Battling the False Narratives Around Australia’s Devastating Bushfires

Jennifer Mills on the Writer's Responsibility

Australia is in the grip of a catastrophic bushfire season the scale, duration, and intensity of which we have never seen before. As a volunteer firefighter, I have been watching this crisis unfurl with great anxiety. Living far away in Italy, I’m caught between longing to be home, joining the strike teams on the fire ground, able to help directly, and the relief I feel at not being up against the terrifying conditions I am seeing on the news and in social media.

The size, heat, and unpredictable behavior of these fires is almost incomprehensible. They are often unstoppable with the resources that rural brigades have. The risk taken by volunteer firefighters is enormous, as they put their lives and health on the line to save homes, humans and wildlife. For months I have been watching as the smoke covers major cities in Australia, checking how friends and family are managing to breathe. Like many, I am angry at the Australian government’s slow and weak response.

As a novelist, I think about the implications of these events a little differently. This is not just a natural disaster, but one we have helped to create. It is a crisis about the stories we tell ourselves and about the language we use to describe our world.

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In my fiction, I have long been fascinated by confabulation, the power of a tightly-held narrative to sustain itself even in the face of overwhelming fact. In hindsight, it was inevitable that I would end up writing about climate denialism and the strange logic that can occur when we face—or refuse to face—environmental catastrophe. In Dyschronia, I wrote about a small town that, experiencing the inexplicable withdrawal of the ocean, asks itself: “How do we see what we can’t imagine?”

In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh said of these kind of extreme events that “to treat them as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling—which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time.” Climate fiction has often been categorized as magical or science-fictional, predictive rather than descriptive—indeed, many people still describe events like this bushfire season as omens, or as warnings. But the future we were warned about has already arrived.

While science fiction and magical realism give us many of the narrative tools we need to understand the changes to our world, the Anthropocene brings its own challenges. For much of the writing of Dyschronia, I felt I was struggling against the form of the novel, with its traditionally linear narrative. Eventually, the book took the strange shape it now has, a story made of concentric circles that move backwards and forwards through time.

I have learned to conceive of the Anthropocene as a problem, fundamentally, of time. The future rushes up to meet us, while another future, a safe and ordinary life, has been foreshortened, even stolen. The scale of the changes happening to our world seems to compress geological time into decades. At the same time, emergencies have their own temporality. We become reactive, surviving moment to moment. It becomes impossible to plan.

The impact of the fires on tourism, which employs more than ten times as many Australians as coal, will be enormous.

Short-term thinking has gotten us into this mess; we need to find and implement ways of being that take responsibility for what will happen decades and centuries ahead of us, for future generations.

When I began Dyschronia in 2011, it seemed that few novelists were taking up the challenges of climate fiction. But in the past decade, many Australian writers have been re-examining our relationships with the land, with non-human animals, and with each other. Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) carries Aboriginal understandings of the continuity of land, body and culture into a damaged future, unsettling the landscape and its traumatic history with an intensely imaginative story of change and survival. As many Aboriginal writers have pointed out, Australia’s colonial history sets a compelling precedent for post-apocalyptic fiction, which is reflected in 20th-century works by white writers such as George Turner’s The Sea and Summer and Neville Shute’s On the Beach. But Aboriginal writers are turning this tradition on its head. Claire Coleman’s 2018 novel Terra Nullius restages the Australian occupation as science fiction, challenging readers’ beliefs about history. Ellen van Neerven’s poetry and stories connect us intimately with the harm and resilience experienced by marginalized bodies in the Anthropocene.

Along with new understandings of the body, of our place in time, and of history, Australian writers are looking closely at the relationships between human and non-human animals. Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us (2015) and Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck (2017) each evoke the mysteries of this interdependence and examine the impacts of extinction grief. In his 2015 novel Clade, James Bradley explored a sense of intergenerational responsibility and loss through time.

Grief and anxiety are prominent themes. Alice Bishop’s 2019 short story collection A Constant Hum, a direct response to her experience of the Black Saturday bushfires, brings these emotions to the fore as she explores the aftermath of the destructive fires in Victoria in 2009, which killed 173 people. Notably, care work is another prominent theme in Australian climate fiction. Alice Robinson writes compellingly of motherhood in a near future impacted by climate catastrophe in 2019’s The Glad Shout, and Lucy Treloar’s 2019 novel Wolfe Island also challenges the meaning of family, resilience and trust in an all-too-believable dystopian future.

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The place of climate fiction is sometimes reduced to instrumentals: building empathy, imagining alternatives, offering hope. In these times, it can be a radical act just to hold on to beauty, humor, and wonder. But I think fiction is also capable of something much deeper. Literature can show us the seams of our own reality, and sharpen our minds against the false narratives that those in power seek to wield against us. As Toni Morrison urged in her Nobel acceptance speech, “Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”

Grief will have to be processed, recoveries begun, but as Australia faces its part in this global challenge, acceptance is not the end point we need to reach. Fiction also gives us an opportunity to sustain our horror, to render unacceptable that which others might seek to normalize. While many novels offer consolation, and that is enormously valuable, I also struggle against the kind of comfort that seeks to smother fury. Disaster capitalism feeds on fear and false safety; it feeds on our consent.

