This is intended as a companion piece to my recent essay about Don’t Look Up. It was originally meant to be a section of that essay, made up of no more than a few paragraphs, but as I wrote, it kept expanding. Eventually I realized I had so much to say about the bushfires here in Australia, and my experience of them, that it was going to be too bulky for that already long essay, and would have to become its own article.
I’m not going to recap the plot of the film again here — I’ve already done that in my essay — but my point is that after watching this wild, dystopian farce about climate politics, it kept occurring to me how familiar it all felt. Living through the bushfire crisis here in Australia during the summer of 2019–2020 — “Black Summer,” as it’s known in some circles — was as wild and dystopian and farcical as you could ever want. Even at the time it occurred to me that it was like living in a spoof of a disaster movie.
The fires were, of course, the direct result of climate change. My argument is that the political and social dynamics portrayed in the film are very much reflected in this real-life example of an apocalyptic climate crisis, proving that the film’s politics are spot-on, and hardly exaggerating.
One of the most disturbing things about that summer of bushfires is that it started long before summer did, in September (early spring here). All up and down the east coast, from Queensland to Victoria, bushlands that had been left dry as tinder by record temperatures and a historic drought caught fire one by one. It seemed like the fires were everywhere; there were hundreds of them, and maps tracking them looked comically overloaded. By mid-January they would burn an area of land the size of Scotland.
Very early in this hellish season, on September 9th, a Queensland state fire inspector named Andrew Sturgess held a press conference about the growing bushfire danger and sounding like a supporting character at the start of a disaster movie, said, “It is an historic event. We’ve never seen fire danger ratings at this time of the year as we’re seeing now. Never before in recorded history. Fire weather has never been this severe this early in spring… This is an omen, if you will, a warning of the fire season that we’re likely to see ahead.”
In early November, his words were echoed by New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzimmons: “We are in uncharted territory. We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level.” The words “unprecedented” and “the new normal” were used so often that summer that it became a bitter running joke (a joke which would be repeated once the pandemic started).
I can only imagine that, like many other experts who issued dire warnings that year (and, of course, like many climate scientists and epidemiologists), Sturgess and Fitzsimmons spent the rest of the spring and summer in disbelief as the federal government ignored their advice and did nothing of substance to prepare for or fight the fires. Fitzsimmons became something of an icon for his calm, rational leadership during the fires — especially given the total absence of any coming from the top.
For me and my family, the bushfire crisis (and thus, the climate emergency more broadly) went from being an abstract concern to something deadly serious with shocking suddenness. Throughout the springtime months of October and November, as we followed the horrific reports of deadly fires up north, Sydney experienced brutal summer heat, after hardly any rain that year. The bush in our area was deathly dry, our veggie garden suffered, and the jacaranda flowers wilted on their trees pathetically.
Then, on November 12th, the Sydney region’s bushfire danger was rated as “catastrophic,” for the first time since ratings were introduced ten years before, due to forecast extreme heat and high winds. The official advice was to stay ahead of your evacuation plans and leave if you were in doubt. Since we live in an outlying suburb on the edge of a national park, surrounded by bush with only one road out, and with a young child, it was a no-brainer for us to get the hell out.
Just a year before the fires, I was told by our local RFS captain at an open house that the street we lived on was far enough away from the bush to be fairly safe in a fire emergency — we would only have to watch out for burning embers falling on us. A year later it was clear that, as well meaning as he was, that received wisdom was out the window. None of the experts including him could predict what would happen in the new normal. No one was safe anymore.
As we loaded our car in the morning, the weather was so insanely hot and dry it was like being inside a tandoori oven. Our “evacuation” amounted to just driving 25 minutes to my mother-in-law’s apartment in a more centrally located suburb. Nothing happened in our area that day, so it was a bit anticlimactic. Having monitored the fire updates all day and deciding it was safe, we came back home after dinner and put the kid to bed. There’s no comparing our experience to people whose lives were destroyed by the fires.
On the other hand it was so unsettling to have to pack our bags with essentials and leave our home and everything in it because there was a chance our neighborhood might explode. To not be sure if we were coming back that day, or what would happen. And to have to find some way to explain it all to the kid. And it wasn’t even summer yet. And knowing it would probably keep happening again and again in the years to come. The whole thing was creepy. Only one road out and the whole country fixing to burn.
