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Australia’s Tragedy Is a Cautionary Tale for the US Presidential Election

There is no substitute for a systemic reorientation on climate – or a movement that unequivocally supports it.

A firefighter attempts to residential areas from encroaching bushfires in the Central Coast around 90-110 kilometres north of Sydney, Australia on December 10, 2019.

A firefighter attempts to residential areas from encroaching bushfires in the Central Coast around 90-110 kilometres north of Sydney, Australia on December 10, 2019. (Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Australia’s Tragedy is a Cautionary Tale for the U.S. Presidential Election

A window has opened so that people everywhere can get a live glimpse of one powerful version of the collective future towards which current societal vectors drive us. Through that window, we see Australia burning. 

Will we look? Or like a needle stuck in an old record, will we keep telling ourselves and each other the same comforting nostrums that nothing can, will, or must change?

"This is Australia. This morning my phone rang, and a woman’s voice said: “It’s all gone.” My friend was standing on the blackened ground, emerging from where she had been lying on the floor of her garage when the fire went through. It came from three sides. The horses she had rescued were burned but alive, but all the animals — including some of mine whom I had sent there to be safe from the fire threatening our place — were dead. Burned to death. We don’t have a count on the “domesticated” animals that have burned to death, but we believe that already five million wild animals are dead,” writes Danielle Celemajer in her post, “The Tragedy of the two Australias,” on an Australian news site.

Celermajer, a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney reported that, “For the last week, the community in which I live has had a single focus: Protect each other and the beings with whom we live from the fire.”  

As her article appeared on-line on New Year’s Eve, Celermajer herself was “in my car driving away from my home, my place in the world. I remained there as long as I could, but the danger has now become too great.”

From far away in the U.S., reading about this may be too remote an experience for some to feel, no less to see as a relevant foreshadowing of our own future. 

If we really absorbed and allowed the Australian tragedy to move us, it could prompt more Americans to decisive action— by using our vote to intervene in the unfolding of the same fate— destruction of life by entrenched political, economic, and culturally enforced climate inattention. 

The endless news cycle parade, the conventional consensus, the pressure of the daily to-do list— these all conspire to numb people to other’s suffering, and to the relationship between this version of climate catastrophe— and our own lives. 

With her sociologist’s insight, Celermajer’s window into Australia reveals the Aussie version of a society divided between harsh realities, misplaced blame, and willful inattention. 

As Celermajer and her community struggle with “Who has a room where people who are evacuating can come and stay with an old dog?” when she goes into town, she encounters a sea of denial in which hollow rationalizations float like old soda cans. 

“There’s apparently a lot of concern about the threat that radical environmentalists pose to the economy, given the importance of coal,” she writes. “It’s important not to panic. There is a lot of anger against the arsonists. Mad people causing these terrible fires and we really do need to increase the penalties."

In the minds of Murdoch news-indoctrinated Australians, the human cause of climate change is not society’s investment in coal, fossil fuels, or agribusiness, but perennial “bad apples” setting the wildfires; or the people who strive to instate climate solutions that reorder economic investment. 

Similarly, in the minds of some Americans, the way to address the climate problem here in the U.S. remains obscure. As I circulated both in community and in social media over the holidays, the most frequent question I heard from people over fifty was, “Is there any hope?” 

My response? “That depends on you.” 

We know specifically that the vote of American women over 50 can be decisive in the upcoming election. Yet according to a poll published on December 18, 2019, 69% of women voters over the age of 50 are undecided. I encountered that same indecision in that cohort as I socialized over the holiday.

While there is far greater unanimity in the young, as we approach the primaries, it’s still not clear whether a decisive majority of people of all ages will come together in 2020 to elect a new President, who, like Bernie Sanders, is fully climate activated, with a comprehensive and complete proposal. What does that require? 

First, a candidate that is committed and able now in the primaries and going forward into the election to being 100% un-beholden to fossil fuel companies, the banks that invest in them, and the military whose ceaseless wars in oil-rich international regions, divert billions into assuring supply for extractive industries, rather than keeping fossil fuels in the ground. 

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Second, a plan that is comprehensive in its reorientation of energy, agriculture, economics, and related policies, while redressing longstanding environmental and economic injustice as integral. 

