As Australia Burns, We Need Loud Australians More Than Ever

The government is ignoring us, so what can we do to help?

Australian bushfires, climate denial, nsw fires

Last week as the bushfire crisis raged, I couldn’t sleep.

For days my home town of Newcastle, NSW has been blanketed in bushfire smoke. Like many people, I quickly learned what a P2 mask was, what ‘AQI’ meant, and started obsessively checking the news. Among the horrifying videos and images of the bushfires, one thing was clearly missing: where the hell was our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison?

Surely the Prime Minister had to call an emergency meeting? Visit a fire-affected community? Cuddle a singed koala? The government’s silence has been crushing.

If this is what ScoMo meant by ‘the quiet Australians’, you have to wonder what victory they are winning. Who or what benefits from this silence? Certainly not millions of people currently struggling to breathe.

How Do We Respond To The Bushfire Crisis?

I’m a writer and zine maker, and I’ve been involved in DIY communities for fifteen years.

I felt the need to respond to the crisis, so I started writing a letter to the Prime Minister. The Climate Council of Australia has stated that these catastrophic, unprecedented fires have been aggravated by climate change. If the Coalition won’t acknowledge the link, the least they can do is acknowledge the devastating scale of the bushfires.

When I read that beekeepers re-entering a burnt forest had been traumatised by the sound of injured wildlife, I wondered how Scott would have reacted if he’d been there to listen to the pain. When Scott said volunteer firefighters “want to be there” I wondered when he would be willing to face the fires.

After work last Friday I called a friend to talk about what was going on with this country. In the final sitting week, the Coalition had extinguished medevac and public service departments, all without mentioning the bushfires.

I told my friend I was writing to the Prime Minister. He asked me why I’d bother.

It hit me: words were not enough. Scientific evidence was not enough. Millions of school children striking hadn’t seemed to get through, either. I gave up on the letter.

It’s Time To Make Plans

On Saturday morning I began cleaning my apartment, wiping layers of ash from the window sills, feeling utterly heartbroken.

I went for a swim at the beach, hoping to cleanse myself, but even the waves were speckled with black. A line of bushfire fallout had washed up on the sand with the tide. A father was playing with his toddler in the charcoal. I thought, ‘We’re living in a crematorium.’

In the evening, my friend invited me to a queer dance party at his apartment. The theme was ‘Australiana’. I wondered if I should dress as a raging megafire, the remains of millions of incinerated native animals, or a Prime Minister with his head in a bucket of ash-blackened sand. Maybe I could wear an ironic t-shirt that said ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ or ‘Cheering for cricket!’

As I got ready for the party I had Britney Spears playing in my head: “Keep on dancing til the world ends.”

At the party I felt the heavy mood of the past week shift. We ate pavlova, drank beers and danced to Robyn. The windows were open, but for the first time that week I didn’t feel afraid of PM2.5 particles. At least I wasn’t hiding in my apartment, alone on my phone, late-night scrolling through the news — my friends and I were breathing this air together, come what may.

We weren’t just dancing: we were making plans. We were talking about what the government is afraid to talk about: how we’re going to deal with the future. How we’re going to get through this summer, and the next one.

While the PM thinks he can afford the luxury of not dealing with the catastrophe, the rest of Australia doesn’t get to choose — we are being forced to live through it.

Choosing Community Over Individualism

This is what the Pacific Island nations, First Nations people and drought-affected communities have been saying for a long time: climate change is killing us.

On Q&A in October, First Nations activist and artist Bruce Shillingsworth described the government’s mismanagement of water as “the second wave of genocide.”

Climate activist and writer Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn recently posted: “To address the roots of the climate crisis we have to think beyond individualism and recognise the small amount of time we’ve been alive. The world has already ended so many times for many people. We should honour that.”

How do we begin to honour what has been lost, restore what has been taken, take action to preserve what remains? What are our responsibilities to each other? We need to be sharing news and talking to people about the crisis so the message gets through.

We can donate or collect money for bushfire relief work. If our leaders won’t address this crisis, perhaps we need to elect new leaders. We could write or email the Governor-General and local MPs about the issue and let them hear our voices — writing to your local MP is really important because they rely on our votes.

Douglas-Kinghorn, who recently travelled to the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid, says the most important thing is people power: “We don’t have millions of dollars in advertising and PR funds, but we do have people, so join a local climate group like AYCC or Seed, or start your own and help build the movement of people fighting for climate justice.”

We can take collective action, show up for Climate Emergency rallies, like the one in Sydney today at 5.30pm. We can choose to be loud Australians.

We need to do more.

More Than Thoughts And Prayers

I know from making zines that sharing stories through art and writing is extremely powerful. Even though it seems small, I decided that instead of writing to the Prime Minister, I’d create an event for my community to make art and talk about the bushfire crisis. Many of us are feeling this crisis deeply. Why not dance it out and talk about the bushfire crisis? Form a marching band and talk about the bushfire crisis?

We need an embodied response in order to prevent personal and planetary meltdown.

When authorities say that smoke and fire are here for the long term, there are two ways to respond: succumb to despair, or commit to being around for the long term, too: the long-term of climate activism.

Anything that goes beyond ‘thoughts and prayers’ is a good place to start.

If you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander young person keen to get involved in the fight for climate justice, visit https://www.seedmob.org.au/

For non-Indigenous Australians under 25, check out https://www.aycc.org.au/

Donate to the School Strike for Climate bushfire fundraiser: https://fundraise.redcross.org.au/fundraisers/ss4c/fundraise-for-disaster-relief-and-recovery

You can contact the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia here: https://www.gg.gov.au/contact

Bastian Fox Phelan is a writer, musician and zinemaker. They live in Newcastle (Mulubinba) on the land of the Awabakal people. Bastian has self-published their zines for fifteen years. Their writing has been published in The Lifted Brow, Runway and Scum Magazine. Bastian’s memoir about finding their identity as a queer outsider was recently signed to Giramondo Publishing. Bastian is also part of dreampop duo Moonsign.