March 2020

Essays

James Button

The climate interviews

Photograph by Chase Middleton

In the face of the looming catastrophes of climate change, how do we talk when we’re lost for words? The author speaks with everyday Australians to see if we can articulate hope and provoke action

She always knew she wanted kids. Even at five years old, she had to hold any baby who came into the house. She loved going along when her mother worked as a volunteer in a home for abandoned children. As Jayde Harding grew up, whenever she heard a nice name, she would try to remember it. 

Her family migrated from South Africa to Perth in 1999, when she was 10. After university, Harding studied film and television in Melbourne, grew to love the place and stayed. She made films, acted on stage, had relationships, made plans. Her days were full. One day, she would have children, the natural step in a happy life.

It’s mid January, the worst of the fires has passed, but outside the cafe where we meet Melbourne is blanketed in smoke. A girl rides past wearing a face mask. The world’s most liveable city, with the world’s worst air.

Harding says it was 2018, the year she turned 30, when she really started taking notice. “It crept in slowly,” she says. She read a lot of articles, wrestled with the science. In October, the official global body of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released its “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC”. If there was a tipping point for Harding, that was it. 

She read that some climate scientists thought the IPCC’s findings had once again been too conservative. She read reports of rising alarm within the Australian Defence Force. “Hardly soy flat white drinkers like me,” she says, pointing at her coffee. In a short time, a peripheral concern became a central anxiety. 

In February last year, the Australian Conservation Foundation and 1 Million Women, an organisation of climate-change activists, published a survey of 6500 women showing that about a third of those under 30 were reconsidering having children, or any more children, because of climate change. The survey was far from representative – the organisations had polled only their own supporters – but even so, Harding was nonplussed. The women in the survey were people like her, yet no one in her circles talked about this issue. Was no one thinking what she was constantly thinking – wondering whether she could bring a child into a world that might be descending into catastrophe at the very outset of that person’s adult life? 

The question was consuming her. So, she decided to make a film about it. “I didn’t want to make it,” Harding says. “It was my way of grappling with the issue. I wanted to find people who had been through this and then made a decision.”

On Facebook she asked for interview subjects. About 150 people, nearly all women, replied to one post. Their responses were intense, searching: “I have not spoken about this to anyone”; “I have not told my partner”; “What are other people saying?” Their concerns were much less about the carbon footprint of the children they might have than about the world these children might inherit. Harding did four long interviews in two days. “After that I sat on my couch and sobbed.” 

As she made her film, life and work merged. One day she told her dad she didn’t know whether she was going to have children. “He’s very jokey, he loves to tease me about my ‘radical lefty’ views. But when I said this he just stopped. His whole mood changed. He was, like, ‘Really?’ 

“I’m his youngest child, his only daughter. He really wants this for me. My mum really wants this for me. But it’s not about me.” 

I ask her to paint the world she fears is coming. She thinks: “I worry that our food systems will fail; there won’t be enough food and water to go around. Towns in Australia are already running out of water. I worry that less and less of Australia will be habitable because of the heat. I worry that the rule of law will fall. In my darkest moments I wonder if I should be burying cans of food somewhere for when it all goes down. But where? Violence against women will go up, entire populations will become refugees, how do we deal with that? Will it start wars? Invasions? People fighting each other over food and water?”

Near our table, a young mother is having coffee with a friend; her baby sits in a highchair while her toddler stands by unsteadily, gripping a chair leg. Harding leans forward and lowers her voice: “I know I sound like I’m crazy.” 

So, I ask, have you decided? Are you going to have children? In that moment, I think I see tears in her eyes. 

“I don’t know, but I don’t think I will have kids,” she says. “The time lines are just so scary. All the predictions keep getting worse. And governments are doing nothing. 

“If the world changed, if it looked like we were getting on top of this, then I would change my mind. But I don’t think we will.”

To have a child may be the oldest, most elemental, act of hope. It shows that life will always go on, and however bad things are, life can get better. What does it mean, then, when a group of young women – at this stage a small and no doubt privileged group, but also a group that reads the news – is saying, “Life stops with me”? Perhaps the answer lies in the title of her short, stunning film. She called it Inconceivable.

I know I sound like I’m crazy. A few years ago, maybe. But in the past two years – for most people, no longer than that – something has changed. Language once confined to science fiction – civilisational collapse, emergency, extinction – has crept into the pages of scientific reports, parliamentary records, the august medical journal The Lancet. The suited and sober heads of the United Nations and BHP speak of “existential threat”. A report signed by 11,000 scientists and published in November warns of “untold human suffering” without urgent action to address climate change. “Our house is burning. Literally,” tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019, a year of so many fires – in the Amazon, the Arctic, Australia, and other places – that the European Space Agency asked: “Is Earth on fire?” 

And, of course, the typically cautious IPCC published its “1.5 degrees” report, depicting a world racing towards crisis by 2040, without “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” for which “there is no documented historic precedent”.

Looking up from reading these reports, sometimes you have to pinch yourself. In my corner of inner-city Melbourne, a warbling magpie on the wire announces the morning. The local cafe is full; later there will be skateboarders and kissing couples in the park. When I walk the dog in the late afternoon, the shouts of cricketers rise from the oval, and the advancing evening is so lovely – even this summer – that I struggle to reconcile the irrefutable evidence of the science with the immediate evidence of my senses. Civilisational collapse, because of a change in the weather? 

But something is stirring, and maybe shifting. Six-year-olds are able to discuss the fate of the Earth, and 16-year-olds are on strike to save it. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is now reportedly the business of every business, government, university, think tank, community organisation and sporting club. Investment funds controlling trillions of dollars promise to get out of coal, while Shane Warne worries that runaway heat and drought might kill cricket. On May 1 last year, the United Kingdom’s government became the world’s first to declare a climate emergency; 17 days later a wave of anxiety and anger in the leafiest suburbs of Sydney swept a former prime minister who dismissed the idea of climate change as “absolute crap” out of his seat. “Climate politics will soon enough define all politics in ways none of us can fathom,” Chris Barrett, a former adviser to federal Labor governments and to the European Climate Foundation, told me. Change is still very little, and late, but it might give us a shot. As British philosopher John Gray wrote in 2019: “the state of the planet is forcing itself into the centre of the human mind”. 

In July last year I put a message online asking people to tell me how, if at all, climate change was entering their minds. I wanted to hear a mix of big thoughts and the mundane reveries we have in the shower, the supermarket, the park, in the middle of the night. I thought that if we could understand whether a version of Gray’s idea was true, we might get a better handle on what to do next, or at least protect a stubborn hope that something can be done. 

