Last weekend Canberra had the worst air quality of any city in the world. An app, newly downloaded to my phone, told me the Air Quality Index was "Beyond Index". At 587, it was already off the scale (while writing this piece I spied it at 727 and rising). New York, at 58, was deemed "moderate". Beijing at 147 was "unhealthy for sensitive groups", while New Delhi, 252, was "very unhealthy". The "new normal", as we are being forced to think it, is hazardous beyond the reasonable measure of the worst car-clogged, coal-hazed mega-cities.
A little air purifier struggled to keep my air quality rating indoors down to 300. The sky outside was a baleful yellow. All I could do for the birds and beasts was put out shallow bowls of fresh water. The birds kept washing, pushing one another out of the way to flurry their feathers clean. Some were probably bushfire refugees too. Lucky escapees, but there was little enough for them to find to eat here.
Already we are seeing kangaroos starve, lethargic and skinny. The 'roos stare back instead of running away these days, unwilling to leave whatever meagre bit of brown vegetation they have found, nibbling the scraps of residual matter between us and pure dust.
In the capital we are lucky not to have already burnt, in this now unlucky country. Heat records are falling. Dust is winning out. My average screen time is up to six hours a day as I anxiously scroll live feeds, maps of fire conditions, wind directions and their projected changes, alongside sites sharing the needs of the new mass class of evacuated, internally displaced Australians.
None of this is healthy. Apart from suddenly becoming both a couch potato (do not exercise, do not go outdoors) and the equivalent of a three-pack-a-day smoker (imagine that for your children, or the elderly - or your dog!) the main damage right now in Canberra is psychological. What the hell are we all going to do? I feel desperately sad, confused, not sure what this "new normal" means for everyday life. How to work, play, help?
The leadership vacuum everyone feels is real enough. But so too is the individual demand, the pressure of how to respond. The vacuum in experience, in precedent, in preparedness, is afflicting all of us. It's not just unprecedented that there are such massive fires, but with their arrival, we increasingly acknowledge we enter a new era. Not one you can wish people happiness in: who has said "Happy New Year" in 2020 without caveats?
This is the summer holidays, and that matters psychologically. What has happened so devastatingly has also happened to the meaning of holiday as time out, as refreshment, as family time, as the good life. This bushfire season is a cataclysmic event driving the acceleration of mass extinction alongside terrible human tragedy. Its scale is impossible to take in. But in the time that would have been holidays, it is measured not only in the hyper-scale of unthinkable things, but in the trivial frustration and sorrow you feel knowing your holidays have been ruined. Or in the pressing question: what is safe, what now counts as "safe"? Or in the constant pressure of indecision ("what are we going to do now?") - now that everything has, in the words of one firefighter, "gone to shit".
From Canberra, you pretty much always head to the South Coast at some point between December and January. The ocean and beaches generously bathe away the stresses of the year, gift us new optimism. We return with lungs full of energy. We are and have been the lucky ones, lucky that this was our normal, lucky that so far this year, Canberrans have lost much less than many. Those holidaying mostly got out as the South Coast was consumed in fire, though their stories of having to flee are very grim. Those who lost houses were likely insured. Luck is relative and charitably accepts new thresholds in tough times.
The leadership vacuum everyone feels is real enough. But so too is the individual demand, the pressure of how to respond.
Yet to lose our holidays, to lose the innocence of holidays, also means we do not know how to resume work. What is it to "go back" to work again in these times? If I want my work to be valuable, if I want to be of use, can I go on with the old "normal"? My employer, the Australian National University, closed down because of smoke last weekend. They told me I could work from home. But I didn't know how to begin.
I suppose it is normal, feeling paralysed by this maybe climate-tipping point. The question is, how to make some momentum from the sense that this is also now a turning point in all our histories? Perhaps we should only agree to resume wholly transformed work, work that recalls and registers this experience in every detail, work that resolves to make a different reality possible - or at least to give it a small chance in hell.
After these holidays, maybe there is no "going back" for anyone.
- Fiona Jenkins is Convenor of the ANU Gender Institute.