Guilt and dread as floods remind us of ecological crisis

Oct 29, 2022
Rain drops on the ground

The flood crisis engulfing much of Australia reminds us of the future we face in an era of climate change.  Here’s the thing; writing abstractly about something and experiencing it directly are two very different things. Or so I’ve discovered.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been banging on about the existential challenges we’re facing and will likely face as the ecological crisis deepens and widens. I’ve cast doubt on the old binary of hope and despair, and called for a different sort of engagement with what’s before us. I’ve grandly opined that we need different conversations, ways of thinking and being. Some readers have found this interesting, albeit dispiriting and even a touch nihilistic. Others have dismissed my ramblings as misery talk, bereft of the spark needed to sustain life.

Perhaps I’ve just entered a time of panicked self-reflection. After all, what can you do when you’re in the in-between, the unknowing and the unknowable? Certainty flies out of the window, to be replaced, as polls and surveys are telling us, by a pervasive sense of concern and even dread. The bush fires, floods, Covid 19 and now more floods and inundation have taken their toll. Add to this inflation, rising interest rates, energy supply problems and the war in the Ukraine and, hey presto, you have all the ingredients for a new, all-consuming negative zeitgeist.

Back in late February/early March, my partner and I were lucky. We live on one of the highest points on the flat in the small Northern Rivers town of Mullumbimby. Not a single house in our street flooded. Some studios, garages and sheds did, however. The deluge came thundering down the surrounding hills and headed straight into the town centre, mostly sweeping straight passed us.

We helped others to try and clear their homes of thick, pongy sludge. It was depressing work. Amid the tears and the looks of anguish, there was plenty of gallows humour, hugs and storytelling. Yet the depths of suffering were undeniable. Like the mountains of discarded furniture outside sodden homes, the pall of suffocating trauma was palpable; there for all to see.

After days, weeks and months of witnessing the human and environmental impacts of the disaster, my mind was spinning, and it hasn’t really stopped. Sleep patterns disrupted, restlessness, occasional panic attacks are par for the course. Months on, obsessional flood talk is common, especially when the rain falls, or when we view floods in other parts of the continent.

Earlier today, we heard the ABC’s lunchtime news. I wish we hadn’t. Regaled with yet another sobering weather forecast, this time pointing to the likely effects of La Nina, the Indian Ocean Dipole and a cluster of cyclones heading our way, we both froze. Our thoughts went immediately to Lismore, some 40 minutes from Mullumbimby. What will happen to them. Where will they go?

And that’s the problem: where do climate victims move to that’s safe from the climatic standover? Answer: nowhere! Yes, some parts of the mainland are worse than others. It also depends on which sort of extreme weather event we’re talking about, and the landscape and topography in question. When it comes to mainland Australia, and many parts of Tasmania for that matter, there’s really nowhere to hide. That’s the grim conclusion I’ve drawn after reading through every science report I could lay my hands on. This angsty paralysis over where and how to live in the midst of an ecological crisis is consuming a lot of people across our nation, and around the world. It certainly has drawn our collective attention.

The economic divides that scar most societies ensure that materially privileged citizens are more mobile and can therefore seek relative safety and security, while the poor cop the worst and invariably have to stay put, or try and shift to relative safe zones – not easy when there are policy fortresses everywhere. I reflect on all this with a mixture of guilt, helplessness and dread. Here I am with a million+ dollar house, heathy superannuation, and with the ability to seek relative safety in the hills (maybe not in the clay hills around Mullumbimby, though). I can afford to move, should I choose to. We looked at moving to Murwillumbah, half an hour up the road. But my sense of that place is of it being repeatedly monstered, or about to be, by flood waters. Ditto for most towns with rivers flowing through them. (Settlers really should have listened to what Indigenous people were telling them!). Even if I were to stay in Mullum, what if the town floods again? What will that do to the community?

Last weekend we took a drive south to Woodburn nestled on the banks of the Richmond River. It has been utterly devastated by the February/March floods. Most houses are empty. It’s ghostly. Eery. Malaise shrouds the place. You can talk of community spirit all you like, and there is heaps there, but there’s also the nagging question of how on earth people live under the alarmingly potent threat of repeat floods? The residents of Woodburn and other dread zones like Lismore, Mullumbimby, Murwillumbah, further out west, and in Victoria and northern Tasmania are asking themselves this sort of question. Yes, people are ‘resilient’ – a much over-used, some say patronising word – but they feel the anxiety that comes with facing something that is way out of their control. The upshot is an enduring state of uncertainty. You can witness it etched on people’s faces, in how they talk, and what they talk about.

