All The Fires We Do Not See

‘Bushfire, ash rain, dust storms and flash foods: two weeks in apocalyptic Australia’ – The Guardian

‘Why These Australian Fires Are Nothing Like We’ve Seen Before’ – The New York Times. ‘A visual guide to Australia’s bushfire crisis’ – BBC News. ‘Over 1 billion animals feared dead in Australian wildfires’ – CBS News

Harrowing images of millions of hectares burning under an inexorable and all-consuming flame. Helpless on-lookers watching fires move from home to home. Extreme losses of landscape, habitat, and biodiversity. Month after month of media reports following the progress of this latest climate catastrophe. 

All these are examples of the headlines flooding mainstream media. Headlines which have, quite literally, turned the heads of the world to a nation on fire. A country which has found itself in crisis; a crisis which undoubtedly merits the international media reception that it has received. Australia has woken up to a very real and uncompromising social, political, and environmental nightmare. A nightmare which is seen both from the other side of the world and from the other side of a screen. A nightmare which is seen as a nightmare for Australia, and which struggles to form a much-needed narrative to highlight the global environmental crisis currently balancing on the edge of a political knife. 

And it is through this turning of our heads, through the social willingness to passively understand the climate crisis only through the ‘most-popular’ or ‘most-read’ headlines, that a dangerously ‘laissez-faire’ global attitude to the climate crisis is evolving. In our readiness to read only what is laid out directly in front of our eyes, we miss the wider and more-complex picture. Apocalyptic images of wildfires and dust storms push us to temporary emotional and sympathetic responses, but do not fuel our incentive to start the global initiative needed to minimise the looming climate catastrophe. Invincible flames, which so appropriately embody the warnings and predictions made by scientists and climate activists, work not to highlight the precariousness of our current unsustainable lifestyle, but instead seem to distract us from the overall vulnerable and threatened predicament of our environment.

We read that ‘over 1 billion animals are feared dead in Australian wildfires’ (CBS News), but what is often not perceived is how this statistic fits into the puzzle of the ongoing global climate crisis. In the abundance of information reported about the ‘most-recent’ or ‘most-interesting’ localised climate disaster, the deficit of information about the crisis on an international level remains latent. In a society where information is readily available on multiple media platforms, why do we not delve further than the surface to fill in the gaps of our climate and environmental knowledge? This social phenomenon which allows us to access a continuous stream of international news, is a social phenomenon which results in the majority of individuals being satisfied with only a surface-level and cushioned knowledge of this issue.

All The Fires We Do Not See.

We do not read that ‘30,000 species are currently threatened with extinction’ (IUCN), that ‘ambient air pollution causes about 3 million deaths every year’, or that ‘between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress’ (WHO). We do not read that ‘over the 41-year satellite record, the Arctic has lost about 1.9 million square kilometres of ice in December, comparable to the size of Alaska and California combined’ (NSIDC), nor that deforestation in the Amazon is continuing at an unsustainable rate. The information is available to us, but it is not part of the same, mainstream narrative. Extreme flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia in January of this year, for instance, has been the ‘worst flooding in the area since 2007’ (The Guardian). Why, then, does it not seem to have been elevated in the same way on an international media platform?

Why, then, is there not an influx of reports on the loss of biodiversity across the globe, on the ever-increasing numbers of climate migrants, on the water and food crises, or on the failure of international society to pursue global climate action? 

And why, most importantly, does it appear that climate catastrophes are reported primarily in terms of the interest that they arouse, instead of in terms of the necessity that they so clearly hold in inspiring a sense of public urgency to match that of the current global climate crisis?

Where precisely are all the fires that we do not see?

Featured image by Lucy Shell.

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