About 120 people replied, sometimes at length, and I did about 30 separate interviews. The written responses, at least, are mostly from people who are well educated and relatively well-off. They are revealing nonetheless, because they show how challenging and elusive is the subject of climate change, even for the social class apparently most focused on it, inner-city progressives like me.


Jacqueline Magee, a 31-year-old education policy analyst and teacher:

I would like to pretend that I have always cared deeply about climate change, or at least since I became part of the lefty urban elite about 12 or so years ago. But this probably isn’t true. I buy carbon offsets for my flights, recycle some stuff, try not to waste water. But the truth is I haven’t really gone out of my way to do anything spectacular to save the planet. Since I discovered I was expecting a baby, I have worried a lot more. Is the planet going to live long enough to sustain this life I already care about more than my own? When I was 28 weeks pregnant, I was snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, filled with awe and gratitude at its beauty, and wondering: will my son ever get to see this? I’m not sure he will. And I don’t know what I can do about it. So, I guess I will just keep worrying, and recycling my soft plastics a little more frequently.


“Immediate, unvarnished feelings – frightened, frustrated and helpless,” writes a magistrate. A manager of migrant services: “I feel utterly defeated by climate change.” A writer and education analyst: “I do think we’ve passed the point of no return and find myself committing that primary sin in the catechism of the Left: failure to perform the duty of optimism; worse, cynicism, despair.”

I know these people and have never seen any of them in despair. They have good jobs, are always up for a laugh, and seem to thoroughly enjoy their lives. Maybe they’re not really as miserable about climate change as they say. Or maybe their sorrow is private. Or, if I think of my own experience, maybe it’s something else.

I became an adult in the 1980s, just as collective awareness of climate change began to stir. Since then I kept up with events, if at a distance. I observed Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, droughts, floods, hurricanes, the tortured birth and swift death of Australia’s emissions trading scheme. I read books by Tim Flannery and Bill McKibben, went to a few demos, rode my bike as much as I could. My partner and I put solar panels on the roof. We had children, ate meat, drove, flew. People talked in a new way about the weather. It’s hot, isn’t it? I don’t think it was this hot when we were kids. That’s got to be climate change.

For those 30 or so years, as Australia never once slipped into recession, as the supermarket shelves filled with a profusion of cheap goods and produce that would have astonished the kings and emperors of old, as Jetstar began offering $370 flights to Japan, as nature documentaries and screensavers grew more hauntingly beautiful while nature herself wilted outside the window, it turns out that an event of world historical importance had been unfolding before our eyes, but we couldn’t see it. Half of all the carbon dioxide that humans have put into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has been emitted in the past 30 years. In other words, we have doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the air in the time since the dangers of doing so became widely known, and since powerful people, from the United States president down, pledged to do something about it. 

All of us, including most scientists, thought we had more time. When I worked in the Australian Public Service 10 years ago, it was assumed that severe changes in the climate would not be felt until the 2030s, giving Australia time to undertake “mitigation” before it turned to “adaptation”, as the bloodless jargon has it. It would all be orderly, in the public service way.

Instead, we have become like passengers in a boat, floating on a once gentle stream that has turned into a stronger river, long aware of a distant thrumming gradually getting louder – until, all at once we have swept around a corner and been tossed into rapids, oars useless, some people shouting, others still enjoying the view, and no one at all clear what lies beyond the next bend. 

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” writes American journalist David Wallace-Wells, in the first line of The Uninhabitable Earth. Environmental campaigner Bill McKibben writes, in Falter: “What I’m calling the human game is unimaginably deep, complex, and beautiful. It is also endangered. Indeed, it is beginning to falter even now.” As I read these books, both published last year, some dim, deeply buried sorrow rose up. Then the ground closed over. I kept my thoughts to myself, and got on with my life. 

A survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication last year found that 67 per cent of Americans believe global warming is happening but 64 per cent say they “rarely” or “never” talk about it with family and friends. My experience is that people do discuss climate change but only glancingly. “I can only come at this stuff in bursts,” writes a friend. “I blanked out a bit in response to your message,” writes another, before revealing that when she raised the issue with a work colleague, he casually told her he thought humans had one more generation left to live. 

In a restaurant, I told a friend about the subject of this article. He sighed: “I feel like we’re on Easter Island, with three trees left, and six men running around with axes saying, ‘We need more wood.’ ” I asked whether this knowledge would change his life. For example, he flies overseas often for his work – would he change that? No, he said, he wouldn’t. He sounded regretful but resigned. Later, we went to a bar, gossiped about old friends, laughed a lot. 

During the fires, Sanaya Khisty, a friend in her late twenties who is very focused on climate change, texted to say that her anxiety levels were “pretty high”. All her friends were talking about the children issue. Also, “I asked Will to marry me last night and he said yes!”

Last year I had a meal in town with my 23-year-old son. He walked into the dumpling place a little agitated. “Dad, I’ve been reading about climate change. I’m worried.” This worried me – he’s a very calm guy. 

For the first time, beyond my using climate change to scold him for leaving lights on or staying too long in the shower, we talked about it. I tried to reassure him, without feeding him bullshit. Things were serious, but there were many different views; no one knew what would happen.

That night I understood why young people might feel more strongly about the subject than anyone else. It’s not just about the far greater number of years ahead of them. It’s about their libidinous attachment to life. My life might yet throw up some surprises but even if it’s long, it’s two thirds over, and its course is pretty much set. For young people the years ahead are mysterious, unscripted, beckoning. Climate change violates that promise. 

It also damages the bonds between old and young, built on trust and truth, and handing things on in reasonable shape. Both sides feel they are betraying the hopes of the other, as Jayde Harding must have done when she broke her news to her dad. A Canadian friend, Patricia Pearson, a writer, describes watching climate-change stories on the news with her two children, both in their early twenties: “Sidelong, they look at me for reassurance; sidelong, I try to give it.” A woman in her eighties writes “What I won’t tell my grandchildren”, before sharing her fears with me. 

And so we struggle to talk about the biggest issue on Earth. Spencer Glendon is an American economist whose job is getting businesspeople to respond to climate change by genuinely changing the way their companies work. He told The New Yorker that when he started this work 10 years ago he noticed that normally “you can get people in the business community interested in just about anything. You can get uptight white guys to talk about erectile dysfunction and diarrhea, if there are stocks involved. But you couldn’t get them to talk about climate change.”

Uptight white guys who deal in stocks have certainly been lagging. But they’re hardly alone. Climate change is invisible, incremental, insidious… and therefore ignorable. It is also systemic. Emissions are embedded into so many daily acts of modern life. 


