Greetings friends. I hope you had a summer or winter break wherever you are. I’m back early this year because Australia, where I live, has hit the world media for all the wrong reasons.
You might have seen the horrifying footage from the South Coast. My oldest friend, who was holidaying there, sent me this photo, which is one of hundreds I have seen, but knowing her husband took it, makes it extra terrifying:
My friend spent the night on the beach before taking part in the biggest land evacuation event in Australia’s history. I’d spent days without news from her, worried she was caught up in the chaos: a feeling many people have experienced this summer. My team mate and friend, Victoria Firth-Smith spent a sleepless night worried about her father, a famous artist. He resisted calls to evacuate his property, which I can understand because it contains a life time of art work and memories. By the time he left, it was clear it was going to be difficult to get to safety and V was fretting. The feeling of helplessness when people you love are in distress is horrible. All I could do was send reassuring text messages – while scanning social media and watching TV.
Yes, watching TV. I’ve done a lot of it because it’s hard to focus enough to read a book or write – things I would normally do on a break at home. Living through what my friend Katie calls a ‘slow moving disaster’ has been surreal; it’s like the end of the world, but with all the creature comforts, like Netflix and pizza deliveries. Well, not all of them perhaps. The post has been cut off and may still be for weeks. Some vital supplies, like bottled water, are under stress as Canberra expands to accommodate displaced people. Museums, galleries, swimming pools and shops – which normally offer respite and distraction from the heat – are closed. The smoke overwhelms and confuses building detectors, so they constantly go off, making ordinary life – and sleep – difficult in a most mundane way.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT), where I live, is several hundred kilometres away from most of the action. As I write, there are no active fires across the border, but I just heard they are 3km away. My friend in the south has just had her power cut off. Who knows what is next? One thing Australians have learned is that nothing about this is ‘normal’. I fully expect the national parks to our south to go up. This area has not burned for 16 years and surrounds our water supply. Power is already being affected. By the time you read this, some of the creature comforts I mentioned might not be there anymore.
While there has been no fire here – yet – Canberra has been affected by the most appalling air pollution for a month now. We have gone from being a glorious jewel of a capital city to the most polluted capital city on earth. The visuals are terrible. Here’s my family at a climate change protest on the lawn in front of Parliament house in May last year (me and Mr Thesis Whisperer in the front, Thesis Whisperer Jnr behind, holding a sign). Look at that beautiful blue sky:
I haven’t seen that sky, which I love, for a month now.
(I keep party politics out of this blog, but anyone who has read it long enough has probably worked out where I stand. Please, no Greens baiting/trolling in the comments. I will just delete them. Blaming the Greens for this mess, which some people do, is just silly).
A couple of weeks ago, the lawns in front of parliament house looked like this:
Living with +200 air quality index is horrendous – and a pretty scary glimpse of the future (and, it has to be said, an insight into the daily struggles of people in places like New Delhi). To avoid the smoke, I’ve spent a lot of time indoors, doing the usual Christmassy things: cooking, eating, drinking, hosting visitors and ranting about our Prime Minister’s shameful inaction on climate change on social media. In fact, I wrote him a letter last month, which no doubt he was too busy to read, being in Hawaii and all:
Canberra had devastating bushfires in 2003 and clearly learned from the experience. Disaster management is pretty good here, especially when you compare it to other places in Australia. We have a Green/Labor coalition who agree on the need for action and preparation for climate change – and it makes a big difference. One of the things they did was have fire volunteers doing community outreach at the supermarkets early in December. We had a long talk with one of them, who briefed us and gave us fire plan material. This collateral sat on our kitchen bench until New Years day, when I started to panic. No power is an inconvenience, but how would we cope with no water? We finally went to the hardware store to find that other Canberrans were way ahead of us on getting containers (luckily we got enough to tide us over for a few days if the worst happens):
I live in a beautiful area of Canberra, which means I am ‘bush adjacent’. Actually, I am in an ‘urban fire zone’, which I have never given much thought to if I am honest. But, after watching reports of places ‘never seen fire’ going up in smoke, I realised I was dangerously complacent. We finally started getting properly prepared, which included packing ‘go bags’.
I can see why they ask you to do preparations to leave when it’s not an emergency. You only can take a small amount of stuff, but it takes a long time to decide how to dress sensibly for a crisis and what ‘stuff’ is indispensable. In a bushfire emergency, the hour or so it took to do this packing could have killed us. It surprised me how little ‘stuff’ I wanted to take. In the end, it was two things: the book bag my mother made me when I was 5 and one child artwork. I’ve cried so many times this month, but I really lost it when a sheepish Thesis Whisperer Jnr packed the only soft toy he had kept from childhood:
I like to think I am a woke, inner city leftie who cares about the underprivileged (I even have a mug with ‘latte sipping socialist’ on it). I give money regularly to a range of charities and for emergencies. A the start of the crisis, I upped my usual donations: starting by giving all my 2019 Amazon royalties to the RFS. I then dropped off goods for fire fighters at collection centres. But throwing money at the problems and whining on social media is not the only answer. Other people actually, you know – do things.
800+ AQI is extremely dangerous: that’s 4 times worse than a highly polluted city like Mexico. There is no doubt people with asthma will be dying from this exposure. Others with underlying conditions are sustaining permanent damage. Vulnerable people are even more disadvantaged than ever in these difficult times. A group of ANU students decided to try to get masks to people sleeping rough, who had no relief from the smoke. P2 face masks are in very short supply in Canberra; even people with money to buy them are having trouble getting access. These smart, passionate, empathetic young women from ANU simply activated their friend networks to solve this problem. It resulted in some of the most effective grassroots organising I have ever seen.
