Thursday, 20 February 2020

After the bushfires: open for business, not business as usual

This week, for the first time this Australian summer, actually for the first time since September, the news is good: all bushfires burning in NSW have been contained, thanks to more than a week of drenching rain.

Blue Mtns on fire. Pic: City of Sydney
I've been wanting to write something about Australia's bushfire crisis for a while. And not wanting to.

So much has been written already, by great Australian writers Jackie French and Richard Flanagan, by former NSW Fire & Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins about why these fires are different. Even Wikipedia now has a page called the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, a good overview of what happened and where.

And I wasn't directly affected. I didn't have to evacuate, take shelter in a community centre, gather on a beach under a blood-red sky without power, listening to ABC news updates on someone's wind-up radio.

A canary in crisis
But, like everyone I know, I was affected in other ways. Like everyone, I was shocked and devastated at the speed, ferocity and extent of the fires, at the suffering and the loss of so many animals and wild places.

All along the east coast, our skies were smoky. Our media outlets were awash with fire news. Everyone had the Fires Near Me app on their phones, to get live updates on fires and road closures. We called and texted friends and family members, those who still had mobile reception or Wi-Fi, to check they were ok.

Kangaroo in flight
Pic: Matthew Abbott, NY Times
We heard words like "catastrophic" and "unprecedented" - some have called this Australia's "pyro-hydro-climate crisis" - and tried to take in the facts: more than 10 million hectares of land torched, 34 people and more than a billion animals killed (and that's just the mammals, birds and reptiles), endangered species driven to extinction, more than 2400 homes lost.

NASA estimated that these bushfires produced a massive 306 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, more than half of Australia's annual carbon emissions.

And the world looked on, alarmed. For good reason. This bushfire crisis was the planet holding humanity's head in its hands and saying, "Pay attention. This is your future if things do not change." And by things, it means everything.

Scorched south coast
South coast story
Last Sunday, I had a long talk with my friend Jane Darnell, who lives in Lake Tabourie on the NSW south coast, one of the areas hardest hit by the fires. Always a perceptive soul, she had an interesting take on how it was for her community.

When their town of about 700 people lost power, Wi-Fi and mobile reception, the house she shares with her partner Vince became a hub for neighbours and friends - because they have a landline phone, a gas oven and stove and, most importantly, a manual coffee-grinder. They even lent people cash until Eftpos and the ATMs were back in action.

"These fires have been enlightening on so many levels," Jane said. "They show where we're at as a society: you scratch the surface and the old Australia is still there in terms of the community bonds."

She told me of how the fire healed wounds between warring neighbours; two people who hadn't spoken in three years were reconciled when one helped save the other's house. "The fire burned away the detritus of everyday life," Jane said.

Wildlife feeding station
Pic: Jane Darnell
Now she's part of a group of dedicated locals walking the blackened forest leaving food for animals displaced by the fires: seed for native birds, fruit for the possums and bats, root vegetables for wombats and echidnas. "We're seeing wallabies again now. And the green [new growth on the trees] is creeping back. There is so much hope for us in seeing that green again."

Goodness blooms
Listening to Jane made me think of how far we've strayed from the simple life many of us seek and how a crisis can return us to it, connect us again with the earth and each other. Out of darkness, goodness blooms.

There's been a lot of love directed at bushfire-affected communities this summer. The Australian Red Cross received $140 million in donations. Comedian Celeste Barber and her celebrity pals raised a whopping $52 million for the NSW Rural Fire Service. Last weekend's Fire Fight Australia concert in Sydney raised almost $10 million.

Our heroes, the "firies"
The travel industry has been actively encouraging us to visit bushfire-affected regions that depend on summer tourism: the NSW south coast, the Blue Mountains near Sydney, the Snowy Mountains, East Gippsland in Victoria, and Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills in South Australia.

Travel writers have been reassuring international travellers that it's safe to come to Australia; two of my writer mates, Sarah Reid and Lee Mylne, wrote about this for National Geographic and Frommers. And Traveller did a cover story about 50 ways tourists can help Australia recover.

#LoveNSW, yes I do
Tourism Australia recently launched its Holiday Here This Year campaign, encouraging Aussies to see their own backyard. There's also a more localised #LoveNSW campaign.

There are clever online initiatives like itsmyshout.com.au, emptyesky.com.au and buyfromthebush.com.au, and #spendwiththem and #bookthemout on Insta, helping regional communities get back on their economic feet.

And the new Road Trip for Good website is constantly updating which bushfire-affected spots, all over Australia, are open for business again and welcoming visitors.

Not business as usual
But "open for business" isn't the same as "business as usual" - and it can't be. Helping communities recover is just a first step. Doing all we can to reduce the likelihood of bushfires and other symptoms of the climate crisis is the next one. Another travel writer I know, Kate Hennessy, put it this way: "Donating money makes us feel better, but I'm not sure we should be feeling better."

There's action on this front too. The Black Leaf Project asks people send singed leaves and handfuls of ash to Members of Parliament to call for climate action. And MP Zali Steggall, in my old electorate of Manly in Sydney, will introduce Australia's first-ever Climate Act to Parliament on March 23 (sign here to support it).

Which brings me to why I think this blog post has taken me so long to write: I didn't want to just make a donation, sign a petition and get on with my life. I wanted to take meaningful action.

Tourism + climate action
I might live relatively simply and frugally at home, try to minimise my environmental impact in various ways. And I'm flying less than I used to, writing more stories from fewer trips. But flying internationally from Australia, even just a few times a year, makes my carbon contribution bigger than it should be.

Sometimes I use this guideline to check my impact: what would the planet be like if everyone did this? By that measure, I'm failing.

So I'm taking a leap.

Sydney's declaration last year
Pic: City of Sydney
You've probably heard about countries and local governments declaring a climate emergency - more than 1300 jurisdictions in 26 countries so far (including my local council, Ballina, late last year), representing 814 million people globally.

Well, travel has just stepped up, through a new initiative launched last month: Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. Since January 14, 68 travel companies, organisations and individuals have declared a climate emergency. And I'm going to join them.

It's more than a pledge to do the right thing. It requires developing a climate action plan, advocating for climate action, sharing your progress. I'll elaborate in a later blog post, once I take stock and decide what I can realistically commit to doing - and not doing - this year.

Already I've made a conscious decision not to fly anywhere for the first three months of this year and when I do take my first work trip for 2020 it'll be to New Zealand - a country that passed a bill last year to be "on the right side of history" by heading for zero emissions by 2050 - followed by a few no-fly domestic trips. But I know I can do more. And I will.