The federal election was held in Australia this last weekend. Now that it’s over, I wonder why I tied it to political change at all.
I’m an anarchist at heart. I think our societies need leaders but that we should stop giving them all of our power. We expect too much of them – whether they’re Jacinda Ardern, Scott Morrison, Donald Trump or Greta Thunberg – and thus we expect too little of ourselves. We ask these chosen people to live our divinity for us.
Political change doesn’t really come from individual people, whether they are inspiring, boring, principled or craven. Change comes from the systems we collectively put into place. At this point in human history, I’m still hopeful that we can behave more like the tribal animals we are – and that we will still instinctively, decisively, turn away from the destruction of our own species as well as millions of others.
I also don’t think my personal opinions are very important. My actions count far more. In this next Australian political cycle I pledge to opine less and act more often. Despair is lazy. Optimism is not a choice.
(Click here to listen to a new podcast called ‘Outrage and Optimism’. The first episode has an interview with David Attenborough).
I don’t know how many people have been struggling with fragmented thoughts lately, but I have. I’m off overseas in a couple of days, and so far any attempts to summarise my year have been fruitless. My head’s a mess. So, I’m just going to write in fragments. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but I want to feel a bit more whole. So, firstly:
Climate Change Not Only Changes Everything: It’s About Everything
I first remember a teacher explaining ‘the greenhouse effect’ when I was about 14 years old. I find it curious that this lesson sticks in my memory at all. It was about 1985, at the end of the Cold War, and we were taught that nuclear apocalypse was a real and present danger, far more alarming than any other possible catastrophe (movies like Threads and The Day After were made compulsory viewing at my high school). I found out later that my parents had seriously considered building a nuclear bunker in our back yard. Greenhouse gases seemed benign in comparison; in fact, if my memory serves me, my impression was that my arid homeland might become a lush rainforest, which was not an unattractive idea.
There were serious bushfires sometimes. One December afternoon, returning from the city with my parents, we could see billowing smoke over our suburb. As we drove closer, I realised it was the bushland to the west of us burning, but at night I dreamt of running and running from a fire that was always just behind me and always about to swamp everything.
In my late teens, I lived in Canada, and I joined a group at the college called SITE (Students Improving The Environment). I don’t really remember what we did – a lot of recycling, mainly – but I became aware of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Canadians sorted their ‘trash’ long before we did. With the confidence of adolescence, and with the backdrop of perestroika, I was certain that my generation were the most self-aware to ever exist: more open and more politically galvanised.
So, I grew up with an awareness of impending global crises, but also a feeling of optimism that I suspect is common amongst colonials in the Antipodes: real life was always happening elsewhere. I also carried with me what now seems a particular sort of privilege: I felt certain that people were good and that everything would be alright in the end.
I also think I was fooled by my morbid, Catholic, literary attraction to apocalypse. At university, I studied both utopias and dystopias, fascinated by Wim Wenders and post-armageddon tunes by Morrissey.
For a while I lost sight of societal/environmental collapse as more than a concept, or an aesthetic. But in 2005, my Canadian English teacher sent me Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress , and this triggered an epiphany about the urgency of climate change: it was not Jared Diamond or Al Gore, as it was for so many others. Now I wonder why my understandings of various socio-eco crises came together after reading this particular little text: it’s a compilation of the 2004 Massey Lectures, and it’s about the collapse of former civilisations. But this was the book that finally sent me into permanent existential foreboding: I remember wandering the streets that Christmas time, thinking of my stepdaughter and my two small children, frustrated by the lack of a sense of crisis in the people around me. I had no idea how to live the rest of my life.
To paraphrase Tracy Chapman, talk of climate change sounded “like a whisper” in Australia, 2005. Environmental destruction was talked about, but only amongst some scientists and greenies. I don’t remember it having much traction in mainstream media.
Even today, I’m often struck by how hard it is for me to refer to climate change in professional situations, particularly as someone who is not a trained scientist. The very subject remains tainted with politics, though I can’t understand why it’s still often viewed as a partisan issue. Outside of Australian cities, as recently as last year, I witnessed tour-guides, geologists and farmers click their tongues in frustration whenever a trendy city person (like myself) brought it up.
There’s another thing I struggle with, when I talk about climate change. I don’t know if I can articulate this well, but I’ll try.
The thing is: we spend so much time in Western societies, capitalist societies, consciously forming our individual identities. We do Myers-Briggs tests, to see what kind of personality we have. We make conscious decisions about our style of clothing and hair, music, living space, occupation and leisure habits (as well as the more subtly ingrained aspects of gesture, speech and taste – what Bourdieu would call habitus). We assert our sexuality, our gender identity, our alliance with some groups and our opposition to others.
Some of these aspects of self are chosen; many are pre-determined or innate. My attempts to comprehend what is innate and what is chosen is one of the subjects I keep returning to in this blog.
I don’t have a good way to say the rest of it: fighting environmental destruction is now the core responsibility and task of every human being on the planet. But I find the environmental activist aesthetic unattractive and it mucks with my personal identity. I know now that I will spend the rest of my time on this planet being conscious of how my own life reverberates with other lives, and with our shared biosphere. But I’m no scientist. I don’t much like dirt. Environmental activism sounds sort of . . . ugly and khaki-coloured. It smells like mould and mud.
