5 Stages of Grief and the Australian Wildfires
In case you’ve been living under a rock (in which case, stay there, there’s probably less smoke), you’ll know by now that Australia has experienced wildfires over the last couple of months that dwarf what California and the Amazon went through last year.
The Australian bush fires have been widely covered in the media, but let’s do a quick summary of the stats^. Earlier this week, approximately 73,000 square kilometres – around the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined – have been burnt and over a billion mammals, birds and reptiles have likely been killed. Tragically, 24 people have died as of Monday, three of whom were volunteer firefighters.
So how has the nation – and the world – reacted? The spectrum has been vast, making analysing the reaction no easy task. So today I wanted to have a look at Australia’s (and in a sense the world’s) ongoing reaction to the Australian bushfires as per the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief.
^Alternatively, check out this link for a more comprehensive overview.
Ok, this one’s obvious. Climate denial is omnipresent in our world, and although Australia’s current government doesn’t exactly deny the effects of climate change outright, they have massively downplayed the role that climate change has played in exacerbating the bushfires. Australia has experienced nine of its hottest 10 years since 2005, and December 18th last year saw a record daily average temperature of 40.9 degrees across the nation. Yes, climate, like any other aspect of the natural world, will have random spikes and troughs, but this goes well beyond that. You can read a pretty comprehensive timeline of our current government’s stance on climate change and bushfires below:
We’ve had some incredible levels of denial lately though, with the fires being blamed on arsonists to the Australian Greens. Whilst arsonists have probably started a small proportion of the fires (in 2018/19 they started around 1.3% of the blazes), the accusation that the Greens contributed to the fires has been labelled ‘simply conspiracy stuff’ by fire experts and former commissioners alike.
In the context of the Kubler-Ross model, bargaining often refers to the need to regain control as a reaction to helplessness. In the case of the bushfires, the efforts of Australians to regain control and have some sort of impact on their fate make a very real difference. Volunteer firefighters have been using crowdsourcing to gain access to better equipment, as the states’ equipment hasn’t been good enough. Australians have been frantically donating anything they can, to the extent that many charities have begged people to stop donating material goods, since it’s taking them too long to sort through. And whilst this sort of response is beyond encouraging, as this anonymous NSW firefighter puts it, it shouldn’t be necessary:
At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be up to the public to be providing funds and equipment for the state’s firefighting services. You wouldn’t expect nurses to start buying their own nitrile gloves or disinfectant if the hospital ran out and this is no different.
Constant pressure from the Australian public has recently led to the deployment of the Army Reserves and other army specialists to help affected areas. The public’s pleas for more assistance seem to be getting heard, but whether the response will be adequate we’re yet to see.
Far from being a progression from denial, the anger sweeping the nation has in this case been a rather natural response to it. Some of it has been misdirected (see the attacks on the Greens). Yet some of it is warranted. Images of Australia’s Prime Minister lounging in Hawaii while the nation burned can’t be forgiven easily, nor can the reluctance to deploy the military reserves until a week ago. The anger shown by locals affected by the fires has been searing, and there’s no better example than the below video, which shows Morrison feeling the wrath of a group of people he’s visited.
The anger hasn’t just been a product of the government’s immediate reaction to the fires, but to the long-term inaction on the part of Australian governments (again, see the article linked in ‘Denial’), especially seeing as scientists have warned that this would happen for years.
Luke Skinner, Secretary of the Climate Justice Union WA articulates how is organisation feels that Australians should channeling this frustration in the link below.
It must be hard for the victims of a bushfire to not feel depressed. Australia has been wracked by drought, heatwaves, and now bushfires this summer, and its only early January, with the worst likely yet to come*. People can lose not only their homes in these blazes, but their livelihoods, and at worst, their loved ones.
Early last year the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Black Saturday Fires took place, in which entire families were lost, and I’d advise reading the retrospective below on some of the emotional impact they caused.
Whilst the number of people lost to the blazes is at this point much lower than in 2009, knowing that it could get worse must be draining the mental health of all those involved. That constant threat can lead to anxiety, depression, and general distress. Anyone suffering mental health issues can read more at Australian Psychological Society website (link below).
Our concept of normal shifts all the time, so it’s important that we remind our kids that we did not grow up with bushfires of this intensity, and we should not accept that there’s nothing we can do about them. Species, habitat and community loss cannot be normalised. The government has already tried to sell events like these bushfires and mass coral bleaching as a regular part of living in Australia.
This is what really terrifies me. The possibility that people will soon accept this as normal.
We need to be not only helping out the victims of these fires, but focusing our energy on the cause of their increased intensity. To quote Professor Nancy Knowlton:
“Social scientists have known for a really long time that if you give people large problems, but don’t present them with ways of coping with them or addressing them then they tend to not care.”
We can’t fall into apathy here and accept that this is how life has to be. This is a Port Arthur moment for Australia’s climate, where we can step up and make immediate changes that will ensure our long-term safety. We used to be told that combatting climate change would ensure a better world for our children. But now it’s obvious that we should be acting for ourselves as well.
*Previous catastrophic bushfire events like Ash Wednesday I and II and Black Saturday all took place in mid February.
If you’d like to help out the affected parts of Australia, please consider donating to victims of the wildfires at either of the following links.
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.