There was something about leaving our place that day that for me was like setting aside my expectations for the future. It was a subtle thing, but I’ve never quite gotten over it — most especially because COVID hit just a month after the bushfires went out. We’ve been in crisis mode for two and a half years straight now.
That’s what the new normal is for me. The more time passes since that summer, the more I understand that it actually traumatized me.
In addition to being early and everywhere, the fires were unprecedented in their ferocity. In the north, they burned up rainforest that had never burned before. Smaller fires joined up and formed like Voltron into gigantic “megafires” that tore into huge swaths of the country. In many cases they exploded into out-of-control firestorms, with terrifying “crowning” events — leaping from tree to tree, fuelled by dry eucalyptus leaves. Some fires were so enormous they made their own weather, causing thunder and lightning and “firenadoes.” These terrifying, preposterous qualities made them seem like giant monsters in a Japanese horror movie, like they were possessed of some preternatural intelligence and maybe actually evil. The fact that the experts seemed as baffled and horrified by the fires as we were only added to that feeling.
Because of their huge size and explosive, unpredictable nature the fires were very difficult or even impossible to fight; many raged out of control for weeks. It didn’t help that the federal government committed no extra resources to fight the fires, leaving already underfunded local RFS crews made up overwhelmingly of volunteers to struggle against the enormity of it all.
The fires killed dozens, including several firefighters, destroyed thousands of homes, and blanketed major cities including Sydney and Melbourne with hazardous smoke for months, blotting out the sun for days at a time. The Pink Sun of Doom was my nickname for the pathetically dimmed star that peeked through the clouds of ash and smoke on many days, looking like the sun must look on Mars.
Sometimes the smoke was as thick as fog on the ground; other times it was merely a shitty depressing haze turning the sky brown. It made being outside feel like standing in barbecue smoke and breathing in. Some days the clouds of ash formed dust storms and it was like breathing dirt. An N95 mask became vital gear for doing ordinary day-to-day activities — in what was, for us, a premonition of COVID. For much of the summer, activities like going to the beach or to the park or having a barbecue — those classic Sydney summer things that make it so nice and so liveable — were no fun at all.
There was no escaping the smoke. It set off smoke alarms in office buildings in the Sydney CBD, causing their evacuation; I remember seeing smoky haze hanging in the air inside our local grocery store. One day in November there was literally no place in NSW — a state the size of Texas — with air quality above hazardous.
It was nerve-wracking to read up on the bad health effects of bushfire smoke in the early days of the crisis, and then spend the rest of the summer trying to protect my son from it — trying to get an autistic five-year-old to wear a mask; planning indoor activities such as trips to the shopping mall; or sometimes deciding just to stay in all day, knowing the smoke was creeping in anyway like John Carpenter’s fog.
It’s not a well-publicized fact, but the smoke killed far more people than the fires themselves did — 445 people who died quietly, far from the headlines, due to the smoke’s deadly effects on their asthma or other health conditions. I’ve often thought of this during the pandemic — hundreds of vulnerable people whose lives were wiped out by a catastrophe they were helpless to avoid, mere statistics to the politicians who were to blame for the severity of the crisis.
The Gospers Mountain Fire, the megafire which raged all summer just outside Sydney to the west, was the largest bushfire in Australian history, and the fire that most directly threatened me and my family. It was started by a lightning strike in the Blue Mountains in late October, grew to terrifyingly massive size thanks to high winds and terrain that made it impossible to fight, and by February had burned up an area the size of Rhode Island. It was called “the monster” by the crews fighting it. It was really unsettling looking at it on the map every day (on the Fires Near Me app that became an indispensable part of our lives that summer) — a huge, amorphous grey shape looming just over the Hawkesbury River, dwarfing Sydney itself and growing every day, threatening to rampage and ravage the city at any time. Every day I silently thanked the river, that thin watery boundary on the map just 30 kilometers north of us, for being there and holding the monster in check.
