Time

Image: Time

The world has gone to Lima, apparently with the view of saving the planet. Signals are being beamed to us in microsecond wires of communication. We Are Here To Act. Not really, of course. Lima is an exercise in semantics, spin and a photo opportunity that will certainly eventuate after frantic discussions. The tone will be one of urgency, desperation in search of a communiqué to wave before the gathering throng, Chamberlain-like. This has been the practice of such gatherings for more than a decade now. All talk and little Climate Change action. The Australian government should not have been so nervous about attending. There was no need for the hardline government minister, Andrew Robb, to chaperone the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop to Peru. She could have demanded real cuts in fossil fuels, supported the need for renewables and rowed back to Australia to eat into her own emissions, and it would have made no difference to the outcome. (Perhaps it would have embarrassed her Prime Minister, Tony Abbott – and perhaps not – nothing seems to embarrass him).

It may appear contradictory to suggest the last rhetorical flush we need is urgency. For sure, the state of the planet is desperate. Despite Minister Bishop claiming that Australia’s – no, the world’s – Great Barrier Reef is in fine shape, reputable scientists have warned us, time and time again, that the reef is in a dire situation. One that may well result in its death. I could go one here about other aspects of urgency: around clean air, contamination of waterways, drought, increasingly ferocious weather events, etc. etc. Oddly, perhaps, I do not think talk of urgency and panic get us anywhere. The language may provoke some to action, and I applaud this. Action is vital. But many run in fear, bury their heads in the proverbial sand and do nothing. This mood of panic has been strategically exploited by the Abbott government in Australia, and other administrations around the globe.

Urgency is the language that allows politicians to look busy-busy. I do not disregard that fact that there would be many present in Lima – NGOs, Indigenous groups, and members of government themselves – with a genuine brief to create something of substance. But we need more of an outcome than another piece of paper being thrust at us; while paradoxically, real change to deal with climate change moves at glacial speed. (Although, I suppose, glaciers are moving a little more quickly these days?)

However desperate our situation has become, we need to act with patience, not panic. It is the only means by which change of substance will eventuate. Consequently, I have been thinking more about the ways in which Indigenous engagement with land and a philosophy of environment and ecology may provide both an intellectual and scientific way forward for us. (I did mention this on occasion on my recent ‘European tour’, with little response. I think that most people in Europe, like white Australia, relegate Aboriginal knowledge to the status of romantic folklore, at best.)

I was speaking to a friend recently, talking about the practice of ‘soft eyes’, used by some Indigenous communities in Australia (and I would think worldwide) in seeing the land. I am not qualified to go into the intricacies of the practice. It would be both foolish and disrespectful to attempt to articulate the cultural and intellectual value of ‘soft eyes’ here. But I do feel qualified to respond to what I regard as the wide cultural lesson to be learned. ‘Soft eyes’ is a way of looking at land, and sky, and water in a way that refuses to focus on a single object or site. By seeing nothing with detailed specificity, one is able to engage more fully with the whole. Another aspect of ‘soft eyes’ is that it takes patience and time, to both learn the technique and respond adequately to what one is actually seeing.

After Lima there will be Paris, and who knows after that. I haven’t checked my schedule. But, in the words of an Aboriginal elder and poet of the nineteenth century, ‘we all become bones … all of us’. There is a holistic reality in these simple words. And a lesson for each of us. We … 

Tony Birch

Trust and our children

Bunjil Shelter - The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil Shelter – The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil’s Shelter is the most significant Aboriginal rock-art site in south-eastern Australia. It is also one of the oldest shelters, at around 6,000 years. Tourists visit the site each year to photograph the art work. Many leave without knowing the important story that the art work represents. It is a story about country and custodianship. It is also a story about the protection of children, the care and leadership we provide them, and the future protection of the country we entrust in them. The story simply stated, within Aboriginal culture, is that Bunjil the Eagle watches over all children from the sky and endeavours to keep them safe. This is not simply a ‘fairytale’ or folklore (in a dismissive sense). The story of Bunjil has vital meaning in contemporary Australia for Aboriginal people. The story also acts as a guiding point for the sustenance of all peoples and the environment.

The Bunjil story within Koori (Aboriginal) communities in Victoria comes with a high level of responsibility. It is incumbent upon adults and parents to care for our children. It is important that we provide them with education. That we nurture them both emotionally and intellectually. In return, we hope that when our children grow, they will accept the responsibility of caring for each other and the environment. This is the trust we place in our own actions, and their acceptance of responsibility that comes with age.

Some might read the above as a naïve and simplistic statement; be they realists, cynics or pessimists. They may be right – on occasion. In Aboriginal communities, we have sometimes failed to live up to the expectations we rightly impose upon ourselves (although far less so than the ceaseless ‘doomsday’ media portrayals of our communities). What is more common, in Victoria at least, is that in providing guidance to our children, to both teenagers and younger kids, we are reaping the reward of young people increasingly taking a lead in working with the environment. As they come to accept the role of custodian, they in turn find trust in their own decisions. Put simply, the satisfaction that comes with the job justifies whatever sacrifice they make.

