Governments of the world need to act. It’s time to speak to our planet with kindness before it’s too late
By Alexis Wright
The writer Alexis Wright in Australia. Photograph: Meredith O’Shea/The Guardian
All the raspy-voice myna birds have come here, to this old swamp, where the ghost swans now dance the yellow dust song cycles of drought. Around and around the dry swamp they go with their webbed feet stomping up the earth in a cloud of dust, and all the bits and pieces of the past unraveled from parched soil. The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright.
A dense haze of smoke crawled over Melbourne and embraced us for a day in its lonely pilgrimage, inviting us to contemplate its mourning rite, its long prayer.
This smoke came from a cremation of the natural world – the bushfires from the Bunyip state forest that had begun during days of a major heatwave running across the country. The forest lies 65km east of Melbourne where mountain ash grow, prickly tea-trees, stringy barks and heathland swamps. In the Woiworung mythology of the Kulin nation, the Bunyip is a spirit that punishes bad people who disturb its home in the swamps of the Bunyip River, and according to the Parks Victoria information sheet on the park, local Aboriginal people avoided the area.
Lightning strikes created the fires by igniting a tinder-dry forest that flared up into “insane” flames from out of control bushfires. The sky around the Bunyip bushfires quickly filled with ash-loaded clouds reaching up to 6km in height where it produced its own erratic weather system. This was another massive pyroconvection producing bushfire – a super cell thunderstorm that was perhaps similar to the cumulonimbus flammagenitus clouds associated with the 2003 Canberra bushfire, and the 2009 Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires which created pyrocumulonimbus storms reaching heights of 15km and generated hundreds of lightning strokes. This is the new language of climate change. Words most of us have never heard before but we are now learning to understand from experiencing the extreme weather events affecting us more frequently.
Bushfires rage out of control in Victoria in 2009. Photograph: A Coppel/Newspix / Rex Features
There were 2,000 firefighters risking their lives in fighting this “catastrophe” that had so far burnt 100,000 hectares of land. Homes were destroyed. The intensity of these forest fires was so great that many native animals perished, the beautiful birdlife including the lyrebird, and all the small animals – nothing caught in the way of the fires would have escaped. Most of these creatures were possibly still growing their populations after the 2009 bushfires where 40% of the Bunyip park was burnt. Nobody seemed to know when the fires would stop burning, and it was said it might continue burning for months.
The Climate Council, Australia’s leading climate change communications organisation, called the 2018-19 continental-wide heatwaves and record-breaking hot days, as well as other destructive extreme weather events such as bushfires throughout Australia and heavy rainfall and flooding in northern Queensland, the Angry Summer, and the forecast is that we can expect this worsening extreme weather to continue.
We have come to expect extreme weather events of the type that were previously considered as being a one in a hundred year event. We no longer think, Oh! that won’t happen again in a hurry, so there is nothing to worry about. There is not one among us in this country who is not feeling the heat of hotter and more extended summers. We smell the smoke of major environmental catastrophes and ask how safe we really feel in hotter summers, and we will become more anxious, as each extreme weather event comes by.
When a slow-moving tropical low converged with a monsoon over the coast of north Queensland in February 2019, it dumped more than one metre of rain on Townsville within a week. So intense was the rain, it created horrendous flooding in this regional city, and it brought back memories of the 2011 flash flooding and lives lost in Toowoomba, Grantham and towns in the Queensland’s Lockyer Valley. In Townsville, it was said that some rainfall readings “were at levels probably recorded once every 2,000 years” and the rain created flood levels in the Ross River “that were greater than a one-in-500-years event”. Who knows if what happened will be a one-in-a-100-year flood, or 50 years, or less? How do we plan for the future? Many residents of Townsville thought that they lived in a flood-free area and were not insured for flooding.
After this slow-moving extreme weather cell caused massive flooding in Townsville, it then moved further inland, almost travelling to the Northern Territory border before it petered out, as did Cyclone Yasi in 2011, which reached into the NT.
There was so much rain dumped in this 12-day weather event in February 2019 that it created a vast inland sea stretching hundreds of kilometres over flat drought-stricken country stretching east of Cloncurry in north-west Queensland, and as far up north as Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The flooding was massive. Of approximately 5m head of cattle grazed in the region, nearly half a million head of cattle perished. The local people say it was the biggest flood ever seen in the Cloncurry River, that nobody remembers it flooding like this, where creeks became a 2km-wide torrent. Many of the pastoralists who run cattle on this land have spent their whole lives taking the risks of gambling with climate. They love the land, and show great bravery for taking these things on, and the back-breaking hard work they do. They risk everything by gambling on the climate in virtually a life or death situation, and suffer enormous consequences of loss and hardship when the weather turns, as it did this time.
They see the consequences of climate change first-hand, and are the victims of it, and there is a shift of understanding going on – that manmade climate change and global warming is real, and that their lives on the land will only get harder if nothing is done about it.
This was truly an unbelievable phenomenon that had horrific consequences. It looked like hell on earth. Among the media reports of the devastation, I saw a video clip of Brahman cattle standing in a sea of flooding waters almost up to their necks. Their eyes stared out to the world in horror, and I doubted that they would be saved.
One life-long cattleman who lost over 80% of his cattle vividly described what happened in his heart-breaking words that, “There wasn’t much life stuff, you’d just see dead stuff lying everywhere. All the kangaroos, and bloody little marsupial mice and birds they couldn’t handle it.” There was nowhere to hide, so they were wiped out. This great north country was silenced by the flooding.