Little did I know the fire nearly jumped the river one day — December 21st to be exact. I remember the day well because it was the second catastrophic danger warning in Sydney, and we evacuated our place again. Meanwhile I attended a climate protest in the city that afternoon. Several thousand of us marched over the Sydney Harbour Bridge — in blazing heat, wearing our N95s to protect us from the ever-present bushfire smoke — to Kirribilli House, the official residence of the prime minister. He wasn’t home.
In the evening, I went back home with my family. When we got home, the sky was an evil orange color, and ash was raining on our garden. But the weather was cooling and there was no news of any immediate danger, so we cooked dinner and put the kid to bed.
Reading the above-linked ABC story about the megafire several months later, I was shocked when they revealed for the first time that the fire came within a hair’s breadth of jumping the river that day. It was turned back at the last minute by a change of wind, to the relief of the desperate firefighters who’d had no luck controlling the monster; the authorities had been that close to ordering an evacuation of the region, which would have been one of the largest peacetime evacuations in Australian history. If I’d known the danger I never would have gone back home that evening. Honestly I’m glad I wasn’t aware of how fragile that river boundary really was.
Indigenous writer Lorena Allam is particularly eloquent in describing the horror of the bushfires, and their political and social component:
Some of these places have never burned, not once in my lifetime, let alone all at once. Like you, I’ve watched in anguish and horror as fire lays waste to precious Yuin land, taking everything with it — lives, homes, animals, trees — but for First Nations people it is also burning up our memories, our sacred places, all the things which make us who we are.
It’s a particular grief, to lose forever what connects you to a place in the landscape. Our ancestors felt it, our elders felt it, and now we are feeling it all over again as we watch how the mistreatment and neglect of our land and waters for generations, and the pig-headed foolishness of coal-obsessed climate change denialists turn everything and everyone to ash.
Psychologists talk about the phenomenon of climate grief and the need to confront the reality we face head on. Well, we are all confronting it now, and there is no end in sight to this catastrophe.
In the face of all this horror and devastation, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, did shockingly little to help. Seriously, it’s really hard to overstate how little he did. The seeming inability of the leader of one of the richest nations on earth to do anything — to reallocate federal resources to fight the fires; to support desperate, exhausted volunteer firefighters with better equipment or reinforcements (or, God forbid, pay them); to offer substantial relief to the victims; or even to say anything slightly inspiring to a terrified public — it was surreal, bewildering, mind-numbing, and it went on for months.
In Don’t Look Up, President Orlean’s first directive, when she hears about the comet that is set to destroy earth in six months, is to “sit tight and assess” — because at that moment it doesn’t suit her politically to announce the bad news to the public or to act on it. Morrison’s lack of action when it came to the bushfires offers an appalling real-life premonition of this satirical scenario.
In December, when the crisis was at its worst, Scomo actually went on vacation to Hawaii. His office took pains to keep the trip a secret, and lied about it to the public — which is outrageous enough — but, incredibly, Morrison was too stupid to keep the secret himself. Some fellow Australian tourists he met posted Instagram pics of him chilling on a Hawaiian beach and throwing the shaka (“hang loose” or “stoked”) hand sign. I don’t think Jonah Hill could do this in a scene and make it weirder or funnier or more wildly inappropriate.
The images went viral even as Australia burned, and the country’s fear and grief boiled over into rage. Two years later they are still the signature images of his government (though Morrison is amazingly talented at finding ways to remind us that satire is dead).
The controversy over Scomo’s trip went on for days, with public anger only increasing, but with the kind of superhuman arrogance only the ruling class can manage, he and his family remained on holiday. Then, after two volunteer firefighters were killed in the town of Buxton when their truck rolled over, Morrison cut short his trip and finally apologized to the nation. I remember thinking: apparently someone had to die.
When asked by reporters why he left the country during a crisis, his response was, “I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room.”
