family, community and a place I’m connected to has not felt like an adventure – it has felt like entirely the wrong place to be.
My partner and I moved to Canberra at the beginning of November. It was dry, grass crunching underfoot. Then the smoke started and, as the year drew to a close, the city began to seem like a hostile place.
We went north to western Queensland to visit my partner’s family, a 3000-kilometre round trip through some of the driest non-desert country I’ve ever seen. It was forty-three degrees on Christmas day. It was so good to be in the open, far away from the smoke of Canberra and its mini mountains.
By the time that horrible first weekend of January came, we were back in the capital. I felt trapped. Trapped in our apartment by smoke. Trapped in a city with few connections. Far from my family in the West and of no use to my extended family in Gippsland, who were encircled by fire for weeks. I was being confronted with the actuality of climate change – a reality that many communities have been dealing with for years, including Australian farmers facing serious drought and some of our nearest neighbours in the Pacific who are rapidly losing land to coastal erosion.
The bushfire crisis was a time of intense ecological grief. As author James Bradley wrote at its height, it was the time when, for many people, ‘denial finally stopped being an option’ and begun to be replaced by anger.
In time, the rain came, bringing false hope perhaps but also a sigh of relief. I booked the week-long trip home for early March, wanting badly to see my family and reconnect with the places I’d left behind.
Now, the battle for toilet paper and packaged food is in full swing. Bushfires and climate change have slipped from the headlines. As late as ten days ago, when I left for WA, flying and visiting parents seemed potentially unwise but it felt like early days for COVID-19 in Australia, so I went, and returned. Now, those decisions seem rash and self-centred.
Part-way through the flight over, I looked out to see land dropping abruptly to the blue ocean: Kangaroo Island, the western end colourless in the wake of the fires. On across the Bight and then over the wheatbelt, blocky patterns of paddocks and fence-lines broken by a scatter of salt lakes, the pull of home intensified by this aerial perspective.
As I made the trip on that half-empty plane, I thought about how my interstate mobility – moving east for study, west for family, east for work – and that of many others like me, has always been underpinned by the knowledge that it’s possible to go home. Unlike the climate migrants of Kiribati or Honduras, I haven’t had to face the possibility that home might become unreachable or might cease to exist as I know it.
Now, I’m painfully aware that nipping home is a luxury I might not always have; that my casual mobility has been grounded in the ability to go home. All over the world, governments are clamping down on the travel that the well-to-do take for granted. Western Australian doctors are recommending interstate border closures. First coronavirus, and down the track climate change, could make this mobility a thing of the past, or something that comes with significant personal consequences.
The anxiety travellers now feel because of coronavirus reflects a caution that should have emerged a decade or more ago because of climate change. The urgency is driven by a fear more of us should have connected with at the latest in 2018, when the IPCC warned the world that we had twelve years to turn things around for climate. But not enough Australians felt – or acted on – this fear, and now the Black Summer that might have been the catalyst for real action on climate change has been overshadowed by a pandemic. We are frogs in a slowly boiling pot, and none of us can jump out.
Despite the seriousness of the crisis, there are still voices of nonchalance – both private and public – carrying echoes of the nonchalance so many exhibit towards climate change. I know and have worked with some inspiring individuals who are committed to climate justice, but in the case of many others, attempts to engage with the seriousness of climate change in conversation are met with subtle disapproval. Too often I have observed – and allowed to pass – an easy, casual dismissal of scenarios where comfortable lives and ease of mobility might be threatened. It is time to heed Sisonke Msimang’s call for 2020 to ‘persuade the already-converted to do more, to push harder, to hang in there for longer’.
I know panic is not the solution, but there is a very large grey area between panic and nonchalance; a space those of us who have been too comfortable must explore, where we must be willing to engage with the challenges of the future and make significant changes to the way we live our lives. More people need to be willing to engage with this space, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it interferes with the overseas holiday or the conveniences affluent Australians take for granted.
Now, people are being forced into a space of discomfort over a virus. For many, the pandemic comes on the back of an incredibly tough summer – for those directly affected by the fires, but also for many others who watched helplessly as the places they love were incinerated in the longest and worst fire season this country has ever seen. With so many people already hyper-vigilant and on edge, a false dichotomy between panic and nonchalance is not helpful.
It is past time to think seriously about a future where little is certain, and where much of the lifestyle I’ve taken for granted– easy travel, easy health, easy access to anything I need – may no longer be assured. Part of my privilege has been getting on in the world with empathy for others, but with very little personal fear. Despite the knowledge of the climate change challenge, it’s been hard to really feel it.
Now, the challenge is to live and act with this new fear for the future. To live with the awareness of change and to act with the knowledge of uncertainty. To be aware of the dangers facing the people I love, but not lose empathy for others. To be aware, but not be the one who buys all the toilet paper.
The foundations underpinning comfortable lives in our affluent society are starting to shift. This time everyone is feeling it, although the impacts will continue to be borne more heavily by Indigenous Australians, people in insecure work and other groups who already live with uncertainty.
When it comes to coronavirus, I really hope the best-case scenario comes to pass. But even if the public-health crisis is averted and Australia does come through this relatively unscathed, I also hope that we collectively retain some of the unease that the pandemic has created, and turn it to personal commitment and political action.