Paul Posterino, a 47-year-old teacher, writes: 

I teach at a middle-ring-suburb private school, where the students’ substantial fees are paid for by the perspiration, aspiration and even speculation of their parents and grandparents. Climate change is a distant thought in the mornings, when a boa-constrictor line of prestige SUVs snakes its way in and out of the school drop-off zone. Few kids walk to school and even fewer ride, but the urban design is hostile to that kind of thinking. There isn’t even a zebra crossing outside our school gates. I used to ride to my previous workplace, but only the truly committed would make the death run here through industrial estates and narrow suburban streets, where high-vis, alpha males in deluxe utes rule with a white-knuckled grip. I am part of the school’s Social Justice Club, a fringe group who try to recycle soft plastics, start worm farms and petition politicians. Our voice is feeble and ineffectual, but we persist. I am aware of my hypocrisy as I drive home on the freeway, plotting my international flight to a faraway paradise. I keep a small vegie garden, a compost bin and have planted as many trees as will fit in my humble allotment, one of many subdivided townhouse developments. I shake a small fist at a big problem.


Climate change has come along at a time when many people have abandoned a faith in collective politics. Of the 120 or so people who responded to my message, maybe 10 had joined Extinction Rebellion or other groups such as Climate for Change or Lighter Footprints. These people tended to express more optimism and sense of purpose, perhaps confirming Greta Thunberg’s idea that if you act, hope opens up. No one in my survey spoke of getting active in an established political party, including the Greens, except for two members of the ALP, both men in their early eighties. More common themes were recycling and consumption. When I made a word cloud of the 40,000 words people had written in total, there was much use of hopefutureplanet and children. But by far the most popular word, used twice as much as any other, was plastic

On one level, this makes sense. Plastic anxiety reflects the unease of the affluent middle class about consumption, and the fact that most people have no choice but to go to the supermarket and benefit from its cornucopia of goods at ridiculous prices, even while sensing that ever-increasing abundance and affluence cannot be sustained on a finite planet. And unlike a warming atmosphere, we can see a six-pack ring stuck around a bird’s neck, or the vast, floating plastic landscape, as big as Texas, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

But on another level, it makes no sense at all. Plastic waste doesn’t have a lot to do with climate change. All the research shows that if you want to make a personal difference to emissions, eat less meat, buy an electric car – and, above all, don’t fly. The average Australian produces more emissions than citizens of any nation except a few Gulf states. Up to a half of that average annual output can be generated by one return flight to London alone. 

Yet flying is a particularly hard habit to give up, especially for the progressive middle class, so keen to travel and experience other cultures. My Facebook feed is full of excited posts from around the world. In Europe there is a movement to fly less and lower one’s levels of flygskam, a Swedish word denoting “flight shame”. It is harder to avoid flying in Australia, with its size and poor public transport. Nevertheless, Mark Carter, a 65-year-old Melbourne graphic designer, has formed the organisation Flight Free Australia, to raise awareness of the damage caused by flying. Carter says his commitment to no longer fly is his way of recognising a new normal, in which none of us can keep living the way we have. But no other person in my survey was prepared to make that kind of commitment. 

I don’t say that to shame anyone. I’ve done my share of flying. But the very least we can do is recognise the contradiction. Sean Cooney, a professor of law at the University of Melbourne, told me that in the previous few months he had flown overseas three times for his job. He tries to restrict his travel but notes that these flights alone attributed to him 10 times the total annual carbon emissions of an Indian. They were also “probably a lot more than most climate sceptic Pauline Hanson voters”. 

Cooney’s point nails it. Apart from the super-rich, conservatives or populists don’t emit more than progressives. Emissions don’t drift left or right; they go straight up. 

“Study after study finds that the primary determinant of a person’s actual ecological footprint is income,” writes David Roberts, climate-change reporter for Vox, in the US. Key factors in individual emissions are dwelling size, amount of consumption and number of holidays; not “recycling and buying canvas tote bags full of organic veggies”. A German study cited by Roberts found that the actions emphasised by people who identify as environmentalist tend to have relatively small ecological benefits. “In fact, energy use and carbon footprints were slightly higher among self-identified greenies.” 

These findings might be modified in Australia, with high solar panel take-up among the middle class, but the larger point holds. Yes, there are some deniers in positions of power who need to be fought. Otherwise, with climate change there is no good or bad side, no enemy, no “other”. We are all in this together. Understanding this might give us the humility and empathy we will need in the time to come. 


“That log over there was where we learnt to swim. That’s what we’d hang onto. Bit of a panic if you let go and drifted off, the older ones would have to come and get you.”  

Standing on the bank of the Murray River in the Victorian town of Barmah, Paul Briggs points across to the site of the old Cummeragunja Mission Station, where he grew up. At 65, Briggs can still spot the logs, mussel shells and middens he knew as a boy around the river, which the Yorta Yorta call Dungala. But many things have gone, the result of white settlement, economic development and climate change, three tides of history that Briggs bundles into one: 

The mussels in the river are disappearing; leeches, certain fishes are disappearing, the river’s up and down artificially. When the river’s up, birds start breeding, putting nests in the bank. The river drops and they get caught without water and support. But you’ve gotta get the water onto those rice and cotton farms, you gotta get water to those industries that depend on it – that’s the economy churning. We are not part of that thinking. We are sitting on the riverbank still, watching the water go up and down.

Briggs is president of the Rumbalara Football Netball Club in his home town of Shepparton, among many other roles. He has spent his life fighting to help his people find their place in the mainstream while maintaining their way of life. Although that struggle is endless, with many setbacks, Briggs moves confidently in Western society. Yet his ties to ancient Yorta Yorta life are recent and strong: his great-grandmother lived on her land, in the traditional way, by the Moira Lakes in the Barmah Forest. 

“That act of dispossession was so brutal and so swift,” Briggs says. “Her children could speak our language, the next generation could not, and the aftermath is still with us.

“Can the Yorta Yorta have the luxury of a dream about the future?” Briggs hopes that climate change will provoke non-Indigenous people to think in new ways about the land and environment. “I’m not sure if Western society can change its behaviour but I think we Aboriginal people have a lot to offer.” 

On the other hand, he says, “we don’t see any answers being put on the table about our survival, or the survival of the rivers we have lived along for thousands of years. Climate change is symptomatic of the depth of the abuse that has been delivered to the flora and fauna, to the Indigenous place that is now called Australia. We’re a part of that abuse. The rivers and the environment are dying with us.” As Briggs speaks, his words are momentarily drowned out by the chug of a pleasure boat ploughing up the river.