This sociopathic detachment is even more astounding in light of what was happening on the ground. On the south coast of NSW and Victoria, the fires reached truly apocalyptic proportions in late December. Entire towns were cut off from food and water when roads were closed by the fires. On New Year’s Eve, the whole population of the coastal town of Mallacoota, along with many summer tourists in the area — around 4000 people — were forced to evacuate to the waterline to escape the raging fires bearing down on them. The rescue operation was bungled in ways that resemble the darkest movie satire. First, the victims were stranded for days waiting for the Navy to arrive. I remember wondering how it could be possible that in a world where a satellite can track your every move, they somehow didn’t have the resources to rescue civilians trapped on a beach in swift, expedient fashion. It was like Australia’s version of Hurricane Katrina, the agonizing hours and days, waiting for them to do something for these people, huddled on a boat ramp under blood-red skies raining ash and embers, running out of food and water, and with nowhere to even go to the bathroom comfortably.
Two days later the Navy finally arrived and began its rescue — with one ship, with a capacity of 1000 passengers, which would ferry evacuees to Melbourne and then return for more the next day. I remember wondering: were more boats not in the budget? Even worse, families with young children were left behind because bureaucratic regulations advised against them boarding the vessel. I still can’t believe that even as I type it two years later.
In November, after fires in northern NSW killed three people — the first of the summer’s death toll — the deputy prime minister Michael McCormack made headlines by calling concerns about the link to climate change “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.” It’s a familiar refrain from the coal-hugging psychos. But the smoother operators on the right know the argument over whether climate change is happening is over, and they’ve lost it. Compare McCormack’s words to NSW state premier Gladys Berejiklian’s: “I thought it was inappropriate that people were trying to talk about climate change yesterday when people wanted to stay alive.” It’s a more insidious kind of denialism that’s also practiced by liberals. Labor senator Penny Wong had virtually the same response: “We’ve got people grieving, we’ve got communities at risk, we’ve got extraordinarily brave Australians fighting fires. This is not the time to get into that kind of debate.” Now is not the time to talk about the climate, you’re upsetting people. Let’s sit tight and assess.
Scomo was similarly obtuse. After returning from his trip to Hawaii, Morrison told the press that there was “no argument” that climate change had to do with the bushfires, but also said that “the direct connection to any single fire event is not a credible suggestion.” Throughout the summer he doggedly refused to speak of lowering Australia’s emissions targets (in other words, impacting the fossil fuel industry). Instead he began focusing his talking points on “native vegetation management” — the perverse and completely unscientific idea that it’s actually having too many trees that makes bushfires worse. This had the dual effect of shifting blame for the disaster onto tree-hugging environmentalists, and, more to the point, justifying the aggressive land clearing that has made the droughts and bushfires worse. There were even plans to allow private companies to harvest timber in the aftermath of the fires — disaster capitalism in a nutshell.
When Morrison did finally announce a package for bushfire relief and recovery, in early January, it was predictably stingy, and favored business owners and farmers over ordinary people and firefighters.
The terror of the fires combined with Morrison’s dithering ignited a storm of protests around the country. This huge and very vocal mass movement, which was in part rooted in the student climate strikes that had gathered force in the couple of years before the bushfires, was practically the only thing to feel good about during that summer. I recall at least six large, angry rallies in Sydney in November, December and January. They culminated on January 10th with an absolutely massive rally of 50,000 people or more that shut down the CBD, and was matched by similarly huge demonstrations in other Australian cities that same evening.
After the long, hot, anxious summer, it was so therapeutic being at that Sydney rally, with its explosion of anger, color, life and energy, and its festival feel. The diversity of the crowds, which included First Nations folks, socialists, greenies, students, Christians, firefighters, parents and kids, Extinction Rebellion types, mobile hip-hop soundsystems, a marching band playing ska, gay guys chanting “More homos, less Scomo!”, and at least one naked dude smoking weed. The dark humor and artfulness in all the street theater — several people carried symbolic burned boughs of gum leaves — and the protest signs with their fire emojis, dead koalas and references to Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning.” The constant, spontaneous chants of “Scomo’s a wanker!”
The rallies filled a void on the left vacated by the Labor party, which was barely present during the bushfire crisis — not only because the crisis demanded more energetic opposition than they can ever muster, but also because, as a capitalist party, Labor still very much supports the fossil fuel industry. The rallies truly served as a tribune of the people, galvanizing popular demands that Morrison resign, that the firies be funded properly, and that fossil fuel production be ended for good in order to give our civilization a chance for a future.
