Last year was fairly shitty, and I shut down and stopped reading books or writing anything and my creative output slowed. I also had recurrent bronchitis and asthma and spend 3 months almost unable to leave the house and have still continued to have monthly bouts of bronchitis where I need to take Prednisone and antibiotics. On the plus side, I found a great (albeit stressful) job and possible pathway out of academic precariat, I adopted a new cat and I fulfilled a personal dream of performing with the Snuff Puppets.
But nothing I have gone through could possibly compare to how the year ended and how it has begun for so many people. My hometown was hit in spring. After 3 years of drought and at the first sign of warmer weather, all the forests surrounding this cold, rocky town went up in flames. It was unbelievable and shocking and sad. Then the fires spread to the mid north coast where my Mum and grandparents grew up. As the fires spread south and Sydney was enveloped in smoke, I cancelled my planned holiday to Sydney and the NSW South Coast. All winter I had been dreaming of an escape from cloudy cold Melbourne; dreaming of drawing on cliffs and walking through forests, and a new years celebration of sweat and sparkle and saltwater silliness in my home town. So I stayed home and donated the equivalent of the air fare to a range of bushfire charities and watched things get worse. The Blue Mountains went up in flames, the south east forests went up in flames, and so did East Gippsland. Over the Xmas New Year break they spread to the snowy mountains and the forests around Canberra, and to South Australia, and Western Australia. Kangaroo Island was razed and the fires are continuing. It’s not even ‘peak’ bushfire season. Melbourne has joined the other Australian cities and towns choking on smoke. so have parts of New Zealand.
Over 30 years ago I started a science degree, and also gave a talk on global warming to the socialist youth group that I had joined in first year uni. So I have known about this stuff for 2/3 of my life. At uni I was dismayed by the consumerist malthusianism of the self titled greens: I remember ranting at some poor middle class kid on the library lawn who turned up her nose at the plastic bag I had brought my lunch in; and was flabbergasted when I replied that her overseas holidays created far more environmental damage than if I used 50 plastic bags every single day for 50 years. I also remember angrily suggesting in print that another ‘anti population’ greenie that he could allow an entire extended family in the 3rd world to live if he committed harikiri on the spot. I apologised to him after he spent his final summer of writing up his environmental thesis battling bushfires on the edge of Sydney.
So I’ve known about this; tried in my self righteous way to do something, and really failed, along with everyone else of my generation who have known about this situation. Things have become so very much worse: consumer culture has exploded in the most grotesque and obscene manner possible; and environmental concern has become a weird consumer niche for ‘eco marketing’. I have witnessed our social fabric erode; witnessed our forms of media and information degrade into factory farming epistemicide, and witnessed universities decline as spaces of research or rigorous learning and the ambitious and cynical student politicians I met during my first degree, attain a semblance of symbolic power in governmental institutions, and DO NOTHING.
I am the type of person who carries despair and optimism equally. I practice hope so I don’t scream all day and all night. I channeled my rage and despair at the abuse of asylum seekers into art and craft classes, craftivist projects and beautiful, meaningful objects that gather people and feelings together. We are still useless; innocent people still suffer, but we feel slightly less useless and alone. I have read and taught enough affect theory to tell myself eloquently that this is important.
So the summer of 2019-2020, and Australia is facing a national emergency. nearly TEN MILLION hectares of Eucalyptus forest and farmland has burnt down, along with a few towns. People have been evacuated off beaches. Astonishingly enough, only 25 people have died so far.
For animals it is a different story entirely.
Doing the maths is mind boggling.
This morning the air was clear, so I sat in my suburban backyard which if you exclude the shed and the patio, consists of about ten metres by ten metres. I could smell possum poo last week – but we don’t have possums regularly or lizards – mainly due to the proliferation of free range cats of the neighbours. We do have birds, and bees and lots of ants and flies, and my cat brought in a small rodent the other day – which I rescued and set free. I imagined my 10 metre square garden patch transplanted into one of the many forests that I have camped in, walked through, driven through, drawn and painted. Tried to remember how many animals I would hear or smell while sitting and drawing. Tried to calculate how many would inhabit any 10 x 10 metre area. 20? or 100? it’s hard to say because animals move around a lot – and roam greater than 10 metres.
I am going to estimate 50 animals per 10 x 10 metre square because that seems fair enough and includes reptiles and birds and really little marsupials. Not insects.
One hectare is 10,000m2: or 100 of my ‘backyard’ squares. So we could estimate 5000 animals per hectare. Multiple this by TEN MILLION HECTARES and we have 50 BILLION animals impacted by fire. How many survive or escape? half? three quarters? or one quarter? let’s say that half of the animals are incinerated; and we have 25 billion corpses in the burnt out forests…. and then 25 billion very scared, probably injured, and definitely very thirsty animals with no food.