Last weekend, a friend of mine – Stephen Muecke, a writer from Sydney – came to stay with our family for the weekend. Things went pretty well (except that my father is quite sick in hospital – he will recover, I’m sure). The weather was fine, sunny and clear; my football team, Carlton, played out a dramatic draw against an arch rival, Essendon, in front of 60,000 people. On Saturday night, we had a great dinner at a Greek restaurant with my closest friend, Chris Healy (also a writer) and my wife, Sara (a writer, academic and all-round extraordinary woman).

On Sunday morning, with the football and dinner over, talk turned to our concern not so much for the realities of climate change, but the current Australian government’s inaction on the issue. As often happens, the conversation shifted to our own responsibilities and the action we need to take to shift the government’s position. We wondered – as we often do – if what we do, write, has any impact at all. While, naturally, we hoped it does, we weren’t at all certain. We then spoke about our children (I have five, Stephen has three), and young people in general. While neither of us wanted to feel that we’d let our children down in failing to live with the environment – although, in fact, collectively we have failed – we had to accept that any sense of disinterest our kids might convey around issues such as climate change is an outcome of the lack of responsibility and leadership provided within institutions of power, such as mainstream politics and media.

These institutions are of our own making. I’m a believer in the mantra that we get the politicians we deserve. In Australia, the shallowness of the environmental policy trumpeted by conservatives has been more than matched by the Labor side of politics. Inaction, outside the dedicated environmental and activist movement, is a shared experience in Australia. If we think we deserve something more, we have no alternative but to act with greater energy and conviction. If we do not do so, we cannot expect our children to trust us. Nor can we expect to entrust the environment to them.

To return to Bunjil. The eagle’s protection of children is unconditional. The role ascribed to Bunjil is in recognition of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual leadership. Nor is the nurturing of the young by Bunjil contingent: there is no expectation that at some time in the future, those children will grow into the role of responsibility; that they will, without question, reciprocate the care provided to them. This may not appear, at first, to be a great deal. That eagle, up there in the sky, puts in an enormous effort looking after the young. There is no guarantee of gratitude. Consider, then, how both powerful and tender the contract becomes when children do recognise all that hard work the eagle has done – for them. They come to trust the eagle and respond accordingly. If we want our kids to show interest in the environment and to fight for it when necessary – if we want them to trust us – we’ll have to get up there in the sky and do the work.

Looking for Bunjil - outside my front gate

Looking for Bunjil – outside my front gate

Tony Birch

Bishop Blows Hot Air

An unfortunate but accurate summary of Australian Foreign minister, Julie Bishop, and her performance in Lima. We may yet win the title of the dumbest government in the world. A ‘first world’ country with a ‘fifth world’ mentality.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2014/dec/10/foreign-minister-julie-bishops-speech-to-lima-climate-talks-annotated

Watch discussion: The Current Climate

Few contemporary issues present us with so much information, speculation and polarity of opinion as climate change. While many in the scientific community argue that the planet is headed for environmental disaster, equally determined sceptics dismiss such concerns. Elected officials and the media have taken sides and fiercely defend their often contradictory positions.

As part of the Weather Stations project, the Wheeler Centre presented a conversation that provided a live audience with a chance to ask experts in the field what’s really going on. All five of the Weather Stations writers in residence were amongst a participatory audience.

Guests on the panel included Amanda McKenzie, CEO of Australia’s Climate Council, the independent body that was crowdfunded after the Australian Climate Commission’s government funding was withdrawn; Environment Defenders Office CEO Brendan Sydes; and David Karoly, a Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Melbourne.

Caught between the marches!

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It is 8.20 in the morning in Berlin and I’m looking out on the street, to where a few drifters remain after an all-night dance party. I leave for Dublin this afternoon and will not have the opportunity to join the climate change march that will take place here this afternoon. The march coincides with others taking place across the globe today, including a march in New York City prior to the commencement of the UN Climate Change Summit next week. I concur with the comments of Naomi Klein, in the Guardian today, that we cannot rely on talkfests to get on top of this issue. Success will come through the collective effort of communities, of people in the streets, engaging in direct action that will hopefully bring about concerted change.

The march in Melbourne, Australia, has already taken place. (I missed that one as well!) As you can see by the photograph (also printed in today’s Australian edition of the Guardian), the weather was clear and people marched in their tens of thousands. Some claim that the old-fashioned street protest is outmoded. It is not. We need to know that we do not face this issue as individuals, and we need our politicians to know that we are tired of their stalling, inaction and most of all, their complicity in the damage caused to each of us through their relationships with, and financial support of, polluters. I dearly hope that the marches in Berlin today, and other cities are a great success. I also hope that something a lot more than talk takes place in New York this week.

