Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Why business as usual is so scary

  • 13 February 2020
Shortly after Christmas Day, the sky disappeared. It was only then that I realised I’d always taken it for granted. The sky, and the air. I’d always taken the air for granted too, and now it was hazardous.

Like many parts of Australia, my hometown of Canberra had a truly terrible summer. Surrounded by bushfires, and sitting in a geographic bowl between mountain ranges, the city filled with smoke and choked on it for months.

The smoke filled the air with fine particles that are dangerous to human health because they penetrate deep into the lungs, can trigger or exacerbate chronic disease and respiratory problems, and have been linked to increase mortality. Concentrations of PM2.5 — the smallest and worst of these fine particles — are measured in terms of 10 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), with up to 25 µg/m3 considered low risk, 40 to 106 considered ‘unhealthy’, and 250 to 500 considered ‘hazardous extreme’.

From mid-November to late January, Canberra’s PM2.5 levels mostly hovered between 50 and 100, and a for a few terrifying days in early January they sat just below 1000 — so high an official rating didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, bushfires in surrounding areas burned out of control, incinerating everything in their path.

All of this was bad enough, but the thing I struggled with the most was that, for the most part, life just went on as normal. Yes, some people wore PM2.5 masks. Yes, there was a run on air purifiers and weather sealing tape. But, apart from those ‘beyond hazardous extreme’ days when many places shut up shop, not a lot changed and, honestly, I couldn’t get my head around it.


'All of this was bad enough, but the thing I struggled with the most was that, for the most part, life just went on as normal.'  

On one such ‘normal’ day, I caught the light rail into the city to go to work. As we disembarked, the air was thick with smoke haze and the sun was small, dim and red. I walked through the haze in a crowd of office workers wearing masks and felt as though we had all stepped into a new reality – a dystopic future that had already become our present.

When I examined my reaction, I realised that on some level I was expecting all of this horror to make a difference. I know it was naïve, but I even hoped these bushfires might act as a circuit