ANU students returning to campus from around Australia packed extra face masks, buying them at their own expense to distribute free to others when they got back. Some parents stepped in to help, sending their kids back with bags of masks as a donation. What started as a small, local network effort to help a few vulnerable people, scaled up quickly. The first shipment was astonishing 700 masks, and they had to set up a funding page to help reimburse their friends. Bear in mind: these are undergraduates on low incomes. Certainly an example of lower income people being more empathetic and generous in a crisis.
Since they were ANU undergrads and alumni, not PhD students, I didn’t know them personally. The amazingly capable A/Prof Gemma Carey, locked in one room of her house with a purifier, protecting her unborn child, connected me into their network. I guess I have a reputation locally, and via the blog, as the sort of person who would provide practical support. In this case, I surprised myself by, you know – really doing things. Rebecca Vasarotti activated networks in the Greens to help distribute to groups, like ‘Night Patrol’, who provide direct assistance to homeless people, and to domestic violence crisis centres. Members of the party came in to help me count and pack so within 24 hours we had given out 250 masks. Here’s a picture of Rebecca and Bryce from Night Patrol:
Here’s Bryce, from Night Patrol who help people sleeping rough with @RebeccaVassarot. Before @vanamalihermans efforts, they had only 10 masks, now they have 150 thanks to generous people of Canberra and online community #AustraliaBurns #phdchat – where are you @ScottMorrisonMP ? pic.twitter.com/HPAXKPb72x
— Prof Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) January 3, 2020
It’s Sunday today and we continue the effort. This morning I was nominated as the pick up and drop off point for masks arriving from interstate and being distributed around the suburbs. I’ve been writing this posts in between logging the deliveries and pick ups – and watching the smoke get worse. It’s now +450 and I can barely see my keyboard and it’s only 3:30 in the afternoon:
I organise plenty of things at work and for the Greens. Now I realise I do it in a meticulous ‘top down’ style that just doesn’t work in an emergency. No one anticipated this many people would need this many masks and we have to make up solutions as we go. The ACT government is doing a good job: accessing government stockpiles, trying to ensure the shops have supplies and stocking their facilities. This solves some, but by no means all of the problems, especially distribution to those in need. People are working on this problem right now.
Our ANU students just gave me a crash course in something I will call ‘agile organisation’. It feels unstructured and chaotic, but somehow it works. My friends tease me that I always say ‘someone should write a thesis on this’ – hopefully someone will one day. It felt good to do something positive and I have been heartened by other, similar stories of grass roots problem solving that genuinely help people.
I reflected on the moment with a friend via Facebook: what exactly is the role I would play in a disaster movie? Because I was playing it now and I didn’t feel like I’d had time to rehearse:
Is this a role I will play again in the future, perhaps with increased regularity? Or is this a one off disaster that we will remember as the start of a slow decline? Or is this the wake up call that leads to better things: a change in politics that we desperately need?
I honestly don’t know.
I’ve spent 20 years wondering what I will do when the horrible predictions from our scientist friends come to pass. These young ANU students have showed me what to do and forever changed my apathetic, Gen-X ways. When this happens again, I’m going to be out there somehow, helping. I will use what I learned this summer to do it better next time. If I do die in a future catastrophe scenario, which is one of the things that keeps me awake and staring a the ceiling at 4am, it will be handing out soup at an evacuation centre or something. I’ve now rehearsed my role. I am ready.
Yesterday Canberra hit the highest temperature ever; the outer suburbs of Sydney were the hottest on earth. Australia’s summers have always been hot, and, to be honest, I have never enjoyed them as some people do. But summer has quickly gone from annoyingly hot to terrifying. I keep thinking about the famous Hemingway quote about how he went bankrupt: “Two ways. Slowly. Then quickly'”. I thought we had another 10 years or so before it was this bad, but here we are: welcome to climate collapse. It’s really shitty.
What really makes my blood boil is I only see it so clearly because this Australian disaster is the first time rich, mostly white people have been affected at such a massive scale. I have been active in politics for a while, but not with the sense of urgency I should have felt: ‘We have 10 years yet before shit goes down’ was my own internalised narrative. This is bullshit white supremacy in action – yet again. I was indoctrinated with these attitudes as a child and I have to fight them all the time. Right now, some 30,000 people are internally displaced in Jakarta from floods. The Philippines and other tropical places have had devastating typhoons for years. People nearby in the Pacific Islands have been losing farmland for a decade from encroaching tides. Other countries affected by climate change have been begging Australia to stop selling coal, but we seem as hooked on it as ever. Not only do we fail to listen, we double down on being assholes: our politicians have literally been caught laughing at the South Pacific situation on a ‘hot mike’. Oh the shame – it’s at such a scale that I can hardly bear it. Now we will be begging for others to stop hurting us too. In my darker moments, I doubt they will listen either.
It is easy to start feeling hopeless when you look at what passes for ‘leadership’. I actually think our political leaders want us to feel this way. People who feel helpless find it hard to do anything, which is exactly what some powerful people want. Holding on to hope and encouraging other people to be hopeful too is now a political act. We must believe every ‘little’ thing we do for the positive matters. We must do the work.
You, dear reader, are probably doing a PhD. At the best of times, the narrative around the PhD is that it’s pointless. In the middle of a real and pressing disaster, many of you might be feeling even more existential angst about your PhD than usual. Even people at the pointy end doing climate science (you are my heroes), might be thinking ‘what’s the point’. Especially when it’s clear that important people don’t listen, or even actively denigrate you.
I want to say to you right now: what you do matters.
You must believe this and continue to believe it. If you don’t believe it, you’ll be demoralised and distracted. You won’t do your best work – and you MUST do your very best work. The work is the way forward. I’m here to help you with the work in 2020 – and for as long as I can.
Canberra, 5th January, 2020
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