CONTENT WARNING: NSW/Victoria Bushfires, Climate Change
It has been impossible to escape this summer’s catastrophic bushfire season. Even while I write this, thousands of kilometres away from Australia, I can’t help but feel a debilitating sense of helplessness and despair. Of course, I am incredibly lucky – my family and friends are safe, my home has not been threatened, and I have not had to flee to the beach to escape the flames and smoke that have swallowed entire towns. I haven’t felt the heartache of communities who have lost their homes and their loved ones. I can’t understand the grief of Indigenous people, who have seen the lands which hold their memories, culture, and sacred places be mismanaged, and now incinerated. But as the bushfires continue to burn through the country, updates and images have taken a hold of social media, drawing every corner of the world closer to the devastation .
This has no doubt brought much needed attention to Australia’s painfully regressive climate policy and the government’s lethargic response to the unfolding crisis. Donations have also poured in from around the world, with millions of dollars being raised for various organisations around the country.
However, not all of the social media attention has been productive. Misinformation has spread as quickly as the bushfires, with false and exaggerated reports of widespread arson trending on Twitter and Facebook, undermining the link between this year’s unprecedented fire season and the drier, hotter conditions brought about by climate change. Social media platforms and even traditional forms of news media have been inundated by a continuous cycle of information and misinformation, and it has been hard for many to escape the seemingly endless pattern of doom and (literal, hazy) gloom.
Perhaps I have been affected so profoundly by these fires – even though I am only watching from afar – because I know that this extreme fire season is only a symptom of a far more severe disease. Our planet, suffering from human-inflicted climate change, is only continuing to warm, and without meaningful policy change towards climate action, the prognosis looks grim. The existential threat to Earth’s biodiversity and to our own species’ survival has given way to widespread climate anxiety, especially among younger generations who have the most to lose from the effects of climate change. It is hard to go about business as usual when, especially amplified by social media, news of melting glaciers, dying ecosystems, and extreme weather events surround us constantly. This fire season, consecutive maximum temperature records have been broken, and Canberra has been smothered by the world’s most hazardous air quality. The worsening state of our environment has become harder and harder to ignore.
While our government continues to drag its feet, held hostage by fossil fuel lobbyists but upheld by the Murdoch media, staying hopeful about the future of our planet can be difficult. It can also take a toll on our mental health. For some, getting involved in campaigns and contributing money or time to these causes can be a way to meet like-minded people, redirect feelings of anger, anxiety and powerlessness, and affect real change. Social media has also proven to be an invaluable tool to help inform, connect, and mobilise people to take action. Images of devastated landscapes and viral videos of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s disastrous tour of affected towns have had an impact on Australians. Arguably, as a result of mounting public pressure, the government has made concessions on climate policy, with Morrison himself proposing to ‘evolve’ current commitments to reduce emissions.
However, activism can be exhausting. In times like these, more than ever, it is important to check up on ourselves and those around us. Right now, the fires are still burning, and it is likely that they will continue for months to come. But with that comes a gathering of strength and a drive to push for change.