In My Words: The fire this time – Australians ‘on the beach’

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of English Rosemary Haskell writes about the fires that are ravaging Australia, noting how fears about nuclear annihilation decades ago have given way to fears about the impact of climate change. The column appeared inThe Burlington Times-News and The Greensboro News & Record.

By Rosemary Haskell

In 1957, Nevil Shute, a British migrant to Australia, published a post-apocalyptic novel called “On the Beach.”

Professor of English Rosemary Haskell

As was fashionable in those early Cold War, early-atomic-era years, the novel depicted a world after a nuclear war. It dramatized the lives of small groups of survivors awaiting the arrival of the clouds of radioactive fallout that they knew would slowly kill them.

Interestingly and now ironically, the novel centers on coastal southern Australia, presented as a safer haven where people are living longer than those in the north where the atom bombs detonated.

A complicated plot takes some of the refugees on a futile submarine trip to North America, to another waterfront, in Seattle. They have heard a mysterious Morse code signal that suggests others may have survived.

But Shute gives us no happy ending. In his analog world, the Morse code signal is the cord of a blind, flapping against a telegraph key. The novel is a romantic tragedy: everyone dies, stalled in love, many by suicide, as radiation sickness takes grip.

Now as 2020 begins, people in southern Australia are “on the beach” for a different and perhaps equally terrifying reason. Bush fires during the last couple of weeks have driven residents to evacuate ahead of the flames or risk death. Some have died already. In the coastal town of Mallacoota, thousands waited on the beach for the Royal Australian Navy to take them to safety.

What’s my point? In 1957 and thereabouts, the big “end of the world” worry was nuclear war. It’s difficult to realize now, but instead of too much heat, we worried about “nuclear winter” when radiation would devastate nature and abolish spring and summer, bloom and plenty. Clouds of “dust” were predicted to block out the sun, derailing the seasons and sending temperatures plummeting. Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” poem gave us the option: then it was ice, but now it may be fire.

Not only Australians but all of us, metaphorically, could in the not-unimaginable future be “on the beach” in that we might be pushed to the margins of an increasingly uninhabitable world. In naval terms, to be on the beach, Wikipedia tells me, means to be “out of the service,” no longer on active duty.

With climate change, will more of us be “out of the service” because we can no longer do our usual work, pursue our usual careers and ways of life? That kind of un-life “on the beach” is indeed a frightening thought, almost as unsettling as the vision of heading for the ocean because your house, school and the whole town are ablaze.

I have always been and still am, to some extent, a “climate-change skeptic.” That skepticism causes me to question the models of temperature rise and the mapping of its likely effects.

I say to myself, “Causal analysis is complicated, with so many variables and so many assumptions, any one of which might be wrong.”

But that skepticism is fading. We have not only fires in Australia, but also prolonged drought in southern Africa (Zimbabwe is a case in point), with exceptional flooding in Italy, and, most recently, in Indonesia.

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I’m starting to be convinced that climate change is indeed a serious threat, and not only because teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is glaring at me from the cover of the Penguin paperback of her speeches, sent to me for Christmas by my more enlightened sister-in-law. The media — newspapers, radio, television — are suddenly, it seems to me, providing more detailed analysis of the world’s weather and ecology. I am listening, and reading.

I still deplore the tendency of every headline writer and cub reporter to add “climate change” to the first paragraph of any story about slightly unusual weather events. I wish that we had more editors to police those careless reports. But looking at the fire refugees on the road and on the beach in Victoria and New South Wales, I am reviewing my position.

Nevil Shute’s Australian beach dwellers did not survive the 1950s version of the apocalypse, but I hope there is time for us to work toward a world where we may not merely survive, but thrive.

It looks as though there may be a lot of heavy lifting ahead. If we find ourselves “on the beach,” not even the U.S. Navy will be able to save us.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.