It’s worth pointing out that Don’t Look Up does not depict this kind of mass movement. As I argue in my essay, I think that’s all right in context of the film’s story. But in the real world, if we as a society are going to survive the climate emergency (our own slow-acting comet) and build something better than this nihilistic, destructive system, we’re going to need a revolutionary movement to overthrow capitalism. In some small way that summer’s protests pointed the way towards that movement I think.
The media coverage of the rallies was extensive and put tremendous pressure on the government to act. This had the result of highlighting the political ideology behind climate inaction and denialism.
If Morrison had taken responsibility for the crisis — if he’d taken decisive action to fight the fires and rescue communities in danger, if he’d opened up the public coffers to generously compensate the victims and rebuild the devastated regions, if he’d acknowledged the harsh reality of the climate emergency and pledged to lower emissions — he could have completely turned around his public image. If your conception of the conservative ideal is something like Winston Churchill — taking bold action in the face of national crisis — this should have been a dream opportunity for Morrison to create a legacy for himself as a statesman, a leader who took on the bushfires with courage and determination. On the surface it’s incredibly puzzling that he didn’t at least make an effort to do some of these things, for his own political gain if nothing else.
The only way to make sense of his inaction is to understand that this is in no way what conservative politicians want. What they want is to protect the profits of the capitalist class. That is their only role. Conservative ideologies about hearth and home, the sacredness of the family, and the defense of the nation are just window dressing. Conservative politicians will let hearth and home burn; they will abandon, separate and destroy families; and they will let the nation collapse into ruin, if that will benefit the ruling class.
If Morrison had devoted more funding to firefighters and recovery, or if he’d made a connection between emissions and the bushfires, that would have opened an unacceptable can of worms. It would have established a precedent for dealing with the climate emergency in a social way, with public resources. This is something that cannot be borne by the ruling class in an age of crisis and austerity. It was to their benefit for Morrison to fiddle while Australia burned.
Knowing Morrison he probably considers himself a hero for bearing universal public scorn and sealing his legacy as a useless deadshit — all for the honor of coal and logging companies.
The months-long saga of the fires was a clinic in the neoliberal mentality: no one is coming to save you. This was literally advised by the RFS on the day of the first catastrophic warning: “There are simply not enough fire trucks for every house. If you call for help, you may not get it. Do not expect a fire truck. Do not expect a knock on the door. Do not expect a phone call.“
According to this mentality there simply aren’t the resources to fight these catastrophes; it’s all about personal responsibility (the same narrative that justifies letting COVID rip). As Margaret Thatcher infamously said, there is no such thing as society. There are only the profits of the wealthy, and what the rest of us have to do (or suffer) for those profits.
I still trip out when I remember the arguments I got into with climate denialists during that crazy summer. After the big climate rally in January, I ended up at the outdoor bar in Hyde Park with some friends. While they were getting drinks, I was standing by their table, beer in hand and minding my own business, enjoying the warm evening, the unusually fresh air and the post-rally buzz, when this guy came up to me abruptly and gestured at an acquaintance’s protest sign leaning against the table. It read, In memory of a billion dead.
“Where does that number come from?” the guy asked, peering up at me. He was short, white, maybe my age, with a shiny bald head, a red face and a rumpled business suit with an open collar. A typical Friday-night after-work binge drinker in the CBD.
I smiled in my best imitation of someone who enjoys being addressed by a drunk stranger, and answered straightforwardly, “Oh that means a billion animals. Not people. A billion animals have been killed by the fires.”
“But where does that number come from?” Like a sales manager grilling a worker about margins.
I shrugged. “Uh, scientists? It’s an estimate, based on what they know about animal populations.” Cautiously, because I couldn’t read him. “It was headline news this week, you saw that right?”
He nodded impatiently.
“They think that’s actually a low estim—”
“Yes I don’t doubt it, don’t get me wrong.” Interrupting in an oily patronizing tone, too loudly over the noise of the bar. I finally started to see where this was going. “But I’m just wondering, where did they get that number? How did they determine that’s in fact the number of animals that were killed?”
