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

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

Speedo Boy punches above his weight on the world stage

Before joining Rupert Murdoch for dinner in New York recently, the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, reminded the world that he is a ‘job lover’, while those who believe that climate change is a serious problem, and that serious policies need need to be implemented NOW to address the effects of climate change are ‘job haters’.

(I have a job – and sometimes I hate my job, so there may be some sense in what Tony has said).

[map 21 - Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, swimming against the tide]

[map 21 – Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, swimming against the tide]

 The PM uses such sophisticated political language, reminiscent of his 2013 campaign mantra – STOP THE BOATS – STOP THE CARBON TAX  – (&) – THE COUNTRY WILL BE OPEN FOR BUSINESS. Abbott uses a language that appeals to the lowest common denominator. And the lowest common denominator is his own government. Abbott is not simply acting strategically. He is a TRUE BELIEVER – not in the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the immediate and future impact of climate change – but in a fundamentalist position that regards science itself as a threat to an economic, political and spiritual view of the world reliant more on the Bible than rigorous research.

Yesterday, while in New York, Abbott did state that climate change is ‘with us now’. But not as a real and present issue, but as some sort of mild nuisance easily pacified and contained. (See my previous entry on giant rabbits for Tony’s solution). Climate change is a problem for Tony only to the extent that it impinges on his grand project – leading a nation existing in a state of fantasy; a white outpost of some colonial homeland that no longer exists, in an unchanged climate existing as a convenient fiction.

I’ve never been an optimist (except for the blind faith I have in my football club). But if I’m a pessimist, I hope that I’m an ACTIVE pessimist. I have no faith in the current Australian government’s will to deal seriously with climate change, just as I had little faith in the previous Labor government. Strangely, I do have HOPE. Hope that even if it is through the hip pocket, Australians will realise in the near future that if our country gets left behind on assertive climate change policy, it will hurt us economically.

I have hope in direct political action. I also have hope in grassroots action. There’s more of it out there than we realise.

I even have faith in Tony. Why do you think he does so much swimming – up and down the pool, in the sea and in the bathtub? And why does he stride about in his togs? Because in his heart, deep down there somewhere, he knows that if the country continues to support his lack of action of climate change, we’ll all need to be really good swimmers.

He knows this. He knows this. Deep down in the heart of Speedo Boy. He does.

Go Tony, go.

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

Never trust a man with a rabbit under his hat

A CROWN FOR A KING

A CROWN FOR A CROOKED KING

‘I’ve got a climate change solution,’ the winking PM spun throughout the cabinet room. ‘Try this on. We hunt down some rabbits, we fill them with hot air, we place them in a quality location – and wait for the people to come. They will be so taken with the rabbits, they’ll forget everything else. And I mean everything. They’ll be dizzy on hot air – and be all the happier for it.’

The cabinet room giggled like a kid on a gallon of red cordial.

[map 11 - The Hot Air Rabbits descend on Sydney]

[map 11 – The Hot Air Rabbits descend on Sydney]

And so the rabbits came. And geez, they were big. And for a time the people came, thousands of them. And they did forget – all their cares and woes. They wondered at the marvel of the giant rabbits. They nuzzled into them. Nobody worried at all about all that hot air. Where it might go and the damage it might cause to the planet were thoughts not worth contemplating. The rabbits were a gift of joyous distraction. And who could complain about that, without being told, ‘get over it, Mr Misery, and let the kids have some fun.’

[map 12 - one unhappy hot air rabbit - Sydney]

[map 12 – one unhappy hot air rabbit – Sydney]

But there was trouble afoot. And it was an angry rabbit’s foot, bringing no luck but bad. The hot air rabbits discovered that the grass beneath their feet was plastic. It tasted, well, like plastic. They didn’t enjoy being poked at by children. Or having elderly men fall asleep in their laps. And they were disappointed that they were full of nothing but the winking PM’s hot air. So the rabbits held a meeting and decided that enough was enough. They plotted against the PM and planned an escape.

[map 12 - the escape vessel, Sydney Habour]

[map 12 – the escape vessel, Sydney Harbour]

That night, after the crowds had left, the giant rabbits began to scratch at each other, piercing holes in their hot air coats. They quickly deflated, expelling the last of the hot air from their bodies. In the early morning the now flattened rabbits disguised themselves as giant plastic bags. They headed for a nearby ferry terminal and and bought one-way tickets for a ferry ride across the water, vowing never to expel wasteful hot air again – or for that matter, disguise themselves as plastic bags.

The PM was perplexified. No rabbit in the political history of the nation had dissented in such a manner. No rabbit had ever claimed that hot air was not good for the people, the environment, or rabbits themselves. He needed to spin a new distraction to keep the people at bay – satisfied, pacified, and holding to their position at number 6 on the global happiness register.

[map 13 - The Happy People]

[map 13 – The Happy People]

[map 14 - The More Happy People]

[map 14 – The More Happy People]

The PM came up with a new plan. It was as cheeky as his wink. He created a NEW SET OF DISTRACTIONS, and put them before the cabinet. His ministers replied as one, ‘yippie, you’re a genius.’ The PM had offered the people beauty pageants. He built them A Stairway To Heaven – which unfortunately ended in a cloud of poisonous hot air left behind by the polluting rabbits.

[map 14 - The winner of the 'get my mind out of here before I start thinking' pageant]

[map 15 – The winner of the ‘get my mind out of here before I start thinking’ pageant]

[map 15 - The Stairway to (even more) delusion]

[map 16 – The Stairway to (even more) delusion]

But the people had finally seen through the PM, and his wink, and his overblown rabbits, his tiaras, and bright lights, and said ‘enough is enough, we must act and not sit back.’ So, the PM, in a last-ditched effort to win the people over, suggested, ‘hey, let’s do yum cha.’ And they shouted back, ‘no yum cha, today, Sonny Jim,’ (although that was not his true name – which we cannot mention as we have a law suit hanging over our heads).

[map 17 - the final manifesto to save the planet]

[map 17 – the PM’s manifesto for saving the planet]

The PM was furious. Both eyes winked madly, like a speed freak in a lighting shop that’s gone on the blink because there’s been a power cut down the road which means that the globes tend to behave erratically and that’s why we’re gradually phasing them out and replacing them with LEDs.

Lost for words, lost for spin and sinking in the polls, the PM communed with GOD – and was told, ‘you have given the people everything, Sonny Jim. All your spin, all your love of the common people, all of that mad eye of yours. And what do you get in return? Abdicating rabbits. People who wouldn’t know a cheap meal if it bit them on the arse. And a guy who can’t run an electrical store. The time of entitlement is over, Sonny. Tough times require tough leaders. It’s time you cracked the whip. And you’re the man. It’s your hot air the people need, whether they know it or not.

‘What Do We Want?  Hot Air!  And When Do We Want it?  Now!’

So Sonny Jim, Prime Minister, leader of the  GREATEST nation on Earth, suited up – ready to deliver some hard medicine.

[map 18 - The Semi-Final Solution]

[map 18 – The Semi-Final Solution]

 Tony Birch