Professor Danielle Celermajer
This is Australia. This morning my phone rang, and a woman’s voice said: “It’s all gone.” My friend was standing on the blackened ground, emerging from where she had been lying on the floor of her garage when the fire went through. It came from three sides. The horses she had rescued were burned but alive, but all the animals — including some of mine whom I had sent there to be safe from the fire threatening our place — were dead. Burned to death. We don’t have a count on the “domesticated” animals that have burned to death, but we believe that already five million wild animals are dead.
For the last week, the community in which I live has had a single focus: Protect each other and the beings with whom we live from the fire. Who has animals that need to be evacuated? Who has a paddock that is safe? Who has a space cool enough for chickens not to expire in the heat? Who has a room where people who are evacuating can come and stay with an old dog? Three trucks turned up at my place on Saturday, less than two hours after I put out the call that I needed to get the animals out. I’d never met any of the people in my life. One man quite literally lifted my terrified donkeys onto a truck.
This is Australia. It is New Year’s Eve and the most expensive tables in Sydney will be the ones with the view of the fireworks. The exhaustion and overeating of Christmas is now far enough in the past to contemplate celebrating again. It’s the long summer holidays, and there are a bunch of people picnicking at the water hole on our river — some on their fold-away chairs, some on their blankets.
When I go into town, I hear conversations on the street about Australia being a terrible place for bushfires and memories of super-hot days when we were young. There’s apparently a lot of concern about the threat that radical environmentalists pose to the economy, given the importance of coal. It’s important not to panic. There is a lot of anger against the arsonists. Mad people causing these terrible fires and we really do need to increase the penalties.
This is the story of two Australias. The Australia that is saturated with the reality of the climate catastrophe. The Australia for whom it remains abstract. The photos are awful and people losing their homes is tragic, but like every other story in the newsfeed, it is displaced by the next one.
My anger at the second Australia is palpable. It is seeping through my words. I need to contain the anger or I know readers will soon stop reading. When beings you love burn to death, it is hard to maintain the veneer of balance. But when I step back, I know these readers have just not been touched yet. Not been burned yet. Like pretty much every one of us who has assumed that the privilege of white skin and a wealthy nation is somehow both deserved and eternal, they still believe they will be spared.
They won’t be. Right now, it is my rage that wants to make them know that. But when the rage subsides, I want them to know because the costs of their not knowing are so inestimably high. Most obviously, it is costing a refusal to act that will extend this suffering to the zero point — action that will only be taken if enough of us say there is no other choice. But less dramatically, it is costing the possibility of the solidarity that, in the absence of rain, would have the first, grief-stricken Australia not feel abandoned.
The communities on one or other side of the fire-front know that solidarity is the only salve we have. We need one Australia in solidarity for those whose losses are irredeemable, and those who might be spared the worst.
As these words appear online, I am in my car driving away from my home, my place in the world. I remained there as long as I could, but the danger has now become too great. The animals with whom I live are gone. Some lost forever. The wild animals who live around us will not escape.
Danielle Celermajer is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She is the author of The Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apologies and The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach.