Matter of Degrees

Featured Image: European Space Agency, Bushfires burning in the Yuraygir National Park and Shark Creek, New South Wales, Australia, captured by Copernicus Sentinel-2, 8 September 2019.

By Anna Pilz and Kate Wright

In early January 2020, we began discussing the possibility of curating a collection of creative and intellectual work about the bushfire crisis devastating unceded Aboriginal countries in the continent that is now commonly called “Australia”. Now, only three months later, we find ourselves in a changed world. The Australian bushfire crisis has been outrun by the next disaster. While the smoke cloud from the bushfires circles the Earth, the COVID-19 virus is spreading like wildfire across the globe.

We are living in a time of rolling crises, launching from one calamitous event to the next. How is one to respond well, in both thought and action, to this era of increasing precarity? As a return to “normal life” becomes an impossible target, there is an urgent need for creativity, invention, and experimentation to determine how we will collectively live inside, and in relation to, crises.

Though over 9000 miles away from the situated catastrophe unravelling communities of plants, animals, and humans in the southern hemisphere’s summer, the international community of staff, students, and research fellows based at the RCC for Europe’s winter was very much invested in following the latest news. We frequently discussed the latest developments from the microcosm of climatic safety the city of Munich provided at the time. Despite the geographic distance, we felt very close to, and very much at stake in, the bushfire crisis incinerating lands and communities many of our colleagues and peers feel deeply connected to and love. While degrees of longitude and latitude determined our geophysical atmosphere, it was degrees of relational proximity that began to shape the emotional atmosphere of the Center.

We were all intimately aware of each other’s responses and concerns, especially those of the four fellows from Australia who were resident at the time. Whether it was over a cup of coffee in the kitchen or during one of the customary Wednesday dinners after we’d discussed each other’s work, we came together to mourn the loss of wildlife, debate government responses, discuss the structural, social, and environmental coordinates that had contributed to the devastation, and ponder what this crisis, and its likely recurrence, might mean for our own futures and the future of our families and friends.

Now, in March, we are ready to publish a series of personal and scholarly reflections on the Australian bushfire crisis crafted by creative writers and thinkers connected to the RCC, while also putting together an annotated multilingual bibliography of global media coverage and scholarship that emerged as the crisis was unfolding. To do so, we are no longer meeting in our little research hub, and have been planning this blog series over Skype. Covid-19 has rescaled the framing of our introduction. Munich is at the heart of the coronavirus pandemic, and physical distance has become a mantra for survival. The relationship between proximity, distance, intimacy, and care was already at the forefront of our minds as we struggled to make sense of faraway images of a country in flames. In the current pandemic, we are being called upon to cultivate networks of solidarity remotely, to practice care by increasing distance, and to create a community safety net as the abstractive logic of market and capital are once again becoming deadly.

Environmental humanities and environmental history scholarship are well placed to illuminate the social dimensions of environmental crises, revealing that very rarely are their devastating consequences inevitable. Bushfires and pandemics alike are produced by particular social and political systems, and the cost they pose to human and nonhuman lives determined by structural conditions. Environmental crises are mediated by state-based and market-based power relations. Certain historically differentiated bodies and communities will be exposed to more intense experiences of vulnerability and suffering. Yet, in our current global state of emergency, we are also compelled to reflect on conditions of shared precarity. Western exceptionalism is increasingly untenable as we face consecutive and intersecting global crises.

Thinking about the temporality of crisis, we are struck by the way in which pace and space are entangled. Both disasters—bushfires and pandemics—are recurrent phenomena that become visible and invisible across different timelines. While living with the immediacy of anxiety, it is sometimes hard to give attention to matters that now seem irrelevant or deferrable. The fast-paced media cycle tends to isolate crises, each one appearing disconnected from the next, making us much less able to learn from history.

In curating this blog series together with Kelly Donati and Jayne Regan, who are now based in Australia, we are hoping to create a space where the unprecedented bushfire crisis on the Australian continent, and the flurry of work that surrounded it, will not fade into obsolescence, but can instead collect, condense, and inform how we might respond to the most pressing challenges of our time. As “business as usual” collapses, we are left with a series of urgent questions: Can experiences of shared vulnerability and interdependency be mobilised to resist the intensification of existing systems of domination and exploitation? How can we craft networks of solidarity as we struggle to imagine new ways of living in the wake of devastation? And how might shared experiences of disaster on a global scale prompt us to shape new compassionate societies that affirm the value of diverse communities and lifeworlds?