Literature can show us the seams of our own reality, and sharpen our minds against the false narratives that those in power seek to wield against us.

One of the challenges for writers in the Anthropocene is that events like these fires belong at once to the everyday and to the unthinkable. In processing the shock of the fires, the images of death and destruction, the corpses of animals, the scale of the grief, writers must think in two directions at once: we must try to integrate these events into our understanding of the reality we live in, and we must refuse to accept them as normal.

This is why this bushfire crisis has also been, for me, a study in language and power.

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In 2017, then Treasurer Scott Morrison famously brought a lump of coal to parliament, which he brandished with a laugh. “Don’t be scared,” he said. After the massive September climate strikes, he warned against children missing days at school for what he called “needless anxiety.” Dragged back from a holiday in Hawaii in December, two months into the crisis, he offered “thoughts and prayers,” and then said his role was “to provide comfort and consolation.” A religious man, he seems to see himself as a pastoral support worker rather than a leader. In other circumstances, his would be a fascinating character study.

Now Prime Minister, Morrison is in a narrative double bind. He argues simultaneously that nothing can be done to shift the climate, and that his government is already doing more than enough. Australia has for years played a significant role to stymie global climate talks and is actively courting the expansion of coal, oil and gas industries, including deeply unpopular projects such as the Adani mine in Queensland and Equinor’s deep-sea drilling in the Great Australian Bight. We are the world’s biggest exporter of coal, yet Morrison consistently repeats the talking points that our contribution to global emissions is negligible, and that there is no direct causal link between emissions and bushfires—both are untrue.

As the bushfire season continues, these contradictions, irrational beliefs and tricky semantics are becoming starkly visible, adding up to an experience many of us recognize as gaslighting. As a writer, I can’t help watching these narratives appear, as clear as the lines of black ash that are washing up on once-golden beaches all along the East Coast. They tell me that while thousands of volunteers all over Australia are willing to step up and risk their lives in this emergency, while ordinary people are raising millions of dollars for relief efforts, the government of Australia is not even ready to acknowledge the truth.

Australian politics has for several years now been circling in the stagnant waters of inaction on climate. As politicians court big coal, gas and oil companies in the name of protecting the primary industry jobs on which tens of thousands of Australians depend, there have been many missed opportunities to encourage the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels. Our government has been operating on a narrative framework of denialism, and that framework has made it impossible for them to accept, or be seen to accept, the realities of the climate emergency. Now reality has arrived, whether they believe it or not.

To date some 3,000 homes have been destroyed, 29 lives lost, and an estimated billion animals killed, including many endangered species. Evacuations of coastal towns have taken place on a huge scale. The impact on tourism, which employs more than ten times as many Australians as coal, will be enormous. As these and countless other health, environmental, physical and emotional impacts begin to be understood, many Australians are wondering what their government is for. Why have we not prepared for this enormous and predictable catastrophe? Who are they protecting, if not ordinary citizens?

Fire chiefs are having to take time out from fires to dismiss rumors about arson and backburning that are spread by the conservative press and repeated on social media.

There have been hints at a shift in the discourse. After the Black Saturday fires, emergency management systems were improved. As army reserves are deployed to help firefighters and inquiries are announced, the movement towards better emergency management is laudable. But within its denialist story, this government can only talk about mitigation, adaptation, resilience.

Australia has the highest per capita emissions of any large country in the world. Our current emissions reduction targets are woefully inadequate, and according to the government’s own projections we will not meet them anyway. Australia is the only country that is using targets based on carryover credits from Kyoto—an accounting trick. Aside from investment in renewables at the state level, real change eludes us. Carbon pricing has been seen as electoral poison for over a decade. Costs are invoked, but according to the IMF, Australian fossil fuel subsidies amount to $29 billion annually. At the Paris talks in 2015, Australia refused to sign an agreement to phase these subsidies out.

Meanwhile, fire chiefs are having to take time out from fires to dismiss rumours about arson and backburning that are spread by the conservative press and repeated on social media. Such lies need to be constantly challenged. Facts matter a great deal right now, but so do the stories we tell.

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I am sorry not to be there putting out fires alongside my colleagues in the volunteer fire brigades. But even from afar, I have work to do. The work of writing and thinking about the implications of the climate emergency is as urgent as ever. Writers have an opportunity—I feel it as a responsibility—to bring what is happening to our world to light. To show those black lines against the sand, to study the way power moves and to tell others what we discover. “Sometimes, in the face of crisis, we grow up fast,” wrote Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. This should be a turning point for Australia, and for the world. Fiction shows us that the narratives we live inside are powerful creations; it feels impossible to shift them, until we do.

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A version of this essay originally appeared in Danish at the weekly Weekendavisen.

Jennifer Mills
Jennifer Mills
Jennifer Mills is the author of four books and is a volunteer firefighter. Her latest novel, Dyschronia, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.





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