Like many people this situation is unbearably heartbreaking… and like me; craftivist and extrovert extraordinaire I got crafting and organising. one of my friends from the Coburg Lesbian mafia got in contact with the animals shelters and organised drives for animal cages, medicine, food and equipment. She also scored donations for a sewing bee that I organised on the first weekend of the year.
And yes – I organised a sewing bee, inspired by a good friend in Sydney who has been knitting and sewing Koala Mittens since October and wrote about it here:
I got in touch with a Facebook group “craft guild” that in the past week has exploded to 90000 members, and did callouts via my suburban facebook groups and personally to my friends. The day before I only had 4 people volunteering, and was going to cancel it; but then 4 people donated, and 14 people showed up including 3 with sewing machines.
We made 60 bat wraps, and knitted 6 nests, and made 10 possum pouches. I gave 15 cut out pouch templates to another friend to complete, and completed 4 hanging wallaby bags. It wasn’t the most efficient production line, but all of our materials were recycled, and we got together and ate and sewed and did something other than crying at the news and raging at the cynical ineptness of our government. I was exhausted afterwards and it has taken me most of this week to pack up and sort the leftovers scrap (and lengths) of fabric as well as the completed and half completed items.
In the meantime, thousands and thousands of people have been sewing, and hundreds of sewing bees have been organised lcoally and internationally. The Crafters facebook news feed has become filled with images of people buying lots of new fabric and questions about how to deliver crafted items from the USA and Europe to where they are needed and I have now reached a level of horror and dismay and even disgust.
When I worked as a fashion lecturer, I gave annual lectures on the environmental impact of the textiles and fashion industry. I would make students watch “the War on Waste” and see how many tonnes of fabric end up in Landfill in Australia alone, and learn how destructive all textile production is.
As “Cache Baba” explains in a very recent, very long and very comprehensive article:
“In 2015, fashion create more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Around 10% of global greenhouse gas emission are churned out by the fashion industry, due to its long supply chains and energy intensive production. Textile factories in China, where “over 50%” of the worlds clothing is now made” spew out around three billion tons of soot every year burning coal, contaminating the air leading to respiratory and heart disease. Textile mills are estimated to generate 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution and use 20,000 chemicals, many of them carcinogenic. While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long throwing 80lbs of cloths a year per American (Source). A lot of this clothing ends up in the dump. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. In total, up to 85% of textiles go into landfills each year. That’s enough to fill the Sydney harbor annually.”
So encouraging people to buy more textiles to transport internationally on the pretext of helping animals is batshit crazy and emblematic of the consumer capitalist double truth that has contributed to the wretched inaction over climate change which has led to these catastrophic fires. I am not claiming that this is or was for one second the intention of my friend the knitter and design academic. Like me, she reacted to the dead feeling in her chest by getting her hands active and doing something productive and creative and social.
But now I am seeing that this doesn’t work. It has become like the great fairy penguin jumper fiasco of a few years ago. One of the collection hubs told me today that they will have to send most of the donated items to landfill. This wastes more of their time and limited resources that could be spent caring for rescued animals, or going into the forests and rescuing more (or leaving food for them), or raising funds for the specialist food and medical supplies that the sick and injured survivors need.
WHEN WILL PEOPLE LEARN THAT MAKING STUFF TO SEND OVERSEAS IS PROBABLY A COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME, MONEY AND RESOURCES?
Yes, it’s inspiring and beautiful, and helps perform the important affective work of binding people and communities together to take action. And I am heartened by the increasing images on the crafters guild web page of super cute items that people are making and selling to raise funds for the wildlife rescue organisations. Money works. It’s ugly and untouchable but it gives people on the ground the agency to get what they know they need.
Meanwhile back in Australia, I have spent half of what I donated on BUYING MORE SHIT. Specifically, after one horrible day of stinging eyes, and wheezing indoors, I bought products to allow me to breathe: an air purifier and a P2 respirator and packets of disposable masks for friends or homeless people who can’t afford them. I am enraged by this. I am enraged that capitalists have not only deprived communities in NSW and Queensland of WATER by selling it off to big mining and agribusiness corporations, but now WE HAVE TO PAY FOR CLEAN AIR. As someone whose asthma is on the border of disabling even in good weather, I cannot avoid doing this if I want to breathe. And I do want to breathe.
Occasionally my safety bubble of left wing suburban Melbourne smugness gets ruptured; realising how many people think that fires are caused by arsonists and not climate change; realising how many people read or hear NewsCorpse lies; realising how many people think that going on a public demonstration or a march is extremist and disruptive and appalling…. (as opposed to four thousand people being evacuated off a beach and ten million hectares burning down).
I don’t know what the answer is. I feel that I am bearing witness to the end times. I drink scotch and read Melissa Lucashenko because she captures the craziness of displacement and destruction so well. I try to be nice to people and put out water for the insects and birds in my garden. But we are all losing and the extent of this terrible tragic loss is becoming more and more apparent.