These questions offer opportunities for radical world-making if we are ready to take them. At the dawn of this new decade, it is clear that vectors of environmental and social harm are determined by degrees of proximity, separation, distance, scale, and attention. We hope that the following blog series illustrates that the interconnected crises we face in our climate-changing world are, in many more ways than one, a matter of degrees.


Figure 1: Susan Ballard, Tree scratchings, Wollongong, November 2019

Watch and Act, Summer

By Susan Ballard
At first, there are only a couple of photos. The usual places: the Guardian, Instagram, Facebook. I trace the fire as it creeps down and across the Southern Highlands, through the deep gullies of the Blue Mountains, and suddenly flares across the South Coast. I keep half an eye on the glistening diamonds placed carefully by the Rural Fire Service on their Fires Near Me app.

Terry Anne Allen, Stirling Ranges

Smoke, Black Cockatoos, and Banksias

By Jessica White
In November 2019, before I flew to Munich, I stayed with my parents in Armidale, New South Wales. National parks, farms, and properties between the town and the coast were on fire and, depending on the wind, the grey-brown miasma of smoke blocked out the blue sky. The town was on level five restrictions, limiting residents to 160 litres of water per person per day.

Countries of origin of RCC Fellows (Source: Anna Pilz)

Between Here and There

By Anna Pilz
I have never set foot on the continent called Australia. I am unfamiliar with its beaches, bushlands, deserts, and cityscapes, with their sounds and smells, colours and textures. It is a place far away that I encountered mostly in my studies on nineteenth-century Ireland. I have travelled there in my imagination alongside thousands of Irish migrants who were shipped to or set sail for the new colony in attempts to leave famine-stricken Ireland.

Figure 6: Bushfire sunrise at Hindmarsh River in South Australia. (Source: Rose Fletcher, January 1 2020)

Gifts and Ghosts

By Kate Wright
I’m seven years old dancing to Buddy Holly on a red rug. The warm crackle of the stylus on the vinyl rhymes with the burning wood hissing on the open fire. Carbon, once captured and condensed into living forests, is rapidly escaping its cellulose confines.

This picture is not from the fires, but of a sacred place, Mt Yengo. It’s where Biame [a creation ancestor] stepped back into the sky, that’s why the mountain is flat. It was part of the bushfire story and is part of our Story that will outlast these times. (Source: Rob Waters)

The Fire Knows No Boundaries

By Rob Waters
Listen to a spoken-word poem about the fires and their impact on the land.

A view from Toorourrong Reservoir, Kinglake National Park, Whittlesea, Victoria. (Source: Ruth Morgan, 2019)

Summer’s Tempo: Bushfires, Water, and Time

By Ruth Morgan
For me, the Savage Summer was televised, unfolding in my family’s living room in Perth and then a hotel room in Ooty in southern India. I’d expected locals there to ask me about cricket, but all they wanted to talk about were the bushfires that had seemingly engulfed the entire continent.

Kosciuszko National Park (Photograph courtesy of Cameron Muir)

Canberra Dispatches

By Cameron Muir
The smoke has been here hanging all day or blowing in of an evening for weeks now. The kids have been indoors most of this time. Even for the last two weeks of school, before the summer holidays, they were ordered to stay inside and spent their lunches and recesses in the classroom or hall because of the heatwaves.

(Source: European Press Agency)

Breath

By Kelly Donati
In early January 2020, hitting the refresh button on The Guardian punctuated my waking hours as I obsessively tracked the movement of the bushfires from Munich. Watching from afar, sleep grew elusive. Just as I was meant to be drifting off, people along the east coast of Australia were waking up—if they had slept at all—to appraise the destruction and gather their wits for another day of fire-fighting, evacuation, or just waiting. It was a time in which breath did not come easy.

Australian bushfires, as viewed from the International Space Station, 4 January 2020. NASA ISS (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Annotated Bibliography

By Jayne Regan
The destructive scale of the 2019-2020 Australian fire season was reported around the world. This multilingual bibliography—collated with the help of RCC associates—offers a sample of online material relating to the fires, published within Australia and without.