The giant stone heads of Easter Island were to me, as a child in Australia, less a puzzle than a fable. This was a Brother’s Grimm island of eco-cannibals—they devoured their trees, then each other—a tale almost too absurd to be cautionary. How could real people not notice their surroundings becoming uninhabitable to all but statues? The cartoon version would end with an impassive head turning and winking a great obsidian eye.
Contemporary archaeologists dispute this popular version of Easter Island’s catastrophe, but these days the fable feels eerily plausible. After all, the basic plot of natural disaster and human myopia keeps repeating. It was a tale heard earlier this year, over what we’ve named Australia’s Black Summer. A tale being retold right now in California.
In January, while our country burned, schoolchildren were on their extended holidays. My young sons and I visited a friend at a South Australian beach town. I over-applied sunscreen and we built sandcastles and paddled, even as we smelled the smoke from an inferno on Kangaroo Island across the water. This island, from a different paleontological storybook, was a natural Ark, preserving astonishing biodiversity, and it was being razed.
While the kids played in the dunes, I checked the unspooling vision of destruction on the news. The whole south-eastern seaboard of Australia was alight. Lightning and failed backburning appeared to be the main sources of ignition, but it could safely be presumed that human malfeasance also played a role. (After devastating fires in 2009, the Australian Institute of Criminology analyzed 280,000 previous grass fires and found that 13.3 percent were “maliciously” lit, and 36.6 percent “suspiciously” lit.) By Christmas, New South Wales had been burning for four months. Fires that had begun on the north coast, near the old copper mining town of Drake, travelled south down the coast, passing from forest to scrappy mining and farming places and back again to forest, 1,200 miles to Victoria. People huddled on sports fields or waited on beaches for the navy to evacuate them. And on Kangaroo Island, the army started digging trenches to bury the dead wildlife, a tragic fraction of the billion animals cremated in the fires. The horror was too much to take in.
But the point is, I didn’t have to. The End Times’ frontline was elsewhere. While the flames burned productive farms and vineyards, and turned city dwellers’ beach holidays into nightmares, the greatest ruin was faced by Australians living in places where land is cheap: on the fringes of the bush, in economically depressed, semi-rural communities. Those who can least afford to rebuild are most likely to find their houses burnt. That’s the brutal sociology of fire.
One day, driving along a Victorian highway to interview a survivor of Black Saturday, as the 2009 fires are called, I found myself passing Hazelwood—then the dirtiest coal-fired power station in the OECD—and I beheld this behemoth afresh. It seemed a terrible irony to be writing about the desolation left by a wildfire as a row of chimney stacks 450 feet high spewed out barely regulated carbon emissions. Back on Black Saturday, with temperatures of 115°F, a local man had deliberately started a blaze in a nearby eucalyptus plantation. He’d grown up adjacent to Hazelwood, where his father had worked shovelling coal in the days before the power industry was privatized and a rust belt tightened around the community. The power station’s emissions not only made for a more fire-friendly atmosphere, but, around this complex with its vast mine, there was a higher level of social dysfunction. In this disadvantaged region, there were a disproportionate number of deliberately lit fires.
As I spent more time around Hazelwood, I was struck by the way locals disregarded the billowing chimneys and coolant towers marking their horizon. To politicians living far from this blighted landscape, the various power stations were temples of prosperity and employment. (Famously, Prime Minister Scott Morrison once flourished a lump of coal in the federal parliament, praising it as a God-given, civilizing force.) But it seemed those who lived with them no longer saw them.
Now this seems less strange to me.
After our Black Summer I’m more aware of how we disconnect from environmental disaster. Of how the necessities and the pleasures of day to day life—entertaining children, or, a few seasons later, home-schooling them—take over.
As California burns and the United States approaches the most dangerous point in the fire season, Australians are six months into “rebuilding.” Twenty percent of the country’s forest has burned, an area as large as Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined, and our next fire season is almost upon us. Meanwhile, fire-ravaged communities are dealing with the economic and social fallout of the fires’ dark twin, the pandemic. On cue, in what can feel like an absurdist tale of environmental and self-destruction, the Prime Minister is touting a fossil-fuel led COVID-19 economic recovery.
A wildfire arsonist may be a misfit, an outlier, even a sociopath, but nefarious as his crime is, at least he just gets on with the basic business of combustion. He doesn’t spin his motives or collude with corporate interests. Mr. Morrison has promised a relaxation of “green tape” and taxes for multinational energy companies, while stacking The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission—a body designed to steer our economic recovery—with people tied to the gas, coal, and oil sector.
The area around a mine that has been permanently damaged environmentally, and therefore socially as well, is known as the sacrifice zone. Today, much of the Australian continent is being sacrificed—to mining, to climate change, to our chronic inability to stop filing over the cliff. In the last decade, the perimeter of the sacrifice zone has spread to the Great Barrier Reef, which, due to unprecedented bleaching, is now two-thirds dead; to our country’s main river system, in near total collapse; and it now threatens our principal food bowl. An orchardist who sold me apples last summer at a country market told me her trees were dying, and she doubted she’d be selling fruit much longer. For now, the social iniquity of climate change means poorer Australians absorb the fall out, but the devastation is coming for us all. This is the bedtime story none of us wants to hear. And so we stay asleep.