‘Like volcanoes on the ranges’: how Australian bushfire writing has changed with the climate


Grace Moore, University of Otago

Bushfire writing has long been a part of Australian literature.

Tales of heroic rescues and bush Christmases describe a time when the fire season was confined only to summer months and Australia’s battler identity was forged in the flames.

While some of these early stories may seem melodramatic to the modern reader, they offer vital insights into the scale and timing of fires and provide an important counterpoint to suggestions from some politicians this week that Australia’s fire ecology remains unchanged in the 21st century.




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Mr Morrison, I lost my home to bushfire. Your thoughts and prayers are not enough


After an apparent bushfire, a horse team pulls timber at Lavers Hill in Victoria, circa 1895.
Museum Victoria/NLA

A contender for the first fictional representation of an Australian bushfire is Mary Theresa Vidal’s The Cabramatta Store (1850). Although she does not specify a month, Vidal is very clear regarding the season and the oppressive, sweltering heat:

It was one of the hottest days of an unusually hot and dry Australian summer. No breeze stirred the thin, spare foliage of the gum-trees, or moved the thick grove of wattles which grew at the back of a rough log hut.

Vidal’s account of the bushfire that ensues is evocative and intense:

The tall trees were some of them red hot to the top; the fire seemed to run apace, and every leaf and stack was so dry there was nothing to impede its progress.

Postcards from Australia


Cambridge University Press

Vidal was not alone in treating fire as a fleeting, one-off incident. Other early accounts, such as Ellen Clacy’s 1854 romance story A Bushfire, or the prolific novelist William Howitt’s A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia of the same year follow Vidal in depicting the bushfire as an isolated catastrophe.

Howitt’s novel takes the form of a notebook kept by Herbert, a recent young migrant, who recounts the wonder of his new life in the Bush. Though he doesn’t experience a fire at first-hand, Herbert regales the reader with another family’s bushfire adventure in lieu of his own. Yet in closing his account, dated January 14, he writes:

I wonder whether, after all, I shall see a bush-fire. During the last week we have seen lurid smoke by day, and a deep-red cloud by night … immense fires are raging in the jungle.

For Herbert, surviving a bushfire is a settler rite of passage and again, the dating of his entry emphasises the fire as a uniquely summer concern. The boyish narrator, though, cannot appreciate the trauma and severity of Antipodean fire.

An annual event

Over time, the settler community began to understand fire as a recurring phenomenon and the tone of fire stories shifted from a triumphant celebration of settler endurance, to a more brooding acceptance that the flames would return another year.


Dymocks

So season-bound was this understanding, a sub-genre of bushfire fiction emerged: the Christmas fire story. These works responded to the Victorian enthusiasm for yuletide tales, while at the same time highlighting the often horrific seasonal tribulations of bush-dwellers.

While there are many examples of Christmas fire stories, one of the best-known is Anthony Trollope’s novella Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874).

The plot, which takes place in the sugar-growing region of Queensland, revolves around the protagonist Harry’s deep fear of fire. Trollope highlights the hostility of the climate, the dangers posed by deforestation, and the deep-rooted anxieties that haunted migrant farmers each summer.

Exotic and dangerous tales from Australia – these images were published in The Australasian sketcher, April 9, 1884 – depicted life for settlers and visitors to those back in England.
Troedel & Co, lithographer/State Library of Victoria

There are countless other works that allow us to map the Victorian era fire season.

Henry Kingsley’s sprawling 1859 novel The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn begins with another date reference:

Near the end of February 1857 … it was near the latter end of summer, burning hot, with the bushfires raging like volcanoes on the ranges, and the river reduced to a slender stream of water.

Once again here, the date identifies fires specifically with the summertime.

Climate emergency fiction

While 19th century fire stories offer a date-stamped and clearly defined fire season, today’s novelists work with a much less predictable set of environmental conditions.

The backdrops for the crime novelist Jane Harper’s thrillers The Dry (2016) and The Lost Man (2018) are tinder-dry rural communities, where years of drought mean fire could erupt at any moment.

Realist writing is capturing changing conditions, just as it did for settlers more than 150 years ago. Australia may always have been the “continent of fire”, as historian Tom Griffiths terms it, but literature shows us those fires are more prolific and less predictable now than ever before.The Conversation

Grace Moore, Senior lecturer in English, the University of Otago, New Zealand, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important



贝莉儿 NG/Unsplash, FAL

Bernadette McBride, University of Liverpool

We are headed towards a future that is hard to contemplate. At present, global emissions are reaching record levels, the past four years have been the four hottest on record, coral reefs are dying, sea levels are rising and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the moment to do something about it. But what?

Society often looks to culture to try and make some sense of the world’s problems. Climate change challenges us to look ahead, past our own lives, to consider how the future might look for generations to come – and our part in this. This responsibility requires imagination.

