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Ecological grief, ecocide and the Australian bush fires

Imagery of the fires in Australia filter through my newsfeed constantly. The blackened trees silhouetted against a raging red backdrop; burned koala paws; billowing smoke; stiff farm animal bodies on the side of the road; a charred and dead kangaroo; hazy skies. Death is all around in this apocalyptic and unstable new world.

Over 2000 homes have been lost, along with the lives of 29 people (as of 11 January, 2019). Cities and communities have come under threat due to dust, smoke, flames, and ash.

The Australian bush fires are my muse, albeit a difficult, terrorizing and hazy muse. While much has been written about the Australian bush fires, the shock and grief felt by most people is a subject on the edges. Yet, we need to speak about our grief, and to find ways of processing it. Many climate scientists are saying that these kinds of extreme environmental events will only become more frequent. In fact, the current bush fires may seem mild compared to what is to come.

We are peering into the pit of the future. We are experiencing the heart-breaking reality of climate change. It feels very real. Climate change is becoming a ‘lived experience” rather than a projected future.

Australia burns. Or at least huge swathes of it. David Bowman, professor of pyrogeography and fire science, has been quoted in Time magazine (Jan 3rd) : “The intensity, the scale, the number, the geographical range, the fact that they’re occurring simultaneously, and the sorts of environments that are burning are all extraordinary.”

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We were warned of this upcoming crisis in a report published by the Australian Climate Council in 2007. The title – Be Prepared: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire Threat - left no doubt of its intent. This report was a crystal ball showing a future of increasing temperatures and below average rain fall. Irresponsible successive governments in Australia have ignored its key findings. One clearly stated key finding was that “climate change is already increasing the risk of bushfires”. Higher temperatures and drought conditions were going to dry out otherwise damp areas of bush, causing fires to be more intense and larger – exactly what has happened.

The report was a proverbial canary in the coalmine. Those in power did not take heed, continued their addiction to coal, and our pigeons have come home to roost. We are left to grieve our losses, and the future of losses to come.

The term ‘ecological grief’ encompasses deep feelings of sorrow and pain in response to catastrophic ecological loss. I am sure I am not alone in feeling this kind of grief when I am confronted with evidence of the Australian bushfires. Academics and environmental advocates Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis have researched the effect that climate change-driven ecological losses have in terms of mental, emotional and grief responses.

One of the types of grief mentioned by Cunsolo and Ellis is that associated with anticipated future losses of place, land, and species. The bushfires in Australia are having a huge impact on use of place, traditional knowledge, ecosystem viability and biodiversity.

Of course there is denial and political game-playing in the wake of such a tragedy. You could model a soap of the dramatics. It just makes the grief worse when you realize the world leaders are not up to the challenge.

During the fire tragedy Prime Minister Scott Morrison took off to enjoy a holiday in Hawaii, tipping back cocktails and displaying an incredible lack of leadership.

In addition, conservative media outlets, particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch, are promoting a narrative that the bush fires are nothing worse than previous years; have been around since time began; and that greenies are responsible for outlawing controlled burning that could have prevented the fires in the first place.

Liz Storer, Director of Advance Australia (a conservative political lobby group) has said that the “radical left” and the “green army” are responsible for preventing “burn back”.

Yep, in a cruel twist the greenies are being blamed for the bush fires, the same tactic used by Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro when the Amazon was burning. But these Aussie greenies are not just any kind of garden variety greeny. These are “liberal-hating greenies” who “hate the fact we rely on the energy from fossil fuels,” to quote Sky News Host Chris Smith.

Quite. Scott Morrison got the “big bash” (another Chris Smith gem) from local residents at Cobargo for not providing sufficient resources and funding for their fire ravaged community. They refused to shake his hand; told him to “f-off” and generally let it be known that they would not vote for him.

Smith called it “bogan behavior” and named the residents “ferals”. He also pointed out one woman’s razor haircut; as if this is somehow relevant to the bushfires. It’s a distraction. Worse than that, it operates to discredit those most affected by the fires, and to malign green thought.

Morrison has reportedly been evasive on the issue of the link between climate change and the current bush fires. Not so Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who rejected climate change as the concern of “raving inner-city lefties”.

The icing on the cake is the online trolls and bots who have created fake news that have exaggerated the role of arsonists in the tragedy.

Seriously, if this is the best we can do in the wake of such a horrific tragedy I am losing hope.

Climate science is unequivocal. Dr Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfires & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre, says that “Australia now is running about 1C above the long-term average." This means, he says, that there will be more frequent and severe fires.

Climate scientist Joëlle Gergis who is based at Australia National University says that the burning of the Australian bush this summer is due to an increasingly warm climate. According to Gergis, nine out of ten of Australia’s warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. The extreme weather events such as record-breaking temperatures, drought and strong winds are at the base of the fires in the “moss drenched” rainforests in Eastern Australia. These rainforests don’t usually burn.

Over a billion animals have been killed, and many species are likely to have been pushed to extinction. Farm animals burned to death, terrified, trying to push through fences, unable to get out of the flames. Video footage of their dead bodies lying on the side of the road moves me to tears. Others were sent to slaughter to save them from this fate. Paddocks have turned into dried out dust bowls.

The grief that comes with the catastrophic loss of animal life and the environment is hard to bear. It seems like an unimaginable nightmare playing out in real life. While not directly affected, I am devastated. I am grieving.

We only have one Earth. We need to make irresponsible governments accountable for the lack of meaningful action in addressing climate change by making ecocide an international crime

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