Do people understand which candidate(s) have the strongest policy proposals in this regard? 

Unless a clear majority of Americans walk their talk on supporting a candidate with a comprehensive climate plan above all else, the tragic dystopia we see consuming the beautiful land of Australia is nearer than we think.Once these clear-cut climate criteria are applied, the seeming array of electable options drastically shrinks— and so do political confusion and uncertainty. 

But just like the Australians, people here in the U.S. get diverted. Instead of addressing political corruption, politics and debate become the designated problem. I’ve heard some version of “None of this would be happening if we learned to speak kindly to each other,” dozens of times on Facebook. Or even that old outworn trope, “why are activists angry?” 

If you don’t know, you’re not paying attention. 

Following politics and getting angry interfere with equanimity, some say, overlooking that lacking health care, being homeless, and going hungry can also put a real dent in one’s mood. Not to mention losing one’s home, lacking drinking water, and watching relatives and animals perish. Where people mistakenly believe that political outcomes won’t affect them personally—whether because they reside in Camelot, or a gated community, or will have passed on before significant climate impact occurs—some choose to strive for a Zen-like dispassion, or check off their bucket lists, while passing the crisis down the generations to their children. 

Tune out, turn on, drop out. Or choose a Presidential nominee who gives lip service rather than meet solid climate criteria.

There is no substitute for a systemic reorientation on climate – or a movement that unequivocally supports it. Voting for a decisive social and economic reordering in the U.S. is the sole viable pathway for humanity’s survival. 

Sadly, in their recent May 2019 election, Australians did not avail themselves of their version of that particular option, providing a cautionary tale for our own upcoming election. 

The opposition Labor Party moved left but according to Jacobin, “their tilt to the left was far too little, far too late.” 

Even though there was a solid and long-standing popular consensus for climate action, the Labor Party leader, Bill Shorten failed to organize or build a sizeable movement that pushed for those goals. According to Jacobin: 

There were no town-hall style election rallies. No angry speeches. After years and years of alienation from politics, most people just didn’t pay attention. Consequently, there was no influx of donations or volunteers. Shorten copied at most 10 percent of Bernie Sanders’s substance and zero percent of his style, about two weeks out from a general election.

The result as we know was a conservative/coalition victory. This past week, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison vacationed in Hawaii with Rupert Murdoch while Australia burned. 

You say you want a revolution? Frankly, many over 50 don’t. That’s why I counsel looking closely at Australia and considering the alternative to making climate our primary commitment. Because unless a clear majority of Americans walk their talk on supporting a candidate with a comprehensive climate plan above all else, the tragic dystopia we see consuming the beautiful land of Australia is nearer than we think. 

Postscript: Upon completing this article, I checked in with a few of my Australian friends and colleagues on Facebook to find footage of a dreadful fire not far from Sydney, which drove homeowners onto the beach, scorched the land, and burnt to ash many homes— including one cooperative and shared home, deep in the woods, made from local woods and beach driftwoods, which was built by three families, and which served as a family and community gathering place for a circle of socially conscious and caring Australians for several decades. 

On the Facebook timeline, as friends and of the owners, and young adults who had played there as children, shared their memories and mourned the loss of this treasured and welcoming place, that sense of separateness I usually feel as a supposedly self-created individual dissolved. Instead of reminding myself that “I am still okay,” and “Sorry for them, but this is taking place somewhere else, poor them,” what I felt was:

This is happening to me right now, this is happening to all of us: The good that we have done and seek to do is being destroyed, the beautiful earth that has harbored us is being left a wasteland, animals, like those we claim to love, are dying dreadful deaths, and the homes we created for our children are going up in smoke. 

What would I give and what would I give up if all depended on my taking full responsibility for allowing this – or for stopping this? The reason why you or I even consider going along with those who merely give lip service, the reason why we are uncertain and politically confused, is because of our own lip service. We, all of us, fall tragically short in being the caring people we claim to be. No more negotiation on climate. Lip service is not enough. 

Alison Rose Levy

Alison Rose Levy

Alison Rose Levy is a New York-based journalist who covers the nexus of health, science, the environment, and public policy. She has reported on fracking, pipelines, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, chemical pollution, and the health impacts of industrial activity for the Huffington Post, Alternet, Truthdig, and EcoWatch. 

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