It’s hard for New Zealanders to imagine this, because we chopped down so many of our trees a long time ago, but there is a town in Canada that has just been ordered to evacuate because a forest fire is expect to engulf the city area by the weekend.
Yellowknife is the territory capital, it has 20,000 residents (think Rangiora or Levin), and the out of control forest fire is 17km from the city boundary. The fear is that the escape highway will be overrun by fire.
The remarkable order was yet another reminder of the disruption wrought by Canada’s worst wildfire season on record. About 1,000 fires are active in the country. So far this year, the fires have burned an area 91 times as large as last year’s entire fire season. At times, smoke has traveled as far south as Georgia and as far east as Europe.
On Wednesday, officials urged people to drive south to Alberta, if possible. Escort vehicles had been assigned to guide motorists through some areas because smoke from the fires has sometimes obscured vision along the only southbound highway out of Yellowknife. Officials said extra refueling stations and tow trucks would be placed along the route.
Evacuation flights on commercial airlines and Royal Canadian Air Force planes are scheduled to begin on Thursday. People escaping that way will be limited to a single piece of carry-on luggage; they were encouraged to bring food and drinks, and to limit themselves to five days’ worth of clothes.
Remember New Year 2020? Before the pandemic arrived, we had Trump with his finger on the nuclear trigger, and the east coast of Australia was on fire. Those climate fires never stopped. They’ve been burning in the US, Russia, the Amazon, Canada. Maui on Hawaii, a tropical island, lost a town to a wildfire last week. It has an official death toll of 110 people, but 1300 people are still missing. New Zealand barely blinked. We are becoming inured.
While I understand the stress of the neoliberal economy cost of living crisis that many New Zealanders are concerned about this election year (food, petrol, increasing debt, diminishing standard of living), I can only assume now that most people don’t actually take climate change that seriously. Because once we reach the point of ignoring the wholesale destruction of say forests, entities that take more than a generation to regrow (tōtara can live for a thousand years) and which are crucial in maintaining the natural carbon cycle, it’s hard to believe that people have a good grasp of the situation we are in.
Likewise, if we mistakenly think the primary lesson learned from Cyclone Gabrielle is that we have to adapt to climate change rather than mitigate, what has caused the dearth of imagination to see that the long predicted frequent extreme weather events, will at some point overtake our ability to repair to our current perpetual growth economy to BAU standard? There are only so many hillsides, roads, bridges, and settlements we can spend months and years shoring up, before we run out of materials, machinery, workers, time, money.
That’s a lorry carrying goods on a highway of our own. Our bush doesn’t burn (yet), it collapses in mudslides instead.
All of which is to say, the most urgent and most neglected crisis we are in is the one that requires us to drop GHGs very fast in order to keep climate change survivable. I don’t want to hear about how people can’t afford to think about climate when they’re worrying about paying the bills, because many people in New Zealand aren’t in that situation. So putting aside the actual poor for a moment, what say the rest of us?
The option to preserve BAU via green tech has gone. Humans simply don’t have the capacity to replace forests in a meaningful timeframe. And the fact that New Zealand slashed, burned and dairy farmed most of our forested land notwithstanding, the burning of forests globally will take us down as well.
Our descendants will curse us. In the year where New Zealanders has the opportunity to make this the climate election, many of us are quibbling over potholes and the left is getting distracted by its own fears. Yes, the cost of living crisis is serious. But things only get worse from here under our current neoliberal system. The UN talks openly now about the impending collapse of civilisation because of breaching planetary boundaries.
But it’s not like we don’t have a choice. We can get off the fossil fuels, and transitioning is the only viable path left. The timeframe is short (this decade). Even a single term of a Nact or Nat/NZF government will set us back at exactly the wrong time. The current cost of living crisis is nested like a Russian Doll, within the bigger crises of climate and ecology.
For many who experience a sense of powerlessness in the face of this, there are also many who see a way through and are forging a path. We have more choice now than ever before of ways to act, movements to join, things to get involved with. I write about this as much as I can, including what real transition might look like. Stories of proactive hope:
For New Zealand in particular, we are incredibly fortunate to have the choice this year to vote Green or Te Pāti Māori, both of whom have the capacity to lead on climate transition. Voting is easy, and both parties also need our support over the next two months to gain enough power to make a difference.
Don’t get distracted by the merchants of doom who say Act, National, and NZ First are inevitable. Put your focus on the ones who know how to save the day.
Green Party: donate or volunteer
If you want something to take heart from, this twitter thread yesterday on biodiversity in cities and towns shows how it can be done, and quite simply (it’s inspired despite the tone of the opening tweet).