A view from Africa of Australia burning

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As fires obliterated large swathes of Australia this week, I was largely oblivious to the news — though tenuously connected to events as I travelled through oven-hot, tinder-dry national parks in Southern Africa. Largely without internet connection, it was only when I reached the airport in Johannesburg en route home that the extent of the catastrophe became apparent to me. 

Cyclists in Liwonde (Photo by Catherine Marshall)Apart from the stories about the devastating loss of life and property and the shameful barbs fired by politicians, there were some things that struck closer to home: a message from my sister saying the school at which she is assistant principal had been closed due to fire danger; a note from my son saying there'd been reports of fires one street down from our own in a part of Sydney which borders a national park; and news from my daughter that the suburb separated from her own by a narrow swatch of bushland had been bombed with fire retardant. 

It brought back memories of our arrival in Australia as immigrants on New Year's Day 2002. There was no picturesque vista of the city to be spied from the plane windows as we descended into Sydney; instead, the landscape was engulfed in a pall of smoke. Parts of the city were burning; indeed, residents of the very suburb bombed with retardant this week were being evacuated from their homes just as we were breathing in our new home's acrid, furnace-hot air.

It seems a lifetime ago now, long before Kevin Rudd tabled the world's first carbon tax, long before Tony Abbot and the LNP scrapped it; and a lifetime before we would find ourselves led by a government happy to fiddle the books, as it were, so as to further enrich the wealthy even as Australia burned.  

This news resonated, too, with the thoughts I'd had just that morning as I travelled from Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi to the country's capital city, Lilongwe, where I would begin the long journey home. The road from the Shire River — where a driver had picked me up — leads through villages fanning out from the main settlement of Liwonde. Tiny mud-brick houses and their outhouses are marooned in oceans of red soil tilled into gentle waves; the villagers are planting wheat before the rains (hopefully) come. Thatch-roofed mud structures house the chickens and goats at night so that wild animals can't eat them. Crackling sedge struggles upon the lifeless dirt. The poverty here is overwhelming. 

Yet passing through this landscape I was struck by the profound lessons such deprivation can teach those of us living in developed nations. This is a primitive lifestyle from which we managed to cleverly liberate ourselves following the industrial revolution. Yet as current events illustrate, we haven't been clever enough to recognise that the revolution has gone too far; those very conveniences which define us as progressive — coal-fired power, fuel-guzzling cars, emission-spewing factories, throwaway plastic — are degrading the planet to the point where it will no longer be able to sustain us. 

Moreover, the modern conveniences we take for granted, and which have accelerated climate change which in turn has accelerated the ferocity of our bushfires, are not common to most of the world's populace.

 

"They model — though reluctantly, and through sheer necessity — precisely the conscientious, low-emission lifestyle so many of us are trying to adopt in an effort to reduce our own carbon footprints."

 

Though climate dissenters will frequently claim Australia's emissions are minuscule compared to those of populous countries like China, India and swaths of Africa, they forget that many (sometimes most) of these countries' residents don't live in air-conditioned houses, frequent air-conditioned shopping centres, eat meat every day, store their food in refrigerators, buy new clothes every season, drive their own vehicles and fly around the world on holidays (disclaimer: as someone who travels and writes about travel for a living, I acknowledge my role in this).

Like the people I encountered in the village of Liwonde — and all the road to Lilongwe, four hours' drive away — they grow much of their own food, draw their precious water from wells rather than gushing taps, and walk, ride bicycles or take public transport to wherever it is they need to go. Instead of irrigating their parched vegetable patches with drinking water, they wait for the rains to come. They buy their charcoal in recycled maize bags.

They allow their chickens and (for the most part) their goats to range free, pecking and nibbling on whatever grass and insects they can find. They wear used clothing, eat meat sparingly and wouldn't dream of wasting food: women carefully count Kwachas and exchange them for overripe bananas at the market we pass by; two young boys who approach me in the town of Salima accept the packed lunch I don't need — cheese and ham bread rolls, a fruit juice box — with expressions of gratitude that are impossible to measure. 

In short, these people model — though reluctantly, and through sheer necessity — precisely the conscientious, low-emission lifestyle so many of us are trying to adopt in an effort to reduce our own carbon footprints.

Grinding poverty shouldn't be romanticised, of course, and few would be prepared to trade modern comforts for what is often a hand-to-mouth existence. But such perspectives are instructive for those of us who have too much and are still gluttonous for more: though the world's poorest people have most to lose when climate change strikes — islands inundated with salt water, villages beset by famine, communities in vulnerable areas ill-equipped to protect themselves — they are well versed in the trials we can all expect to stem from it.  