Two hours drive south-east of where Briggs stands, Anthony Griffiths, 51, runs a farm at Greta West, near Wangaratta. Some of the farm has been in the family since settlement, and Griffiths is now replanting the trees taken out by his forebears. He writes:

Climate change is often in my thoughts. Cattle produce large quantities of methane, but if I did not run cattle, what could I do with my land, which is not suited to cropping or horticulture? The industry answer is to intensify, which reduces methane and is more productive, but being stuck in small pens of dirt and mud reduces the livestock’s quality of life, whereas mine roam freely in their paddocks, able to eat and sleep where they wish. Kangaroos produce virtually no methane and are very edible, but neither the government nor the red-meat industry has any interest in pursuing a kangaroo-meat industry. And so our colonial past continues to limit our imaginations of a possible future.

From the most hard-nosed farmers to community sportspeople there is wide agreement that the climate has changed, and that the way things were done before will not work anymore. What will the landscape look like if most of the existing vegetation is dead due to the climate shift? As more properties have houses built and each puts down another bore to tap into the ground water, as I see springs that fed little creeks and native wells in my grandfather’s time now dry and dusty, I wonder how long the underground aquifers can hold out, and when water authorities will realise water is not endless.

I also ponder the great climatic changes Indigenous people survived and prospered through. Even my own family’s adaptions to living and farming in a landscape that was so different to their native UK give me hope that when humanity realises that we must change, we will find ways to do so. 

This summer’s fires bring closer what Briggs and Griffiths saw coming. Not today, but not in the faraway future either, Australia is in trouble. CSIRO scientist David Karoly saw it 11 years ago when he said: “We are unleashing hell on Australia.” 

All our big cities and 80 per cent of our people are on the coast, subject both to sea-level rise and water scarcity. Perth already has two desalination plants, Melbourne one. In the interior, remote Aboriginal communities are struggling to survive in staggering heat. Feral camels have invaded settlements in search of water. “If we don’t do anything, the NT will become unliveable,” said Northern Territory environment minister Eva Lawler last year.

Perhaps it’s not just the Territory. Dave Griggs is a climate scientist who used to run the Monash Sustainable Development Institute at Monash University but who has returned to his native Britain, partly for climate reasons. In 2017 Griggs told the ABC Lateline program that people in Darwin and Brisbane should think about leaving. He told me he knows CSIRO scientists who have bought places to live in Tasmania, in preparation for hotter, darker times. An ANU tool developed last year to visualise climate data calculates that by 2050 – 30 years from now – Tasmania will be the only part of Australia to have a discernible winter. 

In 2018, the National Resilience Taskforce published “Profiling Australia’s Vulnerability”. Couched in the careful prose of the public service, the report notes that Australia’s infrastructure and social, economic and environmental systems have evolved slowly and surely, in times of stability and prosperity. As a result, we tend to assume, “often unconsciously”, that they will always work, and that our lives will “continue in safety and security”. But in a “rapidly changing natural environment”, Australians’ resilience, of which we are so proud, is eroding. 

“Against this backdrop,” the report states, “catastrophic consequences from natural hazards intersecting with societies are not only possible but are highly plausible, and their effects will likely exceed the capacity of the nation. The consequential damage, loss and suffering would be immense and enduring” [my emphasis]. 

This is the report that Prime Minister Scott Morrison stands accused of having ignored, a charge he denies. The head of the taskforce, Mark Crosweller, a former senior public servant in Peter Dutton’s Department of Home Affairs and of Emergency Manageme, told The Australian Financial Reviewin January that policy on climate change at all levels of government had been “confusing and difficult” and there was “still a big gap within the context of existing leadership capability”. 

“We’ve got to get out of the habit of living in ignorance of what’s possible,” Crosweller said.

Decoded, Crosweller’s message is clear. The world has changed. We need to look this fact square in the face and respond. But we are not doing so. 

Is our political system even capable of responding, geared as it is only to evolutionary change? The catastrophic bushfires have diminished Morrison, perhaps fatally, revealing him as unable to empathise with people suffering trauma, unable to offer comfort or hope to a country filled with fears for the future. Morrison has gone quiet on celebrating “the quiet Australians”, since many no longer are. 

The question looms not only for Morrison but for Anthony Albanese. His party has a substantially stronger commitment than the government to reduce emissions. Even so, the Labor leader cannot tell the full truth about climate change, since it might expose his solution as not being up to the job. And to be fair, even now the iron laws of democratic politics still apply: hope is a duty; your vision of the future must inspire not frighten; you have to bring people with you. If you don’t, the only warming you will prevent is that of your own bums on the government benches. 

And so the irresistible force of physics meets the almost immovable object of politics. “Democracies are not designed to be efficient, they are designed to ensure everyone gets heard,” says John Daley, chief executive of the Grattan Institute. “But when they finally move, they can move very fast.” Will that be fast enough? 

Six months ago, I spoke with the climate researcher David Spratt. His book Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (co-authored with environmental activist Philip Sutton) made the case 12 years ago for shifting the political frame from one of incrementalism and gradual ratchets of policy levers to acceptance that we were living in an emergency. “It’s 1938 and people still think we can have peace in our time,” he tells me. “We need Churchill. It’s decision-making for end times.” 

Spratt, 69, labels himself with a defiant grin as “a politically self-identified outsider – always have been and always will be”. A socialist, he has worked on many political campaigns while for many years running a graphic design business and a yoga studio. But climate change has brought him to a surprising place. 

Through writing his book, Spratt got to know Ian Dunlop, a former Shell executive. Dunlop had chaired both the Australian Coal Association and prime minister John Howard’s expert group on emissions trading. A Scot by birth, an engineer who once drilled for oil in the North Sea, Dunlop describes himself as apolitical, but he is part of Australia’s business and political elite. Yet over more than 30 years he has grown increasingly alarmed by what he sees as the refusal of that elite to confront the threat of climate change. 

He and Spratt began to write together, shaking hands across the great political divide. The pair’s 2018 paper, “What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk”, argues that the professional reticence of scientists, the “cognitive dissonance” of politicians, and the refusal of business and others to confront climate change using standard paradigms of risk, is producing a “policy failure of epic proportions”. Human survival is threatened because the truth lies outside the window of conventional debate and policy formation. 

Spratt’s work with Dunlop has been praised by leading German climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber and former Australian Defence Force chief Chris Barrie. But what interests me more is Spratt’s approach to the politics of climate change. Although socialism is in vogue again in the West, and its supporters see the looming crisis tilting history in their favour, Spratt dismisses that kind of talk. 

“There won’t be a revolution, there’s no time,” he says. “And it’s not a left–right issue. If it’s a partisan approach, we’re stuffed. If we have to smash capitalism as a necessary precursor to real climate action, then we are all going to end up very hot.”