Tony Birch

 

Weather Report – on leaving Melbourne for Europe

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The skies over the city are clear this morning. But I’m not fooled, and, sadly, I’m predicting stormy weather ahead. Despite the fact that Australia’s highly respected national science body, the CSIRO, crunched the numbers (again) last week, and concluded that the effects of climate change that we are living with now are largely ‘man-made’ – coming in at conclusive 99% probability – and that these changes are having a major and negative impact on our life and the environment now, the climate sceptics and economic opportunists (those with a selective fishbowl mentality) hold sway with the Commonwealth government. With the abolition of the carbon tax, the country has no serious emissions trading scheme. The federal government is also threatening to withdraw support to companies and consumers wishing to meet Renewable Energy Targets. We continue to invest in, and rely on dirty energy sources such as brown coal. In most cities across Australia, the public transport system is either an antiquated shambles, or the reinvestments are again in dirty energy sources such as diesel. And yet we are spending billions of dollars burrowing under cities – a tunnel here, a tunnel there – in an effort to get out of a traffic jam. What we’re really doing is simply putting the roadblock underground. I’m not sure who this helps and how? But maybe it’s a bit like sticking your head in the sand when faced with the obvious?

The say it will be a cool night tonight, followed by a ‘perfect day’ tomorrow. Can you believe that? I’m not so sure. I’ll leave you with an image of our top weatherman and see you in Europe. Australia’s chief forecaster doesn’t have a spinning bow-tie. But he’s a showman and a half when it comes to shifting our focus to entertainment.

A Man For All Seasons - particularly the hot ones.

A Man For All Seasons – particularly the hot ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony Birch

Shout To The Top?: for World Environment Day

One of the priorities of the Tony Abbott Coalition government (Liberal/National Party Coalition) when it came to power in 2013, was to axe the federal Climate Commission, an advisory body on matters of climate change and the environment more generally. Thanks to crowdsourcing and philanthropic donors, the organisation was reformed as the independent Climate Council.

The Council’s most recent report, Abnormal Autumn, provides sober information for those concerned about climate change. Not only has Australia experienced our warmest two years on record, with the likelihood of an El Niño weather event affecting the continent later in 2014, into 2015, it will only get hotter and certainly drier in the southern half of Australia. As the overwhelming majority of scientists now agree, the Council is telling us that climate change is not a concern for future generations; ‘Climate change is here, it is happening and Australians are already feeling its impact.’ (Climate Council report, quoted in The Guardian, 2 June 2014.)

[map 19 - 'I'm not going to take it anymore' - factory wall, Melbourne, Australia.]
[map 19 – ‘I’m not going to take it anymore’ – factory wall, Melbourne, Australia.]

The Weather Stations project asks creative writers to express our views on climate change. When the four writers from Europe were guests of the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, we talked a lot about the basic question – what can writing and writers do to inform the wider community about the issue? The talk was healthy and helpful, although, not unexpectedly, we didn’t come up with a clear answer (not to my knowledge, at least). I was initially frustrated by my own inability to confidently state – ‘I can make a difference’.

I’m no longer frustrated, because I realise that there is no answer to the question. I do not know if my writing makes a difference or not. But I do know that many writers have had an impact on the way I understand and respond to climate change, including our guests from Europe. The only way forward for writers and artists, I believe, is to do the work and put it out there. Give an essay, story, poem, film or image its life. And hope it connects …

In the meantime, we have the here and now – real weather change – to deal with. Here and now. I’m positive than if politicians and businesses continue to ignore the drastic need for new and assertive policies to deal with climate change, there will be increased levels of protest and direct action across the globe. This is an act of necessity when confronted with inaction.

When I was in Sydney last week for the writers’ festival, I went for a long run around the harbour. The sky was clear and the water sparkled. It was a beautiful day. While running, I thought about what would happen if I were to take a gallon of dirty oil and pour it into the harbour – in front of locals, tourist and the water authority. I expect I would be set upon and arrested (and, possibly, beaten to a pulp).

We are pouring poison into the atmosphere – NOW – and we’re getting away with it. Or so we think. In fact, we are paying a heavy price for our vandalism. And we’re not poisoning somebody else’s water and air, somebody we can forget about. We’re poisoning ourselves and each other.

Tony Birch

A Limerick About My Australian Socks

I recently bought a pack of socks while I was in Melbourne and was intrigued to find that they came with each sock labelled left or right. Given that these were an adult size and that the people of Melbourne strike me as the types who most likely know their left from their right, Australian SocksI came to the conclusion that this labelling was intended to be symbolic, an attempt to raise awareness of, and perhaps even overcome, the deep divide that exists between the political right and left in Australia.

Like trying to walk with your feet spread wide apart (or indeed, heading off in different directions), this divide presents a huge impediment to Australia’s struggle to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

Gazing at the symbol-laden socks, and profoundly moved by this noble act of weaving performed by the garment industry, I was compelled to write the following poem. I hope it succeeds in conveying the pathos, and enlightenment, I experienced on opening the packet:

In Oz they put words on each sock,
To urge politicians to talk,
Though they may just be feet,
The analogy’s neat,
‘Cos each needs the other to walk.