‘Environmental Ennui: Compassion Fatigue’, Tertangala

(Full Text) Our newspapers and television screens are filling up with topographical images showing the progression and impact points of various natural disasters. Earthquakes, avalanches, hurricanes, tsunami, even avian flu, are all examples of the natural environment’s response to human habitation. Our attempts to shape and mould our communities are having long-term effects on the world we inhabit. “El Nino” is a misnomer for climate change, change we must adapt to before the global standard of living becomes unbearable. The mass media presents these occurrences to us in such a way that we risk losing our perspective, becoming desensitised to the actual dangers of climate change.

Despite the change in popular attitudes since the early 80s, environmental damage continues. 154 countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the only international movement against rapidly progressing climate change, however, Australia continues to undermine the process by refusing to sign. As a mostly barren continent, independently responsible for our natural recourses and entrenched in our worst drought in decades, it would seem logical to act collectively in the face of this growing risk. Without massive restructuring of resource use the incidences of natural disasters will continue to rise.

Scientists at Macquarie University have just discovered that land clearing since colonisation is responsible for the increase of dangerous electrical summer storms in the Sydney’s urban areas. With global weather patterns so intertwined it is easy to see how this region specific climate change multiplies—each over-cleared human community has a ripple effect, with these ripples combing to produce the massive disasters we are seeing today. Like a dog with a tick, the planet is scratching at us, trying to shake loose our embedded proboscis.

Natural disasters like the devastating Hurricane Katrina, last December’s Tsunami, and the recent earthquake in Pakistan result in the deaths of thousands and the loss of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure every year, with the majority of this destruction occurring in coastal regions. One solution could be that we all move further away from the ocean. However, US and European scientists predict that as the ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica continue to collapse into the oceans (another symptom of climate change) sea levels will rise by approximately 50-100 centimetres over the next few decades, making this an unreliable but necessary solution. Those who have not moved further inland will be living under water.

The Tsunami was Earth’s catharsis. Like the majority of us I spent the first weeks of January counting the dead, with the media’s help. Days before the officials stopped counting I was bloated on the loss of so many lives and the decimation of so many others. By the end of the first week I had to stop crying. My tears felt insignificant in the face of such a truly disastrous disaster. I had never imagined so many dead bodies. I donated money. So did a lot of other people and governments, Australian and otherwise. In some small way the giving helped to alleviate my guilt over those I could not help—the victims of a war America started, the immigrants we keep locked in cages, all the victims in all the world.

Katrina was different. Less people died. More property was destroyed. It happened to America. I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald where Jan Egeland of the UN said that Katrina was categorically worse than the Tsunami (based on financial losses, of course), a statement that stopped my contact with the media for several weeks. By the time I got back to reading the papers it was all over, just over a 1000 people had died, the US government was trying to cover up their slow response time and New Orleans was opening for business again. Incredibly different to South-East Asia. And yet, we still gave money. We still watched the footage and cried for the dead and displaced.

Then the earthquake hit Pakistan. The benevolent had emptied their purses in the earlier months of the year, the charitable, depleted their sympathy and good intentions. There was less graphic footage, because there were fewer cameras. There was less financial aid because there was less footage. Media consumers are realising that natural disasters are going to keep happening, going to get worse. We are switching off our compassion centres in the face of such irrefutable destruction. Mankind cannot absorb this overwhelming helplessness.

In the optimistic 1950s we believed that science would one day harness the weather—missiles and chemical sprays to create rain, injections into the Earth’s crust to prevent earthquakes, oily films on the surface of the ocean to dispel hurricanes. As this meddling with nature fails again and again we are forced to admit that natural disasters are beyond our control. While humanity continues to disregard the reality of induced climate change, nature’s fury will remind us of our ignorance.

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