Instead, Spratt sees capitalists as holding the key to the crisis. “In my warped view of the world, the issue is business. Business needs to call this out and say that if we don’t act, we understand that our grandkids are going to die in hell. But there might be a way out. If half a dozen of the biggest companies said, ‘Oh fuck, this is the end, we need to act’, the politicians would fold.”

Spratt and Dunlop’s rough plan calls for unprecedented global cooperation, an immediate end to all new fossil-fuel extraction, and the creation of governments of national unity that would start making heavy investments in research and technology to speed the necessary economic transformation. Such governments might introduce a carbon price, along with emissions standards for power stations and cars. They would create a system of carbon rationing – limits on flights, for example – that in the interests of fairness would protect poorer people and fall more heavily on the better-off. 

Spratt accepts that such large-scale government intervention is unlikely to please conservatives, but he points out that the World War Two mobilisation in the US “saw a lot of employment and healthy profits for business”. Spratt has proposed a way to frame the political narrative that might appeal to conservatives and to Labor. Governments’ core duty, he writes, is protection: to keep their people, and those who come after them, safe. 

Spratt’s analysis sparks the thought that the radical approach we need is only possible if conservatives, or at least some of them, are on board. But two things trouble me. A good deal of evidence suggests that talk of emergency puts a lot of people off. “People who see the world as just, orderly and stable have a deep-seated loathing of this kind of apocalyptic messaging,” writes British activist George Marshall, who examines the communication of climate change in his book Don’t Even Think About It

It is true that an Australia Institute poll, taken during the fires last November, found that two thirds of Australians agreed that “governments should mobilise all of society to tackle climate change, like they mobilised everyone during the world wars”. But one poll does not prove that business and the public are anywhere near endorsing the kind of wartime mobilisation Spratt and Dunlop propose. Spratt admits to disappointment that no leading business figure called for dramatic change after the bushfires. The work of Rebecca Huntley, a leading social researcher whose book on how to communicate climate change will be published this month, might help to explain why. 

When we first spoke, in spring 2019, Huntley said that while public concern about climate change was rising sharply, it was still not shaping how most people voted. An analysis of the 2019 election result she conducted for the World Wildlife Fund found that Australians who were less educated, poorer, and lived in rural and regional areas, were especially switched off from the issue. 

Huntley’s research suggests that the war-footing message resonates most powerfully with the two groups on either side of the political spectrum: those who are alarmed by climate change and those who dismiss it as an issue. She says this second group is quite small – less than 10 per cent of the population – even if some within it run big countries and companies. The war language energises this group “because it proves to them that climate activists are agitating to reorganise power structures in our society via this complete mobilisation”. 

In the middle – perhaps half the population – are people who express varying levels of concern, caution, doubt or disengagement about the issue. In July last year Huntley conducted online focus groups on attitudes to renewable energy and coal among residents of outer suburban Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The groups comprised people in two, sometimes intersecting, categories: those with lower levels of education, and swinging voters who described themselves as concerned or somewhat concerned about the environment but who did not vote Labor or Green in the 2019 election. Huntley says they came from many backgrounds and were ethnically diverse, but they were united by a sense of “patriotism and optimism about this country. How good is Australia? Pretty good.” 

These people accepted the truth of climate change and loved renewables. But they saw the problem as distant rather than immediate. They rarely talked about it. They thought the media overplayed it and disliked the debate’s remote and inaccessible language, its “doom and gloom” tone. When asked about scientists’ views that the world might have 10 years to act or face catastrophe,their reaction was explosive, almost hostile. “Scare tactics – that can’t be true. Where’s the evidence?” 

Huntley says only one environmental message inspired these groups. “It was relentlessly positive. Australians are clever. We have come up with inventions like wi-fi. We should be world leaders in renewable energy, allowing us to generate jobs and address rising cost-of-living pressures.” 

Have the fires changed their opinion? Huntley says it’s too soon to tell. “Don’t be fooled by your Twitter feed – think about people who see climate change as a 20- to 30-year time horizon. The failure of services, the fact that government saw it coming but failed to act – that is what will upset them. That presents an opportunity for a conversation.” 

Huntley says that many in the focus groups had “genuine and open questions” about how climate change might transform their world. That is why the “post-election trolling of Queenslanders, and the characterisation of people who resist climate messages as mean and stupid bogans” was so disastrous. 

In other words, people who feel strongly about climate change need to find a way to talk to people who think differently, without superiority or anger. They probably need a new language, too. Huntley says that many terms used by environmentalists – sustainability, diversity, social justice – turn off people outside progressive circles. “So much climate-change language is about massive economic, social and cultural change. It carries that influence of the social movements of the left, the sense that we need a dramatic reorganisation of society. But most people don’t want to be reorganised.” 

Huntley asked the focus groups about a “Green New Deal”, the proposal of left-wing Democrats in the US to create a mass mobilisation of society to fight climate change in the way that Franklin Roosevelt introduced the sweeping economic New Deal to fight the Depression. “People didn’t know what it was,” Huntley says. “Someone said, ‘I think it’s an American thing.’ When it was explained, they hated it. They said things like, ‘But isn’t this about more solar panels and less coal and looking after koalas?’”

She sighs. “This [divide] may be the big thing that gets us all undone.”

A study from France echoes what Huntley heard in the Australian suburbs. Tim Dixon is a former speechwriter for Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He now runs More in Common, an organisation that seeks to fight polarisation and find common ground among communities in Britain, the US, France and Germany. Late last year it conducted a survey on views of climate change among 6000 French people of generally low education and income.

Dixon says the poll showed that climate denial is a much smaller issue than the media often makes out. A much bigger problem is a loss of faith in government and corporations, and in elites of both right and left. “Very few people deny the reality of climate change,” he says, “but they don’t trust institutions to be able to fix it. People in this group feel strongly that the world is not fair right now. They don’t feel listened to or respected.” 

In Dixon’s view, that is why any narrative of emergency, or of the massive scale of the crisis, only reinforces this group’s feelings of lack of agency, and does not motivate people to act. What does resonate are ideas about taking back control. “In one group, someone talked about making her own detergent. Everyone wanted to talk about it – how did she do that? People want clean food; they don’t want to wash clothes in poisonous chemicals. They want anything that makes life better for their kids.”

Huntley and Dixon both say the best approach to communicating climate change is to stay positive, focus on building trust in the political system and on a fairer deal for those who are missing out, and to not stress crisis or conflict. But such nuanced views are getting lost as politics polarises and right and left become warring tribes. Cass Sunstein’s 2019 book, Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, cites studies showing that a group of people who hold diverging views, put into the same room, will try to find common ground. But ask a group of like-minded people to discuss a topic and they will compete to adopt the most extreme position. The problem, says Dixon, “is that we’re losing forums for the first kind of conversation, while we’re having the second kind every day – on Twitter”. 

