I borrow the title of James Baldwin’s 1963 best-seller that articulated his personal agonies in the civil rights movement. In our time what could galvanize people to stop the burning? I wish I had the skill and talent of Baldwin. A major part of Australia has already gone up in flames. The Amazon rainforest has just about reached a fiery tipping point. Will Africa be next?
Scott Morrison, Australia’s coal-fired prime minister, is leading his country to suicide, opines Richard Flanagan, a novelist whose recent piece caught the terror and the drama of what’s happening there.
The images of the fires are a cross between “Mad Max” and “On the Beach”: thousands driven onto beaches in a dull orange haze, crowded tableaux of people and animals almost medieval in their strange muteness—half-Bruegel, half-Bosch, ringed by fire, survivors’ faces hidden behind masks and swimming goggles. Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno. Flames leaping 200 feet into the air. Fire tornadoes. Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames, refugees in their own country.
Bloomberg’s Daniel Moss puts the crisis in terms of statistics and money. But the problem is much more personal than that. And it’s the blindness of leadership that permitted the crisis come to its present head.
An area larger than Ireland has been destroyed, at least 25 people are dead, 2,000 homes have been razed, and 25 million acres of forest and bush have been wiped out. As many as a billion animals may have been incinerated since September, some species almost to extinction. Tourism, farming and consumer confidence have taken a hit. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been lambasted for too little action, too late. His government announced a $1.4 billion recovery fund over the weekend; with more than 100 fires still tearing through the country’s most populous state, more is bound to be needed.
Morrison’s government still maintains there is “no direct link between climate change and the country’s devastating bushfires, despite public anger, the anguish of victims and warnings from scientists.” This is more than ignorance; it’s murder. Morrison is captive to the coal industry and takes his stance from other climate criminals like Trump and Bolsonaro.
Finally, the activists are on the march in nine Australian cities. Led by student organizations, “tens of thousands” are expected to march this weekend. Melbourne will host the biggest protest. Yet it will take more than activism to displace Morrison & Company. It will take political power.
In 1963 Baldwin asked, “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Now, it seems, some Australians have no choice except to flee to the sea shore, as in a bad apocalyptic movie. The leadership of climate deniers may not yet go up in smoke but we can hope for their eviction, and soon.