Hardship often leads to ingenuity and resilience, while plenitude can render us indulgent and entitled. Such weakness has blinded us to the catastrophe we've inadvertently engineered, so that we would rather destroy the planet than live without the very comforts that are rendering it unlivable. But like those people in Liwonde, we might one day be forced to do exactly that.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Main image: Cyclists in Liwonde (Photo by Catherine Marshall)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, bushfires, South Africa, Malawi

 

 

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Catherine,(please note Ive gone over the 200 word limit here) but the answer to the dryness of our continent and our apparent lack of water may be right under our noses and our politicians refuse to take action. To build a channel from the Burdekin / Ross / Palmer rivers to pick up the wet season surplus flood waters is roughly 2400 km and would cost $9 bn. Provided a holding dam is constructed to contain that precious annual resource it could parallel the Mitchell Highway and eliminate the shortages in the menindee lakes and the entire Murray Darling system. Why do we persist in the flood waters washing out to sea? What a waste. During last years Townsville flood 1900 cubic metres per second went over the spillway and washed out to sea. The Burdekin puts out 3 times the volume of the Murray. The Mitchell Palmer system even more. The Great Artesian basin contains 64,900 million megalitres which is totally under utilized and replenishes annually with the floods. To put that in perspective the Cubbie water licences owned by the Chinese permit them to take 560,000 megalitres p.a at a cost of $3700. That is half the Darlings annual flow. The cost of an average equipped bore is $75k. Sometimes the answers are so simple that we have to shake our heads and think. If NZ can plant 1 billion trees and China can plant 88 billion trees (which is in their agenda), why couldnt we plant 5 billion trees to bring the rain back?
Francis Armstrong | 14 November 2019


'Indulgent and entitled' indeed. The two words that best describe Australia today. And, boy, do we know our entitlements! Thanks for a wonderful article.
Frank | 15 November 2019


Excellent treatise, Catherine Marshall. Why not give up writing and run for parliament! Francis Armstrong. If you are prepared to start a nationwide movement to support and accomplish the rechannelling of the subtropical rainfall to the Murray Darling system I will happily contribute to the funding.
john frawley | 15 November 2019


Kevin Rudd did not table any carbon tax. It was Julia Gillard and the Greens.
Bob Innes | 15 November 2019


Nothing like a journey in the Third World to bring home how the developed world leads the way to trashing the planet. An excellent article, and thanks for not conflating our wasteful consumption with the ubiquitous cry 'to act now to stop climate change.' They are serious but separate issues. We all need to consume less, repair when possible, recycle, and wear things out before replacing them. The old adage is true - Waste not, want not. Francess suggests redirecting rivers as a serious approach to the grave issue of water shortage in some regions. So far every time this kind of solution has been proposed it has been knocked down on the basis of unrealistic cost, but perhaps one day perhaps we will be prepared to pay that price and brave enough to take such action. And we must realise that the reason overseas interests have bought up huge tracts of land to grow water greedy plantation agriculture with disastrous consequences is because we are selling off our most precious national resource, wate, too damned cheaply.
Alison Schwabe | 15 November 2019


Hi Francis, you seem to be very good with numbers. However not very good with ecology. Engineering will not solve our problems (and never has). We have to learn to live within our means. Pipelines and dams rob the one catchment to feed another. Someone always loses (and so does the catchment). The ecosystems of the north are based on the floods moving through the continent and replenishing on their way. This water is not wasted. It revives the desert, triggering plants and animals to flower/breed replenishing the species, keeping ecosystems healthy. It flushes rivers at the mouth so upstream does not become saline (and unususable), it flushes through cleansing water that lessens algal blooms and de-oxygenation. We, as a species, are dependent on this continent remaining healthy. We are dependent on rivers and underground aquifers remaining healthy (most of the artesian basin is being pumped dry by gas and goal mines) or no-one can survive. Your solutions are simple and that's the problem. The science says they don't work, have never worked. We need very specific solutions for very specific regions. They will be complicated and may involve completely moving towns and agricultural industries to different areas. It means living more simply. It means remembering we are not the most important species on earth, we share this planet and it's time we stopped our indulgent lifestyles and lived within our means.
Deborah B | 16 November 2019


This article says so much Catherine, articulately and concisely. Spot on. Thank you.
Julie Shannon | 16 November 2019


Good on you Catherine. You're one of the very few people I've read recently who admit to the plane travel you do. If I were the dictator of Planet Earth, I'd ban all air travel tomorrow. Seriously! That would slow down all the grandparents jetting around as though there is no tomorrow......... And likely slow down the destruction of the troposphere.
David Hicks | 16 November 2019


We of the West, through our standard of living, have wrecked this beautiful planet, well and truly!
Lynne Redknap | 17 November 2019


Deborah the Romans built roads in Britain and aqueducts in France. My fathers firm built the turbines for the Snowy. When nature falls short, man must intervene. Holland is riddled with channels, dams, and barriers to hold back the sea. "Australia is not well endowed with natural lakes containing plentiful supplies of water. Both rainfall and runoff can be highly variable across the continent and many rivers have dams containing large reservoirs constructed on them to meet water and power supply needs. The most significant water management project undertaken in Australia is the Snowy Mountains scheme which includes 16 large dams. The scheme diverts water from the Snowy and Eucumbene Rivers on the east of the Great Dividing Range through the Snowy Mountains to the Murray and Murrumbidgee River systems on the western side of the range. The water is used to generate electricity and for irrigation farming in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The project, which took 25 years to complete, was undertaken by the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority. Another significant irrigation scheme dam is Lake Argyle on the Ord River in Western Australia." Livescience.com. Your argument is based on sentiment not on science.
Francis Armstrong | 18 November 2019


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