In January, Science Minister Karen Andrews said that climate denial was wasting precious time needed to address climate change. Instead of encouraging Andrews for what seemed like a sensible contribution to the debate, given that she works in a government that contains climate deniers, my Twitter feed erupted in scorn and personal attacks: “Oh, we have a Science Minister?” and “Amazing what some shit polling can do. I didn’t know the person existed until today.” 

We have to get past such incontinent rage. The world is on fire as it is. 


“I think most Liberal voters firmly believe we need to take action on climate change, even if there are some who still want to argue the science,” says Victorian Liberal shadow treasurer Louise Staley. 

“Part of my job and that of the parliamentary leadership is to bring our people and the community with us. There are a lot of centre-right governments – New South Wales, the UK – that have legislated for zero net emissions by 2050. My starting point is, what does that look like?

“The science is telling us that if you keep emissions at current global levels, you will ruin your way of life. The environment is going to eat you. Scientists are saying that a world 2 degrees hotter than it is now is not an attractive place to be living in.” 

Perhaps the problem is so grave, I suggest, that we need to take radical actions, such as forming a government of national unity. How would that go down on her side of politics? Staley sounds amused. “I’m going to use John Howard’s line when he was asked questions like that: ‘I’m a politician, not a commentator.’ ” 

What are the chances, then, of the two major parties coming together to enact radical legislation? Could they, for example, jointly introduce a carbon price, then pack off responsibility for adjusting the price to an apolitical body, as financial journalist Alan Kohler has proposed? Could they work together to try to create a regional bloc – with Indonesia, Malaysia and the Pacific nations – to get some heft in global climate talks, as Australia did with agricultural tariffs in the 1980s? Such unity, which might inspire the public to reconsider its soaring disrespect for politicians, sounds pretty far-fetched. 

Nevertheless, people coming from very different places are converging on a similar idea. Extinction Rebellion’s slogan is “Beyond Politics”. Independent MP Zali Steggall is introducing a private member’s bill to take Australia to zero emissions by 2050, and wants it to be subject to a conscience vote. Former federal Labor minister Jenny Macklin proposes the creation of an emissions and employment accord that would bring together diverse sectors and viewpoints to produce a package to tackle climate change and economic inequality at the same time. British climate scientist and former IPCC member Mike Hulme, who is seen as being on the conservative side of the science, argues that change will only come when “people with different worldviews and perspectives get together at the government level to consider solutions”. American political scientist Robert Keohane has said that to accept difficult action on climate change, voters need to understand that this issue will define the lives of their children and grandchildren; that we are all now part of a “community of fate”. 


The author Helen Garner writes: 

One night last autumn I had this dream. With several other watchers, I don’t remember who they were or if I even knew them, I was looking at a landscape and the sky above it. Clouds moved swiftly across it, behind tall trees and above vast distances, perhaps Tuscan – very civilised, vegetated, deeply human. The edges of the clouds were like fine lace, almost frilled, and they knitted together and parted again, over and over, very graceful, never pausing. They were magnificent, their colours unnameably subtle – but I knew that what we were witnessing was the drama of the death of our planet. I was filled with powerful emotions – grief, terror; but also exhilarated and awed by the glorious beauty of what was happening before our eyes.


I am sitting with six young women in Armadale, a comfortable Melbourne suburb that sits in Higgins, a safe Liberal seat – although not as safe it once was, thanks to climate change. Some of the women are in the same mothers’ group; all have a child no older than two. “A warning before we start,” says Elinor Hasenfratz, a 31-year-old primary-school teacher who has just taken a job at the Jewish Climate Network. “Some of us are going to cry.”

Sure enough, Rachel Davis, a 34-year-old public servant, whose arresting smile would normally dissolve any anxiety in a room, fights back tears as she speaks: 

I have a 10-week-old, a little girl. My climate awakening has happened simultaneously with my motherhood. I am thinking about climate stuff all day, every day. I’m holding her all the time, she is always on me, feeding from me, sleeping on me. I have this dual-track mind of “Take the dummy” and “Oh, what have I done? I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for my contribution, so sorry that I’ve brought you here. I hope we can fix it.” There’s hope and grief, and it’s all on this tiny little person who didn’t ask to be here. My husband says, “We need good people in the world, people who are going to be able to change things.” But it still feels completely unfair to have brought her here. On the other hand, there is some part of me that thinks she would prefer to be alive than not. Children are hope.

The word hope seems to give Sarah Lockett, another primary-school teacher, her cue. She says she comes from a privileged background, has never been political, and none of her friends talk about climate change. She has a two-year-old girl, and the pride and pleasure in her child beam through. “I don’t have that deep despair,” she says. “I have fear, but I also have great hope. The kids I teach, they are amazing. They will change the world.”

The group’s driving force is Hasenfratz, who this summer put a post on Facebook: 

Before the climate went batshit I wasn’t protesting for some other worthy cause. I was living my pleasant life. I enjoyed dogspotting, potting plants, planning to have a baby, teaching kids music and dance, dissing vegans and happily ignoring politics, as it seemed to be chugging along without needing serious intervention, and who would I be to intervene anyway? I stayed in my lane, and my lane was pretty great.

But I just can’t anymore. I used to feel like such a knob posting on Facebook. I felt like it was at best useless, at worst hypocritical and attention seeking. But this summer I reached my tipping point and haven’t looked back.

If you’re reading the news about Mallacoota and the 4000 people sheltering on the beach, or about bats falling out of the sky mid-flight, or if you’ve simply decided enough is enough and you will listen to the experts – you’re invited, you’re needed, and you are bloody powerful. It’s time to stand up, jump in, roll up your sleeves, get those thumbs ready for posting on social media and writing to pollies, and your brain and family ready to change the way we all live and work and eat and travel and spend and even think.

This isn’t a perfectly worded post, but I’m not a professional activist. I’m a primary-school teacher, I’m a young mum, I’m a centrist, and just like you, I’ve started paying attention. Of course, I’m doing it for my sweet little wriggler, but I’m doing it for your children too. And the kids in Tuvalu, in Beijing, in Mallacoota. All the little boys and little girls who want to grow up and have kids of their own.

Over two hours, each woman tells how she became alerted – awakened – to the climate crisis. The room hums with laughter and tears, and as I listen it strikes me that these feelings, if they are widespread, could upend our political system. Yet these mothers are, in the main, middle-class progressives. How does this degree of concern move beyond that group?


