Something unimaginably horrific is taking place across Australia at this moment. It is impossible to avoid the terrible news of the unstoppable fires sweeping across the country, too big to be controlled, too big to be stopped.
People have died; many more have lost their homes. Important ecosystems have been destroyed, and millions and millions of animals have been killed. It has been estimated that this fire season will kill around 1 billion animals. That estimate is creeping up all the time – I’ve heard it may be as many as 1.25 billion.
How can we even begin to imagine that number, that much suffering and pain and fear? The mind doesn’t seem able to stretch far enough to imagine something so huge. How can we take it in?
Those who are directly affected by these fires are suffering greatly at the moment, with ongoing trauma, raw grief at the loss of loved ones, homes, livelihoods, communities, ways of life, as well as the animals and the trees. Fear for their futures – when will it happen again? This is going to take a lot to recover from, for Australia as a country.
For those of us watching from afar, who are not dealing with the immediate impacts of it, we are still very much affected; there is something particularly horrific about the scale of loss of wildlife and ecosystems here, that is hitting home more deeply than anything has before. I know I’m not alone in feeling this – many of us across the world are feeling the same way. It feels like as a planet we have suffered a deep wound with this loss. We may not be grieving a personal loss, but we are grieving a collective one. And the knowledge that humanity has caused this great harm to so many other species is very hard to bear.
One element of the tragedy of it is that what we are seeing now in Australia has been predicted for years. We’ve known where we were heading, and we haven’t managed to take enough steps to avoid our fate. And the most frightening fact is that this is only the beginning. This is climate breakdown in action; it has started, but what will come next?
It was Cassandra in Ancient Greek mythology, who always struck me as the most tragic figure of all. She was gifted with the ability to know the future but cursed never to be believed. I can’t avoid making the comparison with many in today’s world – many of us have been shouting increasingly loudly for years, for decades. But the truth, the science, hasn’t been believed or attended to; at least not by those with the power to take action to save us.
And how should we be responding to this? How can we adequately respond to death and suffering on such a scale? It is almost too hard to look at, but I think we must look at it. We must look at the terrible images of burned and injured or dead animals that are coming out now. We must allow ourselves to open up to feeling the magnitude of this catastrophe. If we block this out or forget that it is unprecedented in its awfulness, then it will become normalised – and that must not happen.
This is unbearable and we owe it to those creatures who lived and died to recognise that it has happened. Anger is an appropriate response; rage and fury, frustration and despair.
Sorrow and sadness are what many of us are feeling; let us weep together. I have read that it is likely that some species have been totally destroyed by this fire; a sudden wiping out of existence. More extinctions; and again, our fault. How can we bear the shame and guilt of this? That is also something to weep for. How could we do this to the other creatures that we share the planet with? What right do we have to destroy everyone’s world? It is sickening; how could we knowingly head down this path and not manage to stop ourselves in time? What have we done?
The Kangaroo Island Dunnart, a tiny population of endangered mouse-like marsupials, is feared lost after fire swept through its entire known habitat range in a couple of days.
The survival of the endangered Glossy Black Cockatoo is also in doubt as its entire habitat has been destroyed on Kangaroo Island.
Koalas were also in trouble before these terrible fires; their populations have fallen by almost a half since 1990. They are now an endangered species, at risk of extinction.
It is terrifying – watching the dreadful images and hearing stories about the millions of people breathing toxic air. What have we done to our home and our future? What legacy are we leaving to the next generation? If you aren’t terrified by this, then you probably have your head in the sand. Fear is a very reasonable thing to be feeling right now.
How do we cope with all of this, these emotions demanding to be felt?
Let’s feel our grief, let’s speak of it and cry together, support each other’s pain, and recognise the magnitude of our own.
We can do the following: take in the individual stories of tragedy, of heroism, of loss and pain and despair and fear. We can read the stories and view the images and feel the loss, alongside those who are there. Let us feel all of it; let us not drown it out with business as usual, with entertainment, distraction, life as usual.
We can do what we can to let our fellow humans in Australia know that they are not alone, that we are watching and caring and grieving with them. And we can do what we can to help in practical ways; there are now so many appeals to donate money to, if we can spare anything.
And then let us direct our fear and our anger into protest; let’s stand up and say, ‘we refuse to tolerate this; this must be prevented from happening again.’ This is climate breakdown in action, and we must do all we can to prevent it from getting worse.
We must keep shouting, and protesting, and trying everything possible to get those in power to take action. We do have power as individuals, when we gather collectively and refuse to be ignored. Life these days is not ‘business as usual’, so we must stop pretending that the old rules apply. The rules have changed, so we need to change.
If we do not manage to get real change accomplished now, this will surely happen again. It will get worse and more will be lost, until there is nothing left.
Finally, we honour those who are lost; the people who lost their lives, the cows and the sheep and the horses and the pigs and the dogs and the cats and the koalas and the kangaroos and the birds and the small mammals and the rodents and the marsupials and the reptiles and the insects and the trees and the plants. So many gone, so much pain and so much fear. Our hearts are broken for you all. The whole world is watching and the world weeps with you.
We will not forget.