Burning World

Mourning a Disappearing World as Australia Burns


Braidwood, Australia
The Globe and Mail
Jan. 2, 2020 Updated Jan. 3, 2020


EGB: Sadness. Anger. Where do you actually go with these feelings? Sadness that things you love, beautiful things, valuable things . . . are disappearing, possibly forever, as the fires burn, as torrential rains fall here in Ontario, in January. And don’t fall, down in Australia, where they’re desperately needed, month after month, year after year. How do you bear it?

Back in the fall of 1988, I spent four months in Australia. And yes, AC, I flew there. How else would I have gotten there? It’s not like you can order up a sailboat. I’m not Greta. I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, even took a hand-held scuba dive, because I couldn’t see well enough from the surface without my glasses. I visited a tiny old rural church in New South Wales, to see the wooden pews built by my great great grandfather during my family’s one generation sojourn Down Under. I saw the glaciers on the southern Island of New Zealand, shining white. I visited a sparkling beach south of Perth, and endured some smoke from the bushfires typical of Western Australia, while marvelling at the way the gas stations rotated being open on weekends.

I bet these days the gas stations follow the AmeriCanadian schedule, open 24/7. How could drivers possibly be expected to waste time hunting around for their Sunday fill-up?

Meanwhile, coal provides most of Australia’s electricity, and fire ransacks the country. The beaches and glaciers are discoloured by smoke and ash from the fires, which seem to burn with more ferocious intensity each passing year, as the droughts go on and on. I wonder if that little country church and its pews have succumbed. I wonder if the very patch of coral reef that astonished me in 1988 has been bleached by ocean warming.

AC: That’s lyrical writing, EGB. You just might be a writer one day. But none of this should surprise you. Back in ’88, it was common wisdom in science and environmental circles that this heavenly body we call earth was beginning to broil, that the rains and droughts and heat and fires and storms would all get worse, more destructive. That the consequences of humanity’s presence on this planet would soon culminate in disaster for “civilization as we know it”.

Dr. EGB: So you say, but back then I honestly didn’t know. I mean, I knew about pollution and recycling and endangered species, but I don’t think I’d ever heard of global warming or climate change. I was busy, trying to get into medical school. Trying to survive medical school. Internship. Residency . . . I never had much time to read the news. I was at the hospital night and day. Nobody I knew thought about their carbon footprint back then. Nobody I knew worried about the Canadian oil sands, or how much coal Australia was digging up and selling. I’d never heard anything about greenhouse gases, or CO2 equivalents, or how high our per capita emissions were. Carbon pricing wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. I didn’t even own a computer until 1989, and the internet just wasn’t a thing back then.

Dr. AC: In days of yore, months before you embarked by plane for Australia, on June 23, 1988 to be precise, James Hansen was already bravely testifying to the US Congress. Here’s a scintilla of what he said, for your enlightenment:

“Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming…It is already happening now”

So how did you not know?  The knowledge was readily available! Maybe the irrefutable problem is you didn’t care.

Dr. EGB: Really, AC, you are so harsh at times. What are you, my conscience?? My accuser? I’m telling you, the information wasn’t out there, the way it is now. And frankly, if I could go back to a time before worry about climate catastrophe and ecosystem destruction and annihilation of species haunted my life, I would! It’s just too hard. It’s depressing. It’s one big hope-sucking mess.

Dr. AC: Hopelessness is just denial’s twin sister. If there were no hope, your every effort would be impotent. Irrelevant. Don’t ever disremember that. If you want to have any leverage over the outcome of this crisis, for heaven’s sake don’t allow despair to overcome you. That writer in Australia is approaching her breaking point, with fire lapping around the purlieu of her community, and a climate change-denying government in cahoots with the coal industry . . .

Dr. EGB (interrupting): Disremember? Purlieu?? Do you deliberately choose obscure words to confuse everyone? There just might be real people reading this. But whatever. She doesn’t know whether to be sad or angry. Certainly, she should be both, as long as her passions stir her to ACTION.

Dr. EGB: And what ACTION would you suggest for her, or me for that matter? Is there anything we could do at this point that would actually make a difference? Jane Fonda has gotten herself arrested every Friday for weeks on end, and still the AmeriCanadian news media drones on incessantly about Trump’s impeachment trial, and Harry and Meghan’s insubordination to the Queen. ACTION? We need government action. Like NOW. But the US government is paralysed by partisanship, and eternally impending elections. Justin Trudeau is feeling humbled by his new minority government and shows no sign of intensifying his efforts. Britain is completely messed up by Brexit. Iran and the Middle East weigh heavily on everyone’s minds. Tell me, AC, what should I or Jane Fonda or poor Jessica Freidman down there in Braidwood, Australia, actually DO??

AC: When was the last time you drove to Ottawa or Toronto and lobbied your politicians for CARBON PRICING and other drastic ACTION on climate? When was the last time you wrote a Letter to the Editor? When was the last time you were out CLIMATE STRIKING to support Greta and the world’s youth? Weather got too cold for you? Didn’t you used to be with that grassroots organization Citizens Climate Lobby? What happened to your ACTIVISM?

Dr. EGB: I just don’t know, AC. In 2018, I had something like one hundred and forty LTE publications in newspapers across Canada. Did it make any difference? I talked with politicians here in Sudbury, and in Ottawa, and when I spoke to one of them again last fall, he told me they are afraid to do anything new, because they might be ousted from government. So what was it all worth? Maybe it appeased my own conscience a bit, but nothing really changed.

Dr. AC: So are you going to give up and abandon efforts on the political front? Fabricate a few cosmetic corrections to your lifestyle, and tell your grandchildren you tried your best?

Dr. EGB: Well . . . I don’t know. And frankly, you berating me all the time isn’t helping. Can’t I at least have a day off from you once in a while? Besides, I thought we were going to talk about how human and planetary health overlap. As least a pediatrician like me can claim some competence on the health front.

Dr. AC: If the planetary ecosystem collapses, there won’t be any human health!

Dr. EGB: You know, AC, when you say stuff like that, you shouldn’t BLAME me for feeling hopeless.

AC: I’m only trying to raise your level of ALARM. ALARM underlies ACTION.

Dr. EGB: Yeah, and it can also paralyse, so watch out. You, my friend, risk doing more harm than good with all your dire warnings. Push me too far and I might just drop out altogether.

Dr. AC: Take heart. I exhort you not to abandon ship. I just glimpsed an opinion piece in the New York Times called “How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change”.  Therein you may imbibe some desperately needed wisdom and succour.

Dr. EGB: You and your antiquated words and expressions . . . even I can’t understand you sometimes.