During the summer of 2021, I flew to Greece to learn more about the wildfires there. I wanted to hear people’s stories, to understand what it meant to be displaced by environmental disaster. I have family in Greece and Cyprus and the approach of each summer causes a lot of anxiety. That year, fires were raging in Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Croatia and Cyprus, and I was three months pregnant. Feeling Evie growing inside me made me wonder what kind of world she would live in – and made me all the more determined to learn as much as I could about what people had experienced.
I spent a lot of time in Mati, a small town on the east coast of Greece, less than 20 miles from Athens. There, I talked to local people, and their experiences profoundly moved me. In a cafe that had survived the fire, a hub of safety and community for survivors, I met brave children who now have to live with terrible scars, physical and emotional. I met a man who could not even speak to me, his eyes filling with tears, and he told me that he had no words in a way that has stayed with me ever since.
The fire that ripped through their town, killing dozens of people, took place on 23 July 2018; three years later, most people still looked frightened, as if they could never feel safe in their homes again. One woman said to me: “Here you do not need to ask anyone where they got their scars, how they got burned, everyone knows.”
I was expecting to hear a lot about loss; I was not expecting to learn so much about the attribution of blame. I came to understand how desperately people needed to blame a tangible entity – a person, a group of people, the government. Indeed, this was understandable and justifiable. The allegations of arson and of the mishandling of the fire needed to be explored, investigated and dealt with.
What surprised me, however, was that any mention of the bigger issue, of the climate crisis and global heating, was shut down immediately and completely. It was made clear to me that this subject was unacceptable. Survivors felt that these issues had nothing to do with what they had suffered, and that the people actually accountable needed to pay.
As a local man took me around the town and the surrounding forest, he described what the area had looked like before the fires wreaked devastation upon his home. What once had been lush and fertile was now parched and burned. I could sense the anger of local people – and I was angry too, and sad. It felt natural to me that these townspeople needed someone to blame – for a sense of justice, for closure. I understood this urge.
But when it comes to climate breakdown, attributing blame to just one person, one corporation, one country, is impossible. In Mati, the fire didn’t rage so hard because someone had set off a spark – it raged so hard because years of global heating had dried up the land, part of a cascading set of unsustainable practices and inaction that had set our planet on fire. And now, two years after I first started researching and writing my book, the fires are even worse.
The more I spoke to people, including climate scientists, the more I came to see that there is often a gap that separates science from public awareness and debate. In her book Engaging With Climate Change, the psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe says that “many people who accept anthropogenic global warming continue to locate it as a problem of the future”. To my astonishment, this seemed to apply even to people who had themselves been affected directly by wildfires. Perhaps the reality is too huge and too painful, the guilt too much to bear?
As humans, we can be loving and reparative, but we can also be destructive – something that is very hard to accept in ourselves. Weintrobe argues that we often disown our own destructiveness and place it all in another person or entity. I could see this happening. I could even feel it in myself. It is normal for us to focus entirely on possible arson or mistakes that may have been made, because they are real and easier to resolve, and to turn away from our contribution to this colossal catastrophe that is unfolding around us.
Listening to people’s stories helped to keep me grounded in the present, to accept what was really happening and to empathise with the human story beyond the statistics and the crisis imagery on the news. These stories are surrounding us now. We just need to listen carefully. My research forced me to really look at myself in the mirror. To understand that I have contributed and continue to contribute to the climate emergency.
Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London, says “fundamental attitudinal and behavioural changes are required in which we weave into our every action the need to respect and protect our environmental life-support system”. Weave into our every action. What does this mean? Where can it take us? How would things unfold if we really all did this? Maybe I am an optimist, but I believe we can do it. It requires each and every one of us to sit down with ourselves in a quiet place and open our hearts and really take it in, breathe it in: our world, our beautiful world, and what we are doing to it.
Source : The Guardian