In my last post, I shared a video suggesting that you write a 2020 short story. But if you liked the idea, you may have got stuck at the question of how to best approach the task. I decided to give it a try myself, and I began by focusing on what had the most impact for me. I’ve published that part of it below – it happens to be the beginning of my full 2020 short story.
I found that writing the story of my experience of 2020 gave me a greater perspective and some psychological distance from things I’d found upsetting. So even if you don’t want to share your story with anyone, you might like to write it, just for yourself. You could try just writing one scene, the moment you found most powerful, or the thing you remember most about the year.
Fire. To the north. To the south. And to the west. Heat. Inescapable. Searing winds. Shatter my peace of mind. So hot it's hard to breathe. Hard to move. Fireworks? New Year celebrations? None of that. Just a creeping sense of dread, watching the sky in case the yellow turns red. Air too toxic to breathe. Doors closed, windows sealed, but still smoke-laden air creeps through to steal my sleep. Lying in a bowl of sweat, atop my sheets, in stale air, while anxiety churns. I cannot breathe a breath of clean air, nor one free of dread.
We watch the app that shows the blaze creep ever closer. Suddenly, the grey that signifies the fire-engulfed land jumps twenty ks in one hour. Another hour and it could be here. We look at our pond, calculate the water. How far does our fire hose reach? Not far enough. Our woodshed, open to embers, is too close to the house. A pile of sticks and tree limbs stacked ready for cutting in winter is right next to our shed—kindling for bushfire. We cannot stay; we know this. Despite the gutters we cleaned, our house is not fire safe, and we are two older people, we could not fight to save it. And there is nowhere to go should it burn, no bunker of last retreat.
Our fire chief sends a message: time to evacuate. There is only inaccessible bush between the blaze and us. We already packed, our trailer too, with heirlooms, those special things we couldn't imagine leaving to burn. But we didn't really think it would come to this.
Before we leave, we stand and stare at forty years of our life built in wood and nurtured in gardens. We don't expect any of it will survive. Not the blaze that's coming. Not this one, with flames leaping three times the height of the tall trees around us—Eucalypts that burst into flames just from the heat. I used to feel safe here; not anymore.
We drive out with leaden hearts, saying nothing, hearts breaking. We park the trailer a place safer than here. It carries our camping gear so we'll have somewhere to live. We plan to return for our other car—packed with our personal bags, important documents, laps tops and back-up drives—but by the time we get back, the weather has changed. The wind has dropped. Moisture-laden air cools our skin. Relief. We can sleep in our own beds tonight, though the smell of fire still hangs in the air, and still the flames burn, but they no longer rush toward us.
We sleep better, but this feeling in my heart remains. It tightens my chest. I can do nothing but wait for rain. I cannot work, cannot unpack. I feel stunned. I have never felt this way before. A name comes to mind—anxiety. Little do I know, then, how long it will remain my companion.
Finally the rain comes. Buckets of it all at once drop from the sky. I strip naked and dance in the rain, yelling and laughing with relief. We will not burn, not this year. But others have. Many. I cry for them. Our trauma is mild compared to theirs.
The TV footage of people being evacuated from beaches further south, the sky brilliant red, embers falling around them, are seared into my mind, along with those of firefighters battling a blaze against which they cannot win. People returning to their homes to find only rubble, bent steel, charred wood, still smouldering. They pick over the remains of their life, and I join them in their tears. People say it's just a house, but it's more than that. It's a home—or was. It's years of work, of love, of sweat, of toil, themselves etched in every building, every tree they planted, their heart, their hope, their future, a part of themselves, all gone.
I understand. I bear witness to their loss.
I haven't been able to work for months. Anxiety will do that to you. Still the fires burn, diminished but not extinguished. But gradually, we start to unpack. We are no longer under threat. The weather is cooler; our pond fills. Up north water floods towns. Some places burned, then flooded. This is not normal.
This is climate change—human induced—manifesting before our eyes just as the scientists predicted, but earlier than they thought. Australia, they said, will experience the effects sooner than other countries. They were right. What was a future concern is now a present one.
I read the dire predictions for the planet should we, the people of the world, not stop our gluttonous lifestyle and cease pouring our carbon waste into the atmosphere where it raises the temperature of the earth and causes ever-greater extreme weather events, like the drought that created perfect conditions for the 2020 fires. They burned 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres), destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed 34 people and an estimated 3 billion animals. Those who know about such things estimated the cost to be 103 billion dollars.
But the cost to our mental health cannot be counted in dollars.
I no longer feel safe here.
I do some research, and my awareness of the dire predictions associated with climate change rises. This summer and its devastating fires is merely a taste of what's to come. Not next year, or maybe the next, but the droughts are coming more often, are longer and more extreme, so it's only a matter of time before fire threatens my home again. The fire season is also getting longer. One day it will overlap with that of the Northern Hemisphere. Wildfires will always be burning somewhere.
Up north they already get more cyclones, more rain, more floods, and they will only get worse—wilder, more damaging, more often.
I learn that if we continue to use fossil fuels the way we currently do, then by 2040, the summer of 2019/2020, the hottest on record, will be considered a mild Australian summer. Even here in our normally temperate rainforest, we've had several days over 40 degrees Celsius, hitting 45 degrees on the hottest day—a previously unheard of event here. I try to imagine days like that being normal and find the prospect terrifying. And by mid-century, the hottest days here could be 50 degrees.