Terms like ‘eco anxiety’ and ‘solastalgia’

These don’t seem to capture the full extent of our emotional and spiritual state in this new reality. I read essays – some of them wonderfully eloquent and heartfelt – that talk of facing ecological disaster with courage and acceptance. I have used such terms without really reflecting upon them. They are, dare I say, sounding increasingly like spiritual advisories imparted by the mobile eco-elites – easily trotted out in retreats and workshops. At one level, they make sense. But they can also jar. I recently came across this glib observation. ‘…you can truly accept the situation at hand and be perfectly content with it, despite how inconvenient it may be’. Ho hum.

What comes to mind here is the account of a flood victim returning to her renovated home in devastated Lismore. As she lay in a warm bubble bath, she suddenly felt utterly discombobulated by the prospect of more heavy weather to come. She couldn’t escape the shadow of dread. Not surprisingly, she found acceptance – at least the glib sort – a touch difficult to contemplate. She was seeking a way out, but there didn’t seem to be one.

But let’s not be too hasty, here. I’ve read a lot of the spiritual, mind-body-spirit and psychological literature on acceptance and courage. Much of it strikes me as disengaged baloney. There’s talk aplenty of the importance of gratitude or appreciation in the quest for peace and happiness. Mindfulness is recommended as a way of stilling the troubled, ruminating mind. We’re advised too, as mindfulness advocate Jon Kabat Zinn says, that active acceptance takes ‘fortitude and motivation’ which then enables you to ‘work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed.’

Zinn offers a sensible way of avoiding what is often referred to as ‘spiritual bypassing’, that is, immersing oneself in mindful bliss while refusing to address the very thing that is causing suffering. The fact is that some things just can’t be neutralised; the body will do the talking, the mind will revert to what is. In the current reality of ecological crisis, Zinn’s prescription may rub against the pressing urgency that confronts those who have no immediate or medium-term escape from their circumstances. For example, a sense of stuck-ness permeates the lives of tens of thousands of Australians in flood prone areas. If you’re in a house that has been flooded and whose market value has plummeted with little prospect of being bought out or relocated, then the spiritual advisories will likely irritate and make little sense. They’re likely to mean even less to people in Pakistan or Venezuela or parts of Africa and the Middle East which, as we speak, are in the epicentres of interlocking extreme weather events. This is the new global reality.

It’s hard in such circumstances to practice the stoic virtues of courage and acceptance when your safety and security are entirely compromised. Sure, they can offer some respite, some peace, and enable you to cope with what’s afoot. But the emotional pressure may be unremitting, especially if there’s the imperative to move, and soon. But to where, and how? The way in which displaced, poor people in ‘developing’ countries are treated within their own borders, let alone in seeking refuge in richer countries, suggests that shifting to new locales is far from easy. That’s why I cringe at my own anxieties, especially when I compare my experiences to the world’s poorest. Not that there’s anything all that new about this existential chasm. It’s just that it’s getting a whole lot worse, care of the ecological crisis caused largely by richer nations.

Population movements resulting from deteriorating climatic conditions are occurring more regularity around the world, including within materially prosperous nations where mobile elites are already shifting to what they consider safer havens. It’s happening on a grand scale in the US, for example, with thousands abandoning flood and fire-prone areas to flee to safer enclaves. The new sites of ecological survivalism do not always have walls and gates, but they might as well have, such are the privileges accorded to the better off and the exclusions that bare down on the poor and marginalised. As climate refugees are shut out of richer nations like the US and across Europe, and as ecological conditions deteriorate, we are likely to see global disparities worsen. In this context, words like courage, resilience and acceptance might come to sound more like virtue signalling than spiritual respite. As time goes on, the language and ideas we currently employ to sustain us in troubled times may need to be revisited. There are new conversations that await us as the ecological crisis unfolds. You can already hear these emerging in the liminal spaces between certainty and unknowing confusion. It’s here that new insights will, I think, inform how we respond to chaos and collapse. For this to occur, especially in many atomised western societies, meaningful social connection will offer the best chance of making life bearable.

Clearly though, more immediate practical measures are needed – measures that might bolster the capacity of the most powerless to exercise acceptance and courage! Adaptation investments on a grand scale are required. This could involve the redistribution of wealth and income across the globe. Domestically, the Australian government could choose to drop tax cuts to the already rich (as per the stage three tax cuts) and hand this money over to those in flood prone communities so they can repair or relocate. Consideration too should be given to a stock transaction tax, the proceeds of which might be put into various adaptation projects. National governments could impose a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies that have profited handsomely since the outbreak of the Ukraine war. And richer, greenhouse gas spewing nations might actually honour the pitifully small annual amount of $100 billion per annum pledged to poorer nations over a decade ago. They might also commit to significant progress on climate finance and support the creation of a loss and damage fund.

The leaders of poorer nations which contribute the least to biospheric pollution have over decades begged and pleaded for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and financial help for adaptation – with only modest results. It is this lack of virtue – to accept responsibility, compensate, support and aid – that contrasts so sharply with the pious virtue signalling we so often hear.

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