I’m not good with sweaty earnest tree-huggers. I like abstraction, poetry, beautiful art, impractical clothing, cityscapes, the exhilaration of air travel.
I’m trying to reconcile myself with environmental imperatives and my personal sensibilities. I suppose part of what I’m coming to terms with, like every living human being, is what is already lost. I’m also trying to work out what can be saved. I remember reading Station Eleven: at the close of civilisation, people mourn simple things, like orange pekoe tea and warm baths.
Everything around me is so precious. I love our garden (what’s left of it); the bush; the stars at night; the handmade quilt on my bed. Our dogs, my husband, our crazy beautiful, mixed-up kids. I don’t want to let any of it go.
Adani is an ‘energy and infrastructure company’, a subsidiary of India’s Adani Group. Adani plans to build the Carmichael Coal Mine and Railway in the Gallilee Basin in Central Queensland (yes, close to the area last month that had ‘once in a century’ bushfires).
Canavan also had this to say, but he’s already demonstrated his complete disinterest in the future of kids and the climate around the world.
The Personal and the Political: The Big and the Small.
I tweeted last week that articles like this make me consider not tweeting about identity politics – including gender and transgender politics – ever again. How can individual concerns continue to be important in the face of global destruction? How can we care about our own lives and the life of everything on the planet at the same time?
I have a good friend at the annual UN Climate Change Conference at Katowice in Poland this week. She’s a climate scientist and has spent a lot of time in the small, rapidly drowning islands in the South Pacific: the Marshall Islands; Kiribas; Tuvalu. When my friend and I meet, we don’t discuss climate change much, really, but I once asked her how long she thought we had left to avert certain catastrophe. She replied, “Two years. Sorry.” That was a year and a half ago.
Personally, I still struggle with my sense of conceptual dissonance. I’ve lived on this planet for almost fifty years in a manner that now seems stupidly and fatally disconnected from the non-human world; now I, my family and everyone I know needs to figure out how to live in a fundamentally different way.
In the midst of all of this, I have a home to look after, young people to teach, two children still to raise. I have health issues and gender services to navigate. I still have individual aspirations: to learn the violin; to teach yoga; to publish a short story and to be a better cook. And while it sometimes makes me cringe to acknowledge it, I have a lot of personal healing to do, a lot of grief to accept and overcome. Sometimes, keeping myself balanced and functional is a full-time job, particularly when I spend so much time hunched over a computer screen, neglecting my physical health. These efforts makes me drink too much wine and then consult naturopaths about why I’m gaining weight and feeling so tired. But naturopaths and alcohol both cost a lot so then I deal with the residual guilt about my over-indulgent life.
They’re first world problems, but problems nonetheless.
I’ve written before about how the American educator and philosopher, Maxine Greene, made me aware of how we can misconstrue what is ‘big’ and what is ‘small’. Green regarded ‘big’ things as being about the intricate and complicated lives of individual students. ‘Small’ denoted bureaucracies and institutions that could only conceptualise demographics, not people. Greene wrote:
“To see things or people big, one must resist viewing other human beings as mere objects or chess pieces and view them in their integrity and particularity instead. One must see from the point of view of the participant.”
In terms of where I put my attention, I feel I’ve been incessantly zooming in and panning out most of my adult life. Is the big life or the small most important? I feel giddy, distressed – and unfocused.
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
I know that there’s little to be gained from adopting a hard line and then screaming at all who oppose it. One of my problems with activism is that a position needs to be adopted and maintained, often violently. I despise ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric – partly because it is never effective. I have never known anyone to shift their position or capitulate when they’re kicked to the corner.
In my climate conversation with my scientist friend she predicted that as global resources continue to be depleted, and to be inequitably distributed, there will be more terrible, unresolvable conflicts like Syria. As I write today, the yellow vests are rioting in Paris in response to Macron’s austerity measures. I fear – I know – my friend is right. Historically, the ability to not choose a side is a luxury. It’s also frequently amoral. Many people – including me and those closest to me – will have to fight. In some ways, we already are.
On social media too, virtual as it is, there’s a lot of yelling. Inevitably, I’m particularly aware of the angry divisions within transgender and feminist alliances and it fills me with dismay. I don’t see how anyone suffering gender oppression will be helped while this polarity runs so deep. I’ve equivocated lately about some feminist issues and I now feel regret, even though I know it was absolutely personally necessary to dwell with my uncertainty for a while.
I’m running out of time today to articulate everything exactly as I wish but finally, I wanted to write that I value kindness. It’s not a soft or a weak emotion: it’s so bloody hard to maintain. I want to be kind – and I want to be unafraid. As well as a bit less earnest, sometimes.
To conclude, for now:
I intend to focus inward a little more in the next year, to pay close attention to my friends, my family and my inner life. It feels like the right time to reimagine what is big and what is small.
I know this seems like an odd choice, given everything I’ve articulated above. The planet and our lives upon it are tumbling out of control. But I can do my best and most urgent work by guiding and enabling the young people closest to me, as we head into this unknown, burning, swirling future.