I grew up in this country, and I learned to swim with all the other kids in this river when it flooded, at a time when Cloncurry held the record as the hottest place in Australia. We learned to wait for this fast-flowing brown water to flood the river a second time before swimming in it – after all the dead cattle and tree trunks and branches, etc had been carried away with the first flush. If you were a child who was afraid of drowning, or being carried downstream, you were considered by the other kids as not strong enough to run with them. You learned by swimming out into the deeper, fast-moving waters until you caught hold of the slippery second or third pylon of the bridge, and I do remember fearing that I would never reach it, of being unable to see where it was, and of being sucked under the water.
Before my father died in the 1950s, he owned a cattle property that was around Mackinley, east of Cloncurry, and I know he struggled on this drought stricken property he loved until he died when I was a small child. I will never know, but it is quite possible that his cattle station was under water in this flood, part of the inland sea. Perhaps this land is now starting to bound with new life – all the grasses and pretty flowers bringing butterflies and birds on the breeze, something that he would never have seen in the droughts of the 1950s. I never saw his property. It is only a place of my imagining and did not give a lot of meaning to our childhood, but now, strangely, an imagining of its life under water, is similar to many of my dreams of marvellous watery wonderlands.
I imagine the land green as far as the eye can see, and the flood water pouring into the Lake Eyre basin in another inland sea for the pelicans and other birds that will flock to the area. There are thousands of ghost butterflies with pastel coloured iridescent wings that each span the size of a human hand now swarming in my dreams. They are being flown through a dry wind circling around decimated drought stricken fruit trees languishing in red earth dust. Was this an extinction flight? The last doomed emergence of an ancient butterfly from wetter times in this country thousands of years ago, before the climate changed?
How do you find the words to tell the story of the environmental emergency of our times? No one in this country escapes the realities of this manmade global warming catastrophe that is creating before our eyes unprecedented heatwaves, out-of-control fires, immense slow-moving rain systems, freakish cyclones, floods creating inland seas, warming seas, coral bleaching, and the fast pace of losing necessary ecosystems through the demise of native flora and fauna that cannot keep up with the changing environmental conditions. All in one year?
But it is not only Australia. This environmental catastrophe is global. The UN’s intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services has just released a frightening 1,500-page official report on the state of biodiversity on Earth. The report, the UN’s first global assessment of the natural world in 15 years, was written by 145 authors from 50 countries and it sums up 15,000 scientific papers on the threats against life in the age of humans.
It is a chilling report warning us that as many as one million of Earth’s 8m species of all kind – mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, plants, marine life and terrestrial life – are at risk of extinction within decades, and will be disappearing at a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past. The report lists five major threats to biodiversity, including conversion of forests and grasslands into farms and plantations where half a million species on land now have “insufficient habitat for long-term survival”. A third of the world’s fish stocks overfished, and the dumping of extreme amounts of waste into the world’s oceans and rivers and killing many parts of these water systems. Add this to the damage caused by climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive species. The risk of an “annihilation” of one eighth of the world’s biodiversity is due to human activity that risks putting the planet on the “tipping point” of no return.
All the governments of the world need to act now and act urgently to turn this planetary nightmare around before it is too late, because this warning of the magnitude and acceleration of biodiversity loss is a global crisis with dangerous implications not only for one million species but for human health and long-term survival.
In this country there are sacred places holding enormous powers throughout this continent and reaching far out in the seas. But most non-Aboriginal people do not understand the powerful nature of this country and the forces of nature, or how the ancient law stories associated with each of these sacred places contain vital knowledge about the deep history of this land and caring for it.
The Aboriginal caretakers of their traditional country have always understood its power, and why it is so important to care for the land through developing an important system of laws that created great responsibility for caring for the stories and powers of the ancestors. These narratives of great and old wisdom are the true constitution for this country, and urgently need to be upfront in the national narrative in understanding how to care for it.
After the manmade catastrophe of a million dead fish in the Darling River – which was all about horse-trading at the expense of the environment – the elders came from different parts of the river system to the Walgalu high country, the birth place of Australia’s major rivers high in the Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. There, they performed a water ceremony, a Narjong, “to invoke the sacred duty of caring for the river systems, a tribal responsibility for thousands of years”. Perhaps this ceremony has existed for more than 120,000 years since there is new scientific evidence in southern Victoria suggesting that we have existed in our country for as long as we have always known, since time immemorial. The elders called the rivers – their relative, their relation – by their traditional names. Dear broken rivers that may respond to their caretakers calling them, and speaking to them gently.
Hundreds of thousands of dead fish in the Darling River. Photograph: Graeme Mccrabb Handout/EPA
Just as we see our people work hard to take great care of country on our traditional lands, and much good work being done by people in this country, there are people across the world who are taking great ethical steps to care for their relatives – the rivers and mountains, the animals, birds and the natural world. In China, crops will be grown in the south-western province of Yunnan in a habitat area of Menghai county to feed the elephants, so that these animals might stop raiding the crops of local farmers. In Thailand and Cambodia, the monks find the oldest and largest trees in the forest to ordain and wrap in the traditional orange robes of a monk to save the trees from loggers who will not commit the taboo of harming a monk, even if that monk is a tree.
India’s courts in 2017 ruled “that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers have rights to exist, thrive, and evolve”. In New Zealand, the government granted the same legal rights as a living person in 2017 to the sacred Mount Taranaki, as it also did in 2018 for the sacred Whanganui River, and as well, in the 2014 granting of legal personhood to the Te Urewera forest, and giving the local Māori tribes shared guardianship with the government. In America, the people of Toledo recently granted the same rights as a person to Lake Erie, to recognize the rights of the lake and its watershed to have the right to a healthy environment. All of these ideas begun with Ecuador’s 2008 constitutional acknowledgment of the Rights of Nature to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. And we – the people – have the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems.
These are all special acts to protect holy places and creatures.
This is the only planet we know that supports life.
We would do well to see the world as a sacred site that is holy, speak to our planet with kindness, and protect it as such.