In early December I visited Broken Hill, in NSW’s far west, and knocked on the door of its newspaper, Barrier Daily Truth. Myles Burt and Callum Marshall, both in their twenties, are reporters there. Burt is a local; his father worked in the town mines. Their newspaper had just run a Facebook poll on whether the NSW and Queensland bushfires were related to global warming; three-quarters of respondents had said they were. The result had surprised and cheered the two young men, who themselves are convinced of the reality of climate change. 

Burt says: “I’ve been out at Menindee and seen the dead fish, the kangaroos stuck in mud dying, the lakes dry except for one tiny pool of disgusting, lime green water. It was that hot we were panting.” 

But he has a message for city people. “We’re all pro-mining here. We know what mining does. Everyone in the country sees people in metro areas as comfortable. But our town used to be 36,000; now we are 17,000. The job losses scare people. You have got metro areas saying we have to give up fossil fuels – hang on, that is going to leave us with nothing.” 

How, then, should the city talk to the country about climate change? “It’s all about the tone, the voice, the body language,” Burt says. “If you go all guns blazing – ‘Look you fucking idiot, climate change is real’ – they’re like, ‘I will never believe you because I hate you.’ My mum is a classic example. She’s no climate denier, but on any subject I can put all the evidence on the table and unless I’m respectful, she’s like, ‘Nah, whatever.’ ”

Marshall says: “In the city they think keeping the planet alive is a moral imperative. I get that. But there has to be a here-and-now argument to convince people. You have got to go back to economics and real-world living.”

Burt agrees. “The arguments need to be practical. New industry will bring jobs. Renewable energy grids will lower the cost of power, planting trees will lower the temperature. People change their mind when they see a dollar. The world revolves around it. It’s unfair, but you have got to play the game.”

In that game there might be some good news, including for Broken Hill, if Australia plays it right. In 2008 and 2011, economist Ross Garnaut wrote landmark reports for the federal government on how it should respond to climate change. Last year he published Superpower: Australia’s low-carbon opportunity

The book contains some chilling sentences delivered in Garnaut’s restrained style: “If the nation were to experience the consequences of a failure of effective global action on climate change, I fear that the challenge would be beyond contemporary Australian society. I fear that things would fall apart.” He tells me: “We’re probably locked into a 2 degree rise over land, twice the increase that fuelled this summer’s bushfires. Climate change won’t cause the extinction of our species, but it could cause the end of our civilisation. At 4 degrees – our current trajectory – it’s very hard to see Australia surviving as a sovereign entity.” 

And the good news? “I now believe that Australia – and especially regional Australia – can do very well in the new economy. We will be the lowest cost place for green energy in the world.” 

Garnaut’s book carefully sets out the potential of this new economy, built on production of metals “at an immense scale” and the sequestering of carbon in the soil – an economy powered by Australia’s unrivalled blessings of sun, wind and water. He maintains that plummeting costs of renewable energy and battery storage make these potential benefits so great that Australia should chase them even if the threat of climate change did not exist. 

What, I ask, are the biggest threats to his vision? Garnaut replies: “News Corporation, and the absence of the sort of leadership in the Liberal Party that can recognise the advantages of breaking with the past. I cannot think of any single action that has been more damaging to our national interest than discouraging global effort on climate change.”

Garnaut’s ideas have special resonance in the South Australian city of Whyalla, where the vast steelworks employs 2500 people, one in nine jobs in town. In the past 30 years the plant has struggled to compete on global markets and was on the brink of closure in 2017, when a British steel magnate, Sanjeev Gupta, turned up with a $750 million rescue package. Gupta says he plans to produce “greensteel” powered by a huge solar farm. But for now they are only plans and the town’s future remains tenuous. Can the steelworks make the transition that Garnaut sets out: from an uncompetitive producer fired by coal to a powerhouse drawing its energy from the sun? Eddie Hughes, state Labor MP for the local seat of Giles and a self-styled “solar tragic”, spends much of his time working to ensure that it can.

“People here are proud of making the materials that have helped to build Australia,” Hughes says. “We could transform to doing that in a far greener way. Can we do it? I honestly don’t know.” 

Hughes used to work in the steelworks, as did his father, mother, brother, and one of his sons. Like many Whyalla residents, he was once a British migrant, who understands the opportunity that Australia and the modern industrial economy gave him. His grandparents’ tiny brick cottage in County Kildare, Ireland, had no running water and its heating came from a stove fired by peat from the bog. “Now I live in a nice house, in a deeply affluent part of the world,’ he says. “Human ingenuity got us into this mess, but we did a lot of really good stuff. We provided good lives for a lot of people.”

Yet Hughes is less cheery about the future. “I think we’re heading for disaster, a fundamentally different planet. Monsters and clowns are taking over in a whole range of countries,” he says, quoting the BBC TV drama about the near future, Years and Years. “I’m worried my kids are going to live in a hard world.”

Hughes thinks that getting people to understand the importance of climate change “is more serious than the Second World War”. Even so, he doesn’t talk to his constituents in that kind of language. “People have immediate problems they have to deal with – their jobs, families, the education system. I generally talk about the opportunities that might come to this town.” 

Of all the people I spoke to, Hughes perhaps got closest to explaining the paradox of how to talk candidly about climate change, without pushing people to apathy or despair. Even if pessimism is indicated, optimism is still required. David Spratt, quoting Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, called it “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. 

That is not a dishonest position. We cannot know what is going to happen. Even climate scientists differ widely about our possible future. British climate scientist Mike Hulme believes that saying it will be catastrophic is as false scientifically as saying it will be merely lukewarm. Hulme, who calls himself an “extinction-denier”, disputes the idea that the world will fall over a cliff if global warming rises more than the targeted 1.5 degrees, and thinks we should do away with metaphors of deadlines, closing windows and ticking clocks, which he says are being used above all to wind people up to achieve a policy outcome.

Dave Griggs, the British scientist and former Australian resident who gave that grim view of the future to Lateline in 2017, is more upbeat when I speak to him in January. While prone to despair on some days, Griggs thinks that “the phenomenal rate of technological innovation” and the phenomenal rise in public awareness are giving humans a chance. Emissions are still rising, yet our actions, however inadequate, are already flattening the upward curve. “The adjustment will not be as quick, graceful and painless as it should have been,” he says, “but neither will it be a doomsday scenario.” Griggs is not giving up. Soon he will travel to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, a mostly grim city of skyscrapers, building sites and sand, to lead a program to plant 7.5 million trees. 

In his book Radical Hope, American philosopher Jonathan Lear tells the story of Plenty Coups, the great leader of the Crow people, whose land lies on the plains of what is now Montana. Plenty Coups lived between 1848 and 1932, and was a chief when the Crow gave up their old life hunting buffalo and fighting the Sioux and moved onto a government-established reservation. Some years before, when Plenty Coups was nine years old and the Sioux and a horde of white settlers were encroaching ever further onto Crow land, the leaders of the tribe sent him into nature to induce him to dream. This was a common practice, Lear writes, when the Crow wanted to “push at the limits of their understanding”.