By 2050, the entire Great Barrier Reef will likely be facing bleaching events every year—and it needs five to ten years to recover from one event. No ice will be left in the Arctic Circle, and sea levels could have risen by nearly half a metre. This combined with storm surges and high tides will strip more sand from our beaches, undermine more houses with beach-front views, and increase flooding.
I could still be alive in 2050. It's only thirty years away, and I have longevity in my genes. And even if I've passed on, my daughter will only be fifty-seven.
Even if we manage to change enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, in accordance with the Paris agreement, it will still be hotter and more dangerous than now, but better than if we do nothing. I might still be able to take a grandchild to visit a living Great Barrier Reef.
But global emissions are still rising.
And the present Australian government is not doing enough to stop it. Some members of parliament even actively work against the kind of changes we need. Why? I can't understand it. Then I discover that fossil-fuel companies are the biggest donators to our political parties. That explains it. Apparently, I live in an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy. This offends my sense of decency. It's not a fair go for all.
Facebook, Twitter and the Murdock Media spread lies about the sources of the fires, say they aren't caused by climate change, that they're started by arsonists. Fact checkers show it's not true, but still some believe, just because they read it. Just like they believed the spread lies about the opposition party during the last election—lies that stopped the party that promised sweeping changes to cut emissions and change to a sustainable future from taking government. Social media algorithms and media friendly with fossil fuel company CEOs did that.
The whole thing makes me feel physical ill.
It's all so wrong.
I hate to see people manipulated. Especially by those whose concern is only for themselves to get richer.
A couple of years ago, our now prime minister held up a lump of coal in parliament and declared that it was nothing to be afraid of. And in the middle of the Bushfires, he was on holiday in Hawaii denying that climate change had anything to do with the fires.
I want to yell at him. 'Actually, mate, it has everything to do with the bushfires. Don't you listen to the scientists, to those who have spent their lives studying environmental science? No, you listen to your masters, the fossil fuel companies.'
I'm pissed off! Big time. How dare they sit in their mansions, safe in the cities, and give platitudes to those who lost their homes, escaped flames by running to the beach clutching what they could grab, or driving their utes through smoke so thick they barely could see, to those who had lost loved ones. How dare they support the very corporations who should be cutting emissions, subsidising their mines, and excusing it because other countries burn our coal!
How dare they!
So I march in a protest. I yell and shake my fist. And still the government doesn't hear. The best they can manage is to speak vague words of aspiration in an attempt to sooth those whose votes they fear to lose, but their actions fall far short of what is needed.
I shift my money—what little of it I have—to a bank and super fund who don't invest in fossil fuels.
And I look at my life.
What can I do to avert the worst predictions for our future from coming true?
I feel hopeless. Helpless.
And I see the same feeling in my daughter and my husband.
We no longer feel safe in what has always been our refuge.
I learn there's a name for it—ecoanxiety, defined as a fear of ecological and environmental disaster. More than fear, I'm angry that climate-change denialists run our country. And that Trump, the President of the United States, is removing environmental safeguards, enabling more fossil fuel extraction, all in worship of the money god—a false idol if ever there was one.
With the air now clear and the temperature bearable, I resume my walks in the forest. I sit and merge my mind with the natural world, reaffirming that we are all one, intimately connected. Once again I can breathe.
I try to stay optimistic, but the climate crisis isn't going away. It looms over us all like some dark choking cloud of doom, mocking my helplessness.
But I refuse to be helpless. There has to be something I can do. Some way to feel a glimmer of hope for the future of the planet. I need to do my bit to help—if only for the sake of my mental health.
Everywhere I look I see limitations: not enough money to donate, not enough time to volunteer, not enough skills to organise, too far from a major centre to protest, already living a low-carbon lifestyle—we have off-grid electricity—and unable to lower it further until we can afford an electric car.
So I focus on resilience, on what I can control on my property. My husband and I come up with a plan. We need more water storage, a sprinkler system on the house and more fire hoses and pumps. We need our woodshed enclosed, and we need a fire bunker. But these are things my husband has the skills to do. My gifts lie elsewhere.
Out comes my Permaculture books.
I studied Permaculture back in the eighties, had begun a plan for my property, planted some trees, then run out of energy. It had been too much for one person to do, didn't meld well with my constant travelling for work, and when home, my husband was busy installing basic infrastructure—water, electricity, sheds, house improvements. All our money went into that—none left for earth-works, fences and trees. I've had an organic garden for years, but never developed the Permaculture food forest I'd envisaged.
Now, I skim the books to remember what I've learned, and my dream for the property returns. I discover that, this time, I have help. My daughter and her boyfriend share my vision.
I look anew at my property and plan the focus for the rest of my life. A plan that will leave this place with a food-producing forest garden to support my descendants when times get tough—as they undoubtably will. The plan gives me hope, but I still have to put it into action, and it requires a lot of work. The warning from the fires still infects my awareness like an insidious disease, colouring everything.
Into this mental environment of eco-anxiety comes a pandemic …
The bit above is only the first half of my 2020 story. It continues onto the pandemic and the effect on me of America’s issues, including the spread of conspiracy theories. You can download the full story by filling in your details below and clicking the ‘submit for access’ link.
Feel free to send me your own story. If it’s less than 2000 words and I think it’s something that others might like to read, I can publish it here.