“Uh…” I paused. I don’t deal with this kind of belligerence very well and I was definitely not in the mood. But at that moment my acquaintance, a friend’s sister, and the one who made the protest sign, stepped forward, quickly reading the situation and raising her voice assertively. “Actually I’ve worked rehabilitating koalas and I can tell you exactly how.” Getting right in his face. I immediately took the opportunity to back away without excusing myself. I don’t know how it ended.
You’ve heard of climate deniers, this dude was a koala denier.
A few days later, my wife and I were taking a walk with the kid in our neighbourhood, along the residential street that fronts on the national park — the same national park that we really, really don’t want to see on fire. At one point I stopped and remarked on a young tree on the nature strip by the road — one of 30,000 trees planted by our council that year, in a green initiative. Many of the trees hadn’t survived the drought, but that one was looking pleasantly green and healthy.
At that moment a guy who was approaching on the footpath, with a tie and short sleeves and a briefcase, looking like an accountant, blurted out to us in a raised voice, “The council wants us all to die in a bushfire! Planting all these trees!”
As he passed us without breaking his stride, I replied, “No mate, we like the trees,” and as politely as we could we reminded him that the canopy is important for shade and for ecosystems. “Not if the canopy burns!” he retorted doggedly over his shoulder as he receded. I called out something mildly dismissive, but clearly he wasn’t sticking around for real talk.
Afterwards I pondered all the toxic ideology encapsulated in his outburst. How Scomo’s talking points about “native vegetation management” so readily attached themselves like an alien parasite to the obstinate suburban nimby mentality of knocking down trees because you don’t want to rake the leaves.
It was so unsettling to be living through the crisis and dealing with people who’d lost their grip like this, despite being in the same danger we were. Breathing the same smoke as us, but completely bamboozled.
And the bullshit about the trees wasn’t the half of it. One of the narratives about the fires that took hold in conservative circles around the world — fuelled by misinformation from the Murdoch press, of course — was that the fires were started by arson. A very appealing narrative for conservatives because it both denied climate change and put the blame on shadowy nefarious criminals. I even saw viral posts about the “arson” in Australia shared by a couple of my relatives in the U.S. Given what we were going through that was exhausting to say the least.
The fires in the Sydney region were finally extinguished in February by a severe rainstorm that caused flooding and extensive power outages (we were out of power for four days). Towns that had evacuated due to the fires in the weeks before now had to evacuate due to floods. I remember thinking: apparently the weather can only be biblical from now on.
That hasn’t really been the case. The past two summers have been marked by refreshingly cool, wet weather brought on by successive El Niño and La Niña events in the Pacific. There was a bad storm and flood in Sydney last March that killed five people, but in general we’ve had a reprieve from the apocalypse for now — which I’m sure has been seized on by the denialists, not that I care to know what they’re talking about.
Sometimes the bushfires seem like a bad dream. If you didn’t live through it, it’s not easy to explain it. Of course it’s increasingly likely, no matter where you live, whether it’s Canada or New York or Pakistan or California or Germany or Japan or Texas, that you have lived through something like it.
The thought of a comet wiping out all life on Earth is so incomprehensible it’s a joke. But if you were looking for a real-life example of something so big and terrifying it felt like the world ending, Australia’s continent-wide bushfire crisis would be a good place to start. Just listen to those who were there: according to a witness to the north coast fires, “It was like the apocalypse.” Another said “It is a monster.” A survivor of Mallacoota said it was “armageddon.” Even for the rest of us whose homes didn’t burn, the crushing weight of it all — nowhere to escape the smoke, knowing it could be us any day, the awful way it just kept getting worse — was like armageddon. And the simple fact is the world is ending. It’s just taking decades instead of months.
The terrifying scope of the disaster. The warnings of the experts ignored. The baffling inaction from government in the face of profound crisis. Their inability or unwillingness to help ordinary people, in stark contrast to their staunch defense of the very source of the problem at all costs. The disaster capitalism. The lies and deflections and outright stupidity of the media. The insane denialism even amidst immediate danger. Morrison’s escape to Hawaii, leaving the country to burn. The more I think about it, the more I question whether Don’t Look Up is exaggerated much at all. I find myself thinking that if a comet really were on the way to kill us all it would look a lot like this.
Feature image photo credit: Brad Fleet