So, it is no surprise that a literary phenomenon has grown over the past decade or two which seeks to help us imagine the impacts of climate change in clear language. This literary trend – generally known by the name “cli-fi” – has now been established as a distinctive form of science fiction, with a host of works produced from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Paolo Bacigalupi to a series of Amazon shorts.


Faber & Faber

Often these stories deal with climate science and seek to engage the reader in a way that the statistics of scientists cannot. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012), for example, creates emotional resonance with the reader through a novel about the effects of global warming on the monarch butterflies, set amid familiar family tensions. Lauren Groff’s short story collection Florida (2018) also brings climate change together with the personal set amid storms, snakes and sinkholes.

The end to come

Cli-fi is probably better known for those novels that are set in the future, depicting a world where advanced climate change has wreaked irreversible damage upon our planet. They conjure up terrible futures: drowned cities, uncontainable diseases, burning worlds – all scenarios scientists have long tried to warn us about. These imagined worlds tend to be dystopian, serving as a warning to readers: look at what might happen if we don’t act now.

Atwood’s dystopian trilogy of MaddAddam books, for example, imagines post-apocalyptic futurist scenarios where a toxic combination of narcissism and technology have led to our great undoing. In Oryx and Crake (2003), the protagonist is left contemplating a devastated world in which he struggles to survive as potentially the last human left on earth. Set in a world ravaged by sea level rise and tornadoes, Atwood revisits the character’s previous life to examine the greedy capitalist world fuelled by genetic modification that led to this apocalyptic moment.




Read more:
‘Cli-fi’ novels humanise the science of climate change – and leading authors are getting in on the act


Other dystopian cli-fi works include Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015), and the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), both of which feature sudden global weather changes which plunge the planet into chaos.

Dystopian fiction certainly serves a purpose as a bleak reminder not to act lightly in the face of environmental disaster, often highlighting how climate change could in fact compound disparities across race and class further. Take Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (2015), a story of environmental disaster with a focus on gender and race relations – “illegal” Haitian refugees are bulldozed on the spot. A. Sayeeda Clarke’s short film White (2011), meanwhile, tells the story of one black man’s desperate search for money in a world where global warming has turned race into a commodity and circumstances lead him to donate his melanin.

The future reimagined

It is this primacy of the imagination that makes fictional dealings with climate change so valuable. Cli-fi author Nathaniel Rich, who wrote Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) – a novel in which a gifted mathematician is hired to predict worst-case environmental scenarios – has said:

I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality, which is that we’re headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?

As the UN 2019 Climate Action Summit attempts to bring the 2015 Paris Agreement up to speed, we need fiction that not only offers us new ways to look forward, but which also renders the inequalities of climate change explicit. It is also key that culturally we at least try to imagine a fairer world for all, rather than only visions of doom.

When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.

Futures are built out of our collective imaginaries.
RomanYa/Shutterstock.com

Utopian novels implore us to use our human ingenuity to adapt to troubled times. Kim Stanley Robinson is a very good example of this type of thinking. His works were inspired by Ursula Le Guin, in particular her novel The Dispossessed (1974), which led the way for the utopian novel form. It depicts a planet with a vision of universal access to food, shelter and community as well as gender and racial equality, despite being set on a parched desert moon.

Robinson’s utopian Science in the Capital trilogy centres on transformative politics and imagines a shift in the behaviour of human society as a solution to the climate crisis. His later novel New York 2140 (2017), set in a partly submerged New York which has successfully adapted to climate change, imagines solutions to more recent climate change concerns. This is a future that is mapped out in painstaking detail, from reimagined subways to mortgages for submarines, and we are encouraged to see how new communities could rise against capitalism.

This is inspirational – and useful – but it is also is crucial that utopian cli-fi novels make it clear that for every utopian vision an alternative dystopia could be just around the corner. (It’s worth remembering that in Le Guin’s foundational utopian novel The Dispossessed, the moon’s society have escaped from a dystopian planet.) This is a key flaw in the case of Robinson’s vision, which fails to feature the wars, famines and disasters outside of his new “Super Venice”: the main focus of the book is on the advances of western technology and economics.

Forward-thinking cli-fi, then, needs to imagine sustainable futures while recognising the disparities of climate change and honouring the struggles of the most vulnerable human and non-humans. Imagining positive futures is key – but a race where no one is left behind should be at the centre of the story we aspire to.


This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series

This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.The Conversation


Bernadette McBride, PhD Candidate in Creative Writing, University of Liverpool

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can ‘cli-fi’ actually make a difference? A climate scientist’s perspective



File 20170904 8510 16zmsdu
The Day After Tomorrow’s apocalyptic depiction of climate change is a little embellished. But such storylines can ignite conversations with people that mainstream science fails to reach.
20th Century Fox

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSW

Climate change – or global warming – is a term we are all familiar with. The warming of the Earth’s atmosphere due to the consumption of fossil fuels by human activity was predicted in the 19th century. It can be seen in the increase in global temperature from the industrial revolution onwards, and has been a central political issue for decades.