On the second night, the boy had his dream. The buffalo had disappeared from the plains, replaced by cows without number. A vast storm had blown down every tree but one and killed every bird but one. By listening to others and learning from them, by developing his mind, that bird had withstood the storm. 

When the boy returned, the leaders interpreted his dream as saying that the Crow way of life was coming to an end. However, the bird had shown that with intelligence, courage and openness to other ideas, the tribe could survive. And so it went. The Crow lost their way of life, and suffered incalculable grief, but under Plenty Coup’s leadership, Lear writes, they made the transition to a new life more smoothly than many other tribes. 

In telling the story of the dream, Lear writes that he is not recycling the Western trope that Indigenous people have special magic or insight. Rather, the dream has a universal meaning, regardless of whether one sees it as literal prophecy. Lear writes: “A way of life was anxious about its ability to go forward into an unfathomable future.” But the Crow embraced what Lear calls radical hope: “a daunting form of commitment to a goodness in the world that transcends one’s current, limited ability to grasp what it is.” 

Our situation cannot be compared with that of the Crow. But our old stories are also coming to an end, and we will need new ones. Stories that bind us into a community of fate. Stories of what Jayde Harding, describing her daily thoughts, calls “foreboding hope”. 

Harding had thought about – lived – climate change more deeply than just about anyone I met. She could talk about IPCC reports, the Great Filter Theory, the wonder of kelp. She could talk about how much coal had given us, and how it was time to say “thank you coal, goodbye”. 

“I was very angry and yelling for a while,” she says. “I have come such a long way. But some days, it feels like such a loss. All the insects, all the birds, all the big mammals. All the culture, the art, the languages, the music, all the witty banter.” She sighs: “Humans – so rich, so destructive.” 

She isn’t burying cans of food yet. But she is going to learn how to plant things she can eat. She has developed a three-point manifesto to guide her life: “Gratitude for what I have, adapting to the world that is coming, fighting for a better one.” 

She tells me about Anote Tong, the former president of the tiny and threatened Pacific nation of Kiribati, whom people call a “climate warrior”. It struck me that Harding had also become a climate warrior, an unusual one, both fierce and kind. And that Australia, another threatened country, will need many more.

MP Eddie Hughes is standing on a hill overlooking Whyalla. He points out a bay where giant cuttlefish, once nearly extinct, are thriving after laws were introduced to protect them. “We can still do good things, but you need government – political will,” he says. 

From this lookout, the whole world seems to be on show, like a child’s drawing. There are distant mountains, a vast sea and sky, the endless Australian blue. Two freighters make steady progress up the gulf, families stroll on the beach, a train chugs towards the smoke stacks and piers and rust-red sheds of the steelworks. Australia: a little battered by human hands, but still beautiful. 

Far from here, in my south-east corner of the country, I love the way the seasons turn. The cool nights start closing in around Easter. In July, the wind will whip off the sea and go right through our coats. But behind it, the first fine, fragile days of spring. To want to save this is politics – not of the left or right side, but of the body. Can we find a new patriotism to appeal both to those on the left who dislike the idea of nationhood and dream of global citizenship, forgetting that we live in one place and spend our days in its weather, and to those on the right who say they love Australia but whose policies are helping to destroy it? A patriotism forged out of our shared sorrow and loss – the flaring stands of eucalyptus, flames dwarfing the tallest trees, people under ember attack cracking hardy, so many dead. The parched kangaroos, valleys that no longer hear lyrebirds, koalas on fire. The writer Helen Garner said in a recent speech that she felt “over these recent months of fire and destruction, mourning and rage, and acts of splendid bravery and comradeliness and self-sacrifice, a sudden astonished awareness of our country and what it means to us”. 

My wife and I drive from Whyalla to Port Augusta. We see the coal-fired power station, now shuttered, and the 115-metre solar tower that soars over the town like a sentinel from the future. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not yet game over, but game on.

It is getting dark in the Port Augusta caravan park. I am sitting with a plate of chops and a beer, lost in thought, when out of nowhere a riot of sulphur-crested cockatoos explodes above the trees and goes wheeling and screeching deliriously into the dusk.

James Button

James Button is a former Fairfax journalist and the author of Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business and Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong.

The Monthly March 2020 cover

March 2020

From the front page

The Rupertvirus

News Corp’s COVID coverage has been a health risk of its own

Detail from the cover of ‘The Precipice’

What are the odds?: Toby Ord’s ‘The Precipice’

The Australian philosopher’s rational exploration of existential risk is bracing but ultimately hopeful

Answer time

Failures over hotel quarantine and the ‘Ruby Princess’ pale next to the crisis in aged care

Image of Taylor Swift

Yours truly: Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

The singer-songwriter explores fictional selves on her tender-hearted eighth album


In This Issue

Image of Kevin Rudd at the Australia 2020 Summit

Descent from the summit

Looking back on Kevin Rudd’s overly ambitious and thinly detailed Australia 2020 Summit

Image of ‘The Bass Rock’

‘The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld

The Miles Franklin–winning author’s latest novel expands on her interest in the submission and consequential fury of women amid the impersonal natural world

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Behind the coronavirus masks

An infectious diseases physician on facing COVID-19

Image of cow in photo studio

The milk of human genius

The end of the cow is near as animal-free milk is likely to decimate the traditional dairy industry within the decade, and plant-based meat is set to upend the beef market


More in The Monthly Essays

Image of Samantha Brett of 7 News reporting on the ‘Ruby Princess’

Storm in a port: The unfolding disaster of the Ruby Princess

The system breakdowns onboard and onshore that led to the docking of the coronavirus cruise ship

Image of Sydney Roosters versus St George Illawarra Dragons, 2020

The art of class war

How decades after Murdoch and Packer destroyed the popular appeal of a game created for the masses, Peter V’landys is putting rugby league back on top

Image of Donald Trump mask

American carnage

Donald Trump and the collapse of the Union

The man inside and the inside man

Crime, punishment and indemnities in western Sydney’s gang wars


Read on

The Rupertvirus

News Corp’s COVID coverage has been a health risk of its own

Image of Taylor Swift

Yours truly: Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

The singer-songwriter explores fictional selves on her tender-hearted eighth album

Blind study

When it comes to China’s influence, Australian universities have been burying their heads in the sand for too long

Image from First Cow

Milk it: ‘First Cow’

Kelly Reichardt’s restrained frontier film considers the uneasy problems of money and resources


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