It’s 2020, and the world is burning. Well, large parts of Australia literally are, at any rate. Bushfires that are customary for Australian summers, and which more often than not can be tamed, have gone wild east and southeast of that country, and are now threatening urban meccas like Sydney and Melbourne.
The most direct reason behind the aggressively expansionist fires is the extended spell of drought that has hit the country this summer. A surplus of rainfall, as well as a late withdrawal of India’s southwest monsoons, foreshadowed an unusual imbalance in the Indian Ocean Dipole, which links the Indian and the Australian monsoons. This led to an extended spell of drought and lower-than-normal rainfall in Australia, and coupled with high temperatures in summer, made organic matter dryer and combustible.
Flying embers from burning dry biomass have been difficult to control, and have contributed to the rapid spread of the fires. More than 10.7 million hectares of land have been burned by the fires, 28 people have died, over 2000 homes have been burned, and thousands of residents across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – states which have been the worst affected and have declared a state of emergency – have had to be evacuated.
For context, 10.7 million hectares is about 3.1% of India’s total area (including disputed area). Or as the Australian writer Ben Jenkins puts it, “if measuring things in Cubas is helpful to you, it’s around one Cuba.”
The fires have generated so much smoke that, NASA reports, it’s expected to make “at least one full circuit around the globe”. The reason behind this is that the fires have been raging for months, and therefore the smoke has reached the stratosphere, from where they can influence weather conditions globally.
Even the huge amount of volcanic ash and smoke generated by the Eyjafjallajökull eruptions of 2010 seems to have been dwarfed by the 2019-20 Australia fires. NASA added that the fires have been so big and extensive that they spurred an “unusually large” number of pyrocumulonimbus events, which are basically thunderstorms due to large fires on earth.
Apart from the fires themselves threatening to creep up on large cities, the smoke has panned out all across Australia and making the air less breathable. For a few days, the capital of a developed country had air quality far worse than the worst a wintry Delhi can offer doomsday adventurers. People in New Zealand can smell Australia burning. That’s the equivalent of Gandhinagar smelling Guwahati burning – which might, at least figuratively, be true at this moment.
While all of this is distressing enough, the most lasting impact of this mega-disaster might be the tremendous harm it has caused to Australia’s biodiversity. Large parts of various habitats across the continent, it is feared, have been razed to the ground. About a billion – a billion – animals are estimated to have been roasted by the fires, and this excludes fish, frogs, bats and insects. This figure includes many endemic and endangered species – like the Kangaroo Island dunnart.
It is possible that the dunnart has been burned to extinction, given that large parts of its habitat, Kangaroo Island, have been charred. As if this weren’t enough, it has been reported that Australian authorities are planning to snipe about 10,000 ‘feral’ camels from helicopters, a claim so seemingly absurd it led to Snopes doing a fact-check. This is apparently to save up on water that is already scarce.
To read about this, around the same time you discover a culture of Facebook-powered cynophobia, and dog-killing in Yangon, is even more distressing. All this comes at a time when species extinctions have “accelerated“, either directly due to human activity, or indirectly due to changes in climate and weather patterns, induced by fossil-fuelled industrial hyperactivity.
We still don’t fully appreciate the importance of biodiversity in sustaining the human population. For one thing, it helps us produce enormous amounts of food we need, as a steadily growing species. For another, it helps provide active ingredients of crucial pharmaceutical drugs and in producing vaccines and antivenom. It is because of species biodiversity that we have been able to perform experiments on animals for human benefit, albeit humans seen as ‘inferior’ have been used as guinea pigs sometimes. We exist because of biodiversity, it’s as simple as that. Any threat to biodiversity is a threat to human existence itself.
Scientists suggest, as a consensus view, that the rapacity of these fires is an indication of climate change. While collective realisation is slow to come, and collective behavioural changes even slower, public policy seems to be the most phlegmatic, seemingly unmoved in the face of increasingly panic-inducing and apocalypse-evoking events, especially in the current political epoch, where all the passion seems to manifest itself in a vicious and vindictive pushback to progressivism.
A globalised culture of populism and cult of the personality has, ironically, seen people around the world getting hived off into silos of “chosen ones” who see anyone but themselves, or the government of their choice, as the reason behind the problems afflicting their countries. The influence of a globalised media and a streak of internationalism, which had been responsible for holding power to account across boundaries in the previous few decades, has been sought to be weakened in recent times by delegitimising “foreign influences”.
Merit is attributed to the origin of ideas and actions, rather than their substance. People who are not self-critical or not in the habit of holding themselves to account, are also likely to be galvanised by an authoritarian demagogue’s clarion call, to identify internal enemies and eliminate them. These enemies are often imagined, and therefore no effective action is taken to tackle real issues.
As Ben Jenkins says in the aforementioned article, “Australia right now is a case study of how many governments and media will respond to these disasters, and just how bad that response will be.”
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison was off to holiday in Hawaii with his family, even as the fires engulfed more and more of Australia. He flat-out declined to compensate rescue workers and firefighters working overtime to save as much property, life and wildlife from being gutted by the fires as possible.