Climate scientists who moonlight as communicators tend to bombard their audiences with facts and figures – to convince them how rapidly our planet is warming – and scientific evidence demonstrating why we are to blame. A classic example is Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and its sequel, which are loaded with graphs and statistics. However, it is becoming ever clearer that these methods don’t work as well as we’d like. In fact, more often than not, we are preaching to the converted, and can further polarise those who accept the science from those who don’t.

One way of potentially tapping into previously unreached audiences is via cli-fi, or climate-fiction. Cli-fi explores how the world may look in the process or aftermath of dealing with climate change, and not just that caused by burning fossil fuels.


Read more: Explainer: ‘solarpunk’, or how to be an optimistic radical


Recently, I participated as a scientist in a forum with Screen Australia, looking at how cli-fi might communicate the issues around climate change in new ways. I’m a heatwave scientist and I’d love to see a cli-fi story bringing the experience of heatwaves to light. After the forum, Screen Australia put out a call for proposals for TV series and telemovies in the cli-fi genre.

We absolutely need and should rely on peer-reviewed scientific findings for public policy, and planning to stop climate change and adapt to it. But climate scientists should not expect everyone to be as concerned as they are when they show a plot of increasing global temperatures.

Cli-fi has the potential to work in the exact opposite way, through compelling storylines, dramatic visuals, and characters. By making people care about and individually connect to climate change, it can motivate them to seek out the scientific evidence for themselves.

Imagined worlds

The term “cli-fi” was coined at the turn of the millennium, but the genre has existed for much longer. One of the earliest examples is Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole, where the tilt of the Earth’s axis is altered by human endeavours (of the astronaut, not industrial kind), bringing an end to seasonal variability.


Goodreads

More modern examples of cli-fi take their prose from real-life contemporary issues, imagining the effects of human-caused climate change. Some pieces of cli-fi are perhaps closer to the truth than others

Could the thermohaline circulation (which carries heat around our oceans) shut down, bringing a sudden global freeze, as The Day After Tomorrow suggests? There is evidence that it will, but perhaps not as quickly as the film imagines.

Is it possible that fertility rates will be affected by climate change? The television-adapted version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale blames pollution and environmental change for a world-wide plummet in fertility, thus giving a cli-fi undertone to the whole dystopian series. While there is no scientific evidence to currently back this scenario, as a new parent, it struck a chord with me personally. The thought of a world where virtually every couple is unable to experience the joys of parenthood, particularly due to climate change, is quite distressing.

Poster for The Road Warrior, the second in the first Mad Max trilogy.
Kennedy Miller Productions

Cli-fi also underpins the highly acclaimed Mad Max movie series. In a dystopian near-future, fossil fuel resources have depleted and the social and environmental impacts are vast. Australia has become a desolate wasteland and our society has all but collapsed.

Although such a scenario will be unlikely to occur in the next couple of decades, it is not completely unrealistic. We are burning fossil fuels far faster than they are forming, with some predictions that accessible sources will run out in the next century.
And some of our famous ecosystems are already very sick thanks to climate change.

And then there is Waterworld. Yet another dystopia, where there is no ice left on Earth and sea levels have risen 7.5km above current levels. Civilisations exists only in small settlements, where inhabitants dream of the mythical “dry land”. While the movie overestimates exactly how much water is locked away in ice (sea levels can only rise by up to 60-70 metres), many major global cities would be inundated and no longer exist. And while it will take thousands, not hundreds of years for complete melting to take place, sea level rise is already posing a problem for some coastal settlements and small islands. Moreover, Arctic ice is predicted to completely melt away well before the end of this century.

Sure, the scientific evidence underpinning these storylines is embellished to say the least, But they are certainly worth deliberating over if they ignite conversations with people that mainstream science fails to reach.

The power of fiction

In the long run, cli-fi might encourage audiences to modify their everyday lives (and maybe even who they vote for) to reduce their own carbon footprint.

From personal experience, some audiences tend to disengage from climate change because of how overwhelming the issue may seem. Global temperatures are rising at a rate not seen for millions of years, and we are currently not doing enough to avoid dangerous climate change. Understandably, the scale and weight of climate change likely encourages many to bury their heads firmly in the sand.

To this audience, cli-fi also has an important message to deliver – that of hope. That it is not, or will it be ever, too late to combat human-caused climate change.

The ConversationImagining a future where green energy is accessible to everyone, where global politicians work tirelessly to rapidly reduce emissions, or where new technologies are discovered that safely and permanently remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere are absolutely worth air time. Cli-fi can act as prose for science. And on the topic of mitigating climate change, there is no such thing as too much prose.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Research Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.