Life In The Big Smoke: Is This Sydney's New Normal?
I woke up this morning with a raw and scratchy throat.
It felt like I’d hammered through at least half a pack of cigarettes the night before. The thing is, I hadn’t smoked last night; I’d just woken up in Sydney.
The smoke has been with us for more than a week now, and it’s starting to feel permanent, isn’t it? Perhaps not these particular bushfires -- individual fires burn out sooner or later after all -- but this condition, certainly. We have to ask ourselves if this is the way of things going forward: summers under a cancerous red sun, starless nights, fine grey ash filtering through flyscreens to pile up on the furniture, targeted advertising for P2-rated filter masks in our social media feeds.
That last one felt particularly dystopian to me, but we’ve always been good at either profiting from or ignoring disaster. I was at the Amazon Prime Video Christmas party at the Botanical Gardens’ Fleet Steps last week where the guests alternated between sipping champagne and picking ash from their shoulders as the wind carried it in from the west. It was all very Masque of the Red Death.
It’s getting harder to brush off, though. It’s certainly difficult to ignore smoke alarms going off thanks to the sheer toxic weight of the air around them, as was widely reported yesterday. A friend of mine observed the irony of his office being evacuated to the outside world where, of course, the air quality was actually worse. Even more ironic was the evacuation of the offices of the Rural Fire Services HQ at Olympic Park -- even the firies are not immune.
My housemate is working from home today because she just can’t contend with the air quality -- her lungs simply can’t hack it. She’s not alone, and I can’t imagine what it’s like for the very young, the very old, the infirm. Even if she could go, could she get to work? Transport infrastructure has been disrupted, the Harbour Bridge is all but invisible under a pall of smoke, and the ferries being canceled yesterday kind of feels like the ravens leaving the Tower of London -- a portent of calamity for the kingdom. Still, would you want to make the jaunt to Manly just to watch the black tide lap at the sand? The smoke has made our most famous waters poisonous.
What’s galling is that we saw this coming, of course. Climate scientists and other experts have warned us that the conditions were right for apocalyptic bushfires for years, and if you’re skeptical of their opinions, or are buying into the weird, insane counter-narrative that this is somehow all the Greens’ fault (for the record, it is not), remember that Former New South Wales Fire and Rescue chief Greg Mullins also called it. All considerations of climate change aside, the slashing of RFS budgets over the years had rendered our front line fighters largely weaponless against the onslaught.
The warnings went unheeded, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison used his time in Sydney yesterday not to address what is clearly a national emergency but to pitch a redrafted Religious Discrimination Bill. Whether the lack of leadership from our government on this issue is incompetence or simply a craven adherence to a broken ideology of industry-first austerity is hard to say. Flip a coin.
This morning I took my coffee on my front verandah just to take in the street. The smell of smoke was endemic. I watched parents toddle their children to the primary school a few blocks over. About one kid in four was wearing a filter mask.
A sane society would do anything to ensure this didn’t become the new normal, but so far our response has been anything but.