A New York Times report has highlighted how a Murdoch-owned media has sought to dismiss concerns surrounding the fires as overblown and blamed arsonists and even environmentalists for the disaster. At least that’s what they would like suffering and protesting Australians to believe. This is meant to prevent people from raising the issue of climate change, a conversation Murdoch’s chums, the captains of the coal-mining industry (India’s Adani among them), are scared of. Right on cue, the Australian PM has refused to meet demands that Australia stops exporting coal. Doing so would be to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change as an issue that directly affects Australia (indeed the entire world).
Situations like the Australia fires are when the need for leadership is the greatest. It is in these situations that tough decisions have to be made. Not the easy variant of tough decisions, like beating up and arresting critics and branding them “terrorists”/ “antinationals”, or blaming the victims. But policy changes, that will put curbs on the wanton violence on the commons, by those most responsible for the problems at hand.
Proactively overseeing structural and infrastructural changes that will incentivize gradual abandonment of fossil fuels. Investing more towards the realisation of the goals of the 2015 Paris deal, or even bettering them.
Passing laws that make it impossible for oligarchs to monopolise or cartelise print and broadcast media that manufacture consent by deliberately misleading people. Working out a concrete plan, on handling extreme drought, and also on protecting wildlife, that is vulnerable to bushfires.
Being a government, that is, an entity that works not just for prosperity and well-being of people it governs in the present, but also to extend that courtesy to future generations. Being a government, that is, one that derives its functional and moral lifeblood from the people it governs, and not from groups, individuals and structures that seek to exploit them for their own profits.
Taking a lead in forming a united international resistance to globalised exploitation by country-hopping mega-corporations through global measures, like a global minimum wage, and periodic governmental assessment of private commitment to using and commercialising the use of renewable energy. Subject the profit-making impulse to the potential might of democracy, one that is yet to be fully realised.
But alas! At this very point in history, we are stuck with incompetents, who seek to consolidate their hold on power through puffery and through appeasement of greedy crony capitalists. These pseudo-leaders have been, to a great extent, successful at breaking the human democratic spirit by turning us against each other, to the absurd extent that we expect a corrupt billionaire to protect the working class, an Islamophobe to protect minority interests, a racist and corporatist retired army General to protect biodiversity hotspots and their indigenous inhabitants.
Their boisterousness is seen as decisiveness. Absorbed in their shrill hateful rhetoric, many of us have lost sight of burning issues that require greater, rather than fewer, people to resolve. Their histrionic performances have infected many of us with their incompetence, to do what is right for us.
Many of us have internalized the Orwellian message that Division is Unity, and have committed ourselves to it, despite the costs entailed. So, we are bothered more about driving out immigrants, Muslims, indigenous peoples etc. even as the changing climate promises to consume us all if we don’t act immediately.
Governments are indeed responsible for dereliction of their duties towards us because they are beholden to corporate interests, but they are getting away with it, because we fail to cut through the nonsense they feed us, in collaboration with a corporatised media, and hold them accountable. The few people who do, are made out to be public enemies, and who are then bullied into silence, often by “journalists” bellowing through our television screens and oversize newspaper headlines.
Extreme weather events and gradual yet accelerated climate change will not wait for our nonsense. Nor will they wait for us to sort out the epistemological conflict between truth and violent lies. When objects hit the fan, ‘leaders’ like Scott Morrison will seek to escape responsibility and turn indignant when questioned.
The more authoritarian and cruel versions of Morrison will manufacture non-issues like QAnon or ‘tukde tukde gang’ out of thin air to give their militant acolytes something to bludgeon their critics and dissenters with. Their response to a burning country will be to burn it more, and then further convince their fan base that their country, whatever of it is left remaining, needs them ever more than before. The institutionalisation of our worst instincts as a species will meet the worst this planet’s climate has ever had to offer us. The more you try to douse the fire, the more it will consume you.
Sounds apocalyptic and overwrought? Indeed, it is. A regression to medieval, irrelevant identity politics has only amplified the truth, that we lack the maturity as a species, to forge a unified political vision. We are so convinced of the deceptiveness and mendacity of the ‘other’ – not always or entirely without reason – that we would rather let the planet burn than trust each other through processes.
We are so caught up with preserving, with our fragile collective ego, that we would rather reproduce the (real or alleged) prejudices of our far more benighted ancestors, than use our enlightenment, to deal with challenges that they have wittingly or unwittingly bequeathed us.
Where is the hope then? Perhaps in the human spirit. Witness those unpaid volunteer firefighters in Australia, whose efforts see no appreciation from the Prime Minister, certainly none from the raging fires, but people share images and videos on social media because they see hope in them.
Witness all the children all over the world organising school strikes in recognition of the fact that they are going to inherit the planet, long after the short-sighted ones in power are physically extinct. Witness, even, the hundreds of thousands from all walks of life all across India, who have come out in spontaneous protest against a violent law and faced police brutality, in peaceful demands to get it repealed, even as the highest court of the land in abject dereliction of its duty, smears them as violent lawbreakers.
Faced with undeniable reality, humans are capable of seeing things with clarity. But climate change is a reality that needs to be seen before it truly hits us; when it will be too late to act. If there is one thing that the Australia fires have taught us, it’s that the human spirit cannot be burnt as easily as we burn bridges.