Contemporary Histories is pleased to present the serialisation of Graeme Kinross-Smith’s recent work, ‘The Barking of Dogs: Considering the Social Effects of Global Warming’. This piece will be serialised over a 6 week period.
The Barking of Dogs
Hinting at the Social Effects of Global Warming – Part #2
By Graeme Kinross-Smith
I tell stories in order to explain things to myself. Writing allows me to uncover the meaningful and the moving in living and interacting with people. I look at the words on the pages of the novel I write in the first years of the 21st century. The words are mine – and yet they’re not mine, because I put them into the mouth of a first-person narrator and protagonist called Tim Menzies. They are ringing out in that story. The novel is called Long Afternoon of the World and its words are at a remove and a further remove and yet another remove from whatever might be ‘truth’.
In Long Afternoon of the World, among other things, I am trying, through the eyes and in the words of a narrator and central character, to come to terms with the experience of the direst, most violent and far-reaching upheaval in all the time of human occupation of earth – a World War of five years, which at the time seems endless, but which in reality is less than a mere minisecond in the story of humankind and even less in the earth’s vast planetary history. For humanity that war is a time of wide suffering, incredible cruelty, incredible courage – but also of catastrophic loss. It is the time of the deaths of millions of men, women, children. It coincides with my boyhood.
Having written then in a novel to try to make sense of the human forces that create a huge and evil war, I find myself thinking and writing now to explain to myself an even greater and further-reaching worldwide threat and the traumatic effects expected to flow from it – the irreversible warming of the earth and its increasing pace as it bears down on us.
Do you recall the Victorian heatwaves and the devastating bushfires that followed in 2009? Do you remember how fire then is more rampant across the whole continent than ever before? Do you remember the 119 human lives lost to the flames, the hundreds of home destroyed? Do you recall the human efforts to understand the Victorian fires and act in the light of them during the Bushfire Royal Commission? Did you manage to attend the sittings to hear the evidence of calamity? Do you remember the New South Wales fires of October 2013 – the Grose Valley, Mount Wilson, Springwood where Norman Lindsay paints, Lithgow and the Zigzag, where my grandfather is Principal of Cooerwull Academy in the second decade of the 20th century? Do you remember the Yosemite fire of 2013? What do we think then, as powerlines to San Francisco fall to the flames and ash threatens to pollute the city’s water supply? Do you remember the Colorado floods, a year’s rainfall in three days, way back in 2013, or the vast Typhoon Haiyan that devastates parts of the Philippines and Vietnam? Winds gusting at more than 300km per hour! Do you remember the TV pictures in our lounge-rooms of hands placing futile rocks in low walls along the shore to combat the ocean’s rising tides on Pacific islands, and then the small boats with families and their desperately meagre bundles of goods departing the islands forever as uninhabitable? In that year 2013 – remember? – we watch polar bears slipping from ice sheets too thin to support them and their cubs as Arctic ice becomes wafer and melts at unprecedented rates. We watch – remember? – as Greenland’s ice and snow disappears at galloping rates far in advance of scientific prediction. We learn – remember? – that the mountain chains of Asia are lamenting the trickling away, the vanishing, of their glaciers. Do you recall the huge Canadian Fort McMurray fires of 2016 – insurmountable wind and flame? And with it the details close to home of monthly Australian and Victorian heat records breaking month by month as the year 2016 advances, while dwellers in the Asian subcontinent blanche at the severity of heatwaves that are promised them. An Indian Rajasthan heatwave all that time ago in May 2016 produces sweltering temperatures for weeks and culminates in temperatures of 51C, higher than anything ever recorded. It seems so long ago now.
Can I be trusted? I am talking to you in words that suggest it is possible to ‘remember’ the present.
Outside in the yard the squall comes with wind that will rip the tree branches one from the other…
The general parliamentary and election chatter we hear in time’s continuous present in those years seems dominated by thought of the economy and the popularity or otherwise generated by personal, quasi-Presidential celebrity and power. Tony Abbott is reported as saying in the year 2013 that he now believes that Climate Change is real and partly human generated. Nevertheless, once in power, he works immediately to dismantle the Australian Climate Commission and the Climate Change Authority. Is this intended to silence their advice and research findings in the face of the physical and social trauma that are already following steadily increasing global warmth? And suddenly I see the face of Professor Tim Flannery, desperate, narrowed with concern, trying to stress to his television interviewer, Leigh Sales, that a new climatic regime, never before encountered, is not just likely to assail us, but is already upon us, predicted years ago by scientists and now given witness by continual breaking of climatic and weather records. As Malcolm Turnbull and his Ministers speak repeatedly of jobs and growth, as they scoff at more trenchant targets intended to limit the earth’s temperature rise, does the thought-of-as-unlikely become the likely with each new heatwave, each climatic change and extreme weather event, each climatic record surpassed? Does that pattern then become the fact, the reality of our existence? Or is the picture Tim Flannery and others paint a dream from which we will awake, relieved and safe? I have many questions.
It seems long ago now…
A man in shorts and sneakers walks purposefully up Collins Street towards the Melbourne Town Hall leading the black dynamo of a fully-grown Dobermann on a leash, allowing it to run at pedestrians he passes and then reining it in – again and again. The dog may have had ‘protection training’. Pedestrians scatter. The man seeks to intimidate. He succeeds. He gains personal power through the dog. Then he is swallowed up with his sniggering arrogance and satisfaction in the human throng.
Do you remember that Kevin Rudd in his first term as Australia’s Prime Minister speaks to the electorate of Climate Change as being ‘…the great moral challenge of our generation’. ‘Moral challenge’ – the words hint that we should do something purposeful about it. That is then, in time’s continuous present tense. In the 2013 election – remember? – he appears to have lost sight of that urgent vision and gives global warming scant attention, scarcely mentions it. Nor does Tony Abbott, his adversary and then his successor, who in 2009 believes, in his words, that ‘Climate Change is crap’. I consider the amassed scientific evidence against which he makes that statement.
My constant allusion to dogs is, of course, a cheap narrative device designed to create tension and nothing more. I’ll continue to resort to it.
Words whisper to me, faces swim before me – cleansing fire…landing rights… customs…hospital… waterhole… Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunapingu… waiting lists… policing…the chips are down… tri-age… yams… emergency… safety on the streets… coolamon… border security… regional differences… Ginger Riley… tubers… barter systems…national integrity… extreme sports… ceremony… seed… sectarian violence… outstation… doubling of snow-making …camp dogs…political mileage…supply chains…ember attack…arsonists…vigilantes… means to an end…
Years ago our rough and ready neighbour who drives transports brings home a young greyhound from up country for his kids. It grows. It follows them around. It gets out. They soon get sick of it. So he gives it a fuel-tin kennel down one end of the yard and puts it on a lead clipped to the long clothesline. That’s where it spends its life, stalking obsessively from one end of the line to the other, beating out a path in the grass that is dust in summer and mud in winter. The clip makes a singing sound as it is pulled along the wire. The dog develops a cough. We can hear it coughing at night. It tries for the spots of sunshine during the day. But its baying cough comes to us in our beds on frosty winter nights. It dies of TB. It is not its fault. It is never the fault of the dog.
Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, simply confirms on taking office in 2013 that he and his Coalition Minister, Greg Hunt, are ending the days of updated scientific advice to the government and the community from the Australian Climate Commission. He speaks at a press conference of Professor Tim Flannery’s position on the Commission: ‘When the carbon tax goes, all those bureaucracies will go and I suspect that the particular position you refer to goes with them. It does sound like an unnecessary position given that the gentleman in question gives us the benefit of his views without needing taxpayer funding…’ Reading the words of that last sentence remind me of the revelations that come to us in reading body language. The words ring as patronising and dismissive, don’t they? They seem to contain no generosity in support of further enquiry on the warming of the planet, no generosity in concern for the future fortunes of ordinary people – and most particularly present-day children – who must live out their lives in Australia and the wider world.
Not five minutes after hearing the radio’s latest dire predictions of unexpectedly rapid thawing of permafost, I’m toting the chain-saw to lop some wattle branches outside the fence, and find myself treated to the whole earnest drama unfolding across the creek. Again it comes as a gift, as if specially given to me. Probably thirty cattle, yes, but no high country wild dogs harrying them. My neighbour is on his four-wheeler paddock run-about, moving the herd from the creek paddock to the one higher up the hill and just short of the new ranks of bluegum. His Border Collie, Bob, is helping. ‘Near, near, near – Bob – near! Good dog! Good dog!’ comes Frank’s voice above the purring of the tri-ped. ‘Now… away, away, get ‘em all, round them, get ‘em all! Good dog.’ The cattle are being shaped into a lozenge that is making for the upper gate. Bob’s dark, quick form is working, doubling back, sallying in among them. He’s worth his asking price many times over, in comparison to many an indulged city dog who may not be worth his food and care. The cattle now through the gate, my last glimpse of Bob as I work is as a dark, moving arrow at this distance, still running beside his master’s wheels up the steady hill, as they ascend beside the fence panel by panel and disappear over the rise.
It is still the second decade.
If I laugh, I often must laugh hollowly. I laugh at how much information there is. Against a bombardment of information, I have to laugh at my ignorance. We pride ourselves at being good at quantifying. Let’s all of us estimate. Let’s all of us pronounce. I have to laugh ironically at how the planet withholds from us the unquantifiable, the inestimable – and how important that might be when seen against Al Gore’s images of the earth. They show just how thin, fragile and corruptible our tiny band of breathable atmosphere is. But everyone has an appointment, something they have to do, and they get on with it. We all will have appointments, urgencies, things we have to do, until the very last moments.
But physical effects, we know, bring social effects in their train. Social effects touch human bodies, human souls, human consciousness, human work. Social effects often relate to provision or failure to provide and maintain infrastructure. Social effects are already altering human behaviour. Some people spruik ‘adaptation’ as the way to deal with global warming. At one level that sounds fatuously obvious. It has to happen. At another level it might be a way of sidelining continuing preventative action. What is expected of each of us? What are we each capable of? I have many questions.
The black police dog leaps the car’s roof effortlessly and fast. His black bulk overtakes and brings down the running man in the parking lot. Dogs bound. Dogs are fast. Dogs make sure. No trouble…
I hear and read people of my generation – fellow writers and others – wondering aloud, hoping against hope, that the problems assailing the globe will not blight the lives of their young friends, the lives of their grandchildren. Do I have children and grandchildren? I wonder aloud about the whole problem quite often too – not laughing, but jolted by news of events over which no-one seems to have control. I look at the prospects for those around me and their children and their children’s children. I think of eager and idealistic young people in general, and I sink for a time into grim sadness – they might have no settled, pacific and satisfying future. The French President doubles his country’s food aid to the World Food program. What do that and similar moves by other ‘developed’ countries mean in real terms? Do I have children and grandchildren?
I read that many starving men, women and children still desperately eat pretend pies made of mud. I have questions. Why, in the face of growing evidence of the need for thorough-going restriction to preserve the planet as home, have Western politicians – and politicians of other persuasions – so often preached the right to prosperity and expanding economic growth and an increase in industrial processes to their electorate? To be rich, they and their business supporters tell us, is our birthright, and endorsed by God. They continue to preach it. I remember the figure of RH Tawney, the British historian invited to Melbourne by the History Department of Melbourne University in the 1950s to speak about his book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. He props himself, knees akimbo, on the bench in front of the lectern, to speak to us, to answer our questions in the University’s Public Lecture Theatre. Religion, in the story he has to tell, is Christianity, of course, and its relationship to the economic growth we have seen since the beginnings of industrialisation and earlier.
Will nations always ‘trek from progress’ as Wilfred Owen wrote? So many of our repeated human mistakes bespeak a failure of the imagination. Then I think again. Human goodwill, ingenuity and inventiveness have often won out over bulking problems in the past – but the past has never seen such a huge threat as we now face to the planet’s resilience and its ability therefore to continue to support human lives as we have known them. We observe the pace of advance towards intractable world crises quickening. The unmentionable becomes the mentionable. We begin to consider possible recourse to man-engendered global dimming – brought about by rocketing of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere worldwide – to limit the world’s absorption of solar warmth that the environment cannot afford in the face of global warming. Does this mean farewell to blue skies forever? We begin to sense that this suite of ills may descend on us quite suddenly in combination. Can anyone say when with reasonable certainty? How suddenly and how soon will we know?
Who is we, who is ‘us’ in all this – assuredly not merely Australians. Already other nations and societies have been feeling the bloody immediacy of the spike’s thrust for some time – war, social breakdown, huge extractions from the earth for huge populations, starvation and thirst, disease, lack of water, lack of sanitation, violence, loss of the rule of law, terrorism, sea level rise, extreme weather events, extinction of species, reordering of the natural world’s interactions, recourse to dictatorial regimes to maintain social and political control, excessive floods, homelessness, displacement, creation of millions of desperate refugees, extra-judicial killings, retreat into corruption, submission to draconian religious laws, absence of electric power, lack of adequate and accessible medical services.
The dogs hover at the edges of these happenings. Do I have vulnerable children and grandchildren? What happens is never the fault of the dogs.
In the two valleys, there are even here a few farm-abandoned dogs. But nothing like the numbers abandoned in the cities. It’s late in the third decade now. Here in the two valleys the dogs still work in a pack, come in the shadows to drag down the goats early in the morning or during the night. In the morning we find the blood, the staring, part-eaten cadavers in the grass. It’s the tail-end of the third decade and we have quit Melbourne, the desperate voices, the shots, the dog packs, the futile sirens. Here it’s a valley’s story, the blonde grass verges framing the road at the bend, the sunset reaching pink fingers into the bluegums, and suddenly the almost verbal huffing of rifle shots coming from the creek junction. Whose shots? Marauders? Vigilantes? The gun seems to have only the one echoing voice. We don’t know. We might know in the morning.
For now, the birds are still sounding in the dark brakes of wattle.
Phrases are whispering again: margins…air miles…tripadvisor…business acumen…cleansing fire…bottom line…class expectations…the gourmet strip…business class…dog eat dog…social media…the optimum…crimes against humanity…self-harm…post-traumatic stress…organised crime…may God be with you…traffic report…young jihadists…polar vortex…first class and economy…the dividends…vox populi…the jet stream…new apps…homelessness…planned obsolescence…el nino…tribalism…productivity…food miles…opportunism…gridlock…God’s grace…indulgence…movement to cities…Christian militias… grain for 800 million…water deprivation…martial law…mosquito-borne diseases…water catchments…the multiplier effect…jihadists and martyrs…fragile supply chains…shorts and thongs…social breakdown… political mileage… and now the lurking presence as we drive the frantic roads, as we settle down for the night, of the presence of ICE, methamphetamine, and its imbalance, its paranoiac and violent effects…are we still ahead?