City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Apocalypse Sydney

Written in


Sydney Morning Herald

With a banner section depicting a West Coast drug culture, and Radiohead apparently dismantling the music industry by giving away their next album, it is indeed a truly apocalyptic edition of the Sydney Morning Herald today. But the apocalypse headline refers to something genuinely disturbing – the findings from a report issued yesterday, with the misleadingly plain title ‘Climate Change in Australia’. The SMH expands on its headline of ‘Hot, parched and sinking – apocalypse Sydney’ in the first couple of paras:

"SYDNEY faces a temperature rise of up to 4.3 degrees by 2070, and a tripling of the number of days a year when the thermometer soars above 35 degrees, if global greenhouse gas emissions are not cut deeply, a report warns. But it is already too late for the city to avoid a warming of about 1 degree by 2030 as well as a 3 per cent reduction in annual rainfall because of polluting gases present in the atmosphere." [Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October 2007]

When I started writing this piece, I was sitting on a park bench in the shade, no more than 2 metres from the thin strip of sand that comprises the beach at Sydney’s Double Bay. The sparkling water of the harbour eased out in front of me, shifting through translucent green and turquoise into a deep blue 50 metres away, where small boats were moored, gently rocking in the water. Further out, dozens of sleek boats were gliding easily through Port Jackson, returning from the ocean. Wednesday is race day. To my left, the ridiculously expensive apartments of Double Bay (aka Double Pay), basking on the hillside leaning back from the water. And it was very hot, yes, but a quick paddle in the cold water reassured me it was still officially spring. Sydney seemed as far away from an apocalypse as you could get.

My position earlier today

But today also sees the city beginning to be encircled by numerous bushfires, whipped up by the high winds from the interior desert – winds that will approach gale force in the next few hours – combined with the heat and low humidity. It’s 34 degrees and climbing. Having grown up on a crowded lump of rock in the North Atlantic, artificially warmed by the gulfstream (though not for much longer) but relatively close to the lower edges of Arctic circle, this heat is bewildering, enjoyable and slightly fearful, all at once. I like the heat, personally, but I also understand what it means, and that this amount of heat at this time of the year – set to be the hottest on record – does not auger well in the long run.

Bushfire image from SMH today

The experience of heat itself is difficult to write about – hence the papers resorting to apocalyptic images of the sea levels rising or helicopters water bombing bushfires near Oxford Falls in Sydney’s north. "It’s going to be a busy day," a Rural Fire Service (RFS) spokesman said this morning. By the afternoon commuter highways from Sydney to Newcastle had been closed for safety reasons as several fires roared through the state. My taxi driver grimaced and said, "It’s just a tinderbox out there".

It reminds me somewhat of the opening piece in Justin O’Connor’s Shanghai Diary a few years ago, writing from a position of 36 degrees in the shade. But the threat of these fires is something else.

Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney is a fabulous little book on the city in general, but in a memorable passage he depicts the horror of the burning city, from a very personal perspective of chucking buckets of water around a house being approached by flames. (He also cross-references this with the ancient indigenous practice of firestick farming.) To me, coming from London, a city on fire means two things: the Great Fire or the Blitz, and both are resolutely entombed in history rather than lived experience. Here, a city on fire is a possibility, and a reality if you live on the sprawling outer fringes. These, incidentally, are the outer fringes where it is imagined that most of Sydney’s projected population growth will live.

But the apocalyptic image of a cleansing fire is perhaps what we need to grab people’s attention right now. Australia’s Chief Scientist, Jim Peacock, said it would be a "ghastly situation" for the country if temperatures rise as the report forecasts:

"We need urgent action right now," Dr Peacock said. He suggested making what he termed "an heirloom quilt" to patch together a range of strategies. These would include bio-sequestration – the storing carbon in trees, grass and shrubs. He also suggested taking another look at setting up nuclear power in Australia and using clean coal technology. However, he said neither could be online in this country for at least 10 to 15 years."

But haven’t we heard this before? Did you switch off in the previous paragraph or not? The projections to 2070 are problematic as a) they’re so far off as to be refutable, and b) beyond many people’s lifetimes. Personally, I’ll be dead, but I’m aware of the importance of "urgent action right now", even if I also struggle with the daily shifts in behaviour required. I’m more interested in the tactics and programmes required to shift habitual behaviour on a massive scale, and I’m collecting a few examples of how Australian city and state governments are providing information about climate change to citizens. There are some creative, imaginative tactics, as noted here before, as well as some rather less-thought-through frustrations as to ‘why can’t people just change‘. But there’s clearly more to do, across a huge number of areas.

I don’t think rattling on about sustainability is enough – or rather, that might be barking up the wrong tree. Architect Glenn Murcutt sounded almost bewildered by it in that recent issue of A+U:

"While it seems to be a very new thing in our profession, I just sit and smile. I have been working with this since I started my practice in 1969 … As we’re in a temperate climate in Sydney, this house and office, designed and shared with Wendy Lewin is not heated nor air-conditioned. We rely on opening the windows and doors during the warmer months to receive the air while in winter we close them and put on more clothes."

I love that. The simplicity of living sustainably is such that it shouldn’t need the threat of an ensuing apocalypse to become a desirable way to live.

Melbourne-based architect Andrew Maynard, in a recent issue of POL Oxygen: "We dismiss sustainability as a theme. It is simply the right way to do things." That’s a far better way of thinking about it, and also negates the argument that Peacock refers to – why should Australians change when they contribute only 1% of global emissions? Because it’s just the right thing to do.

But Murcutt’s jumpers and ‘doing the right thing’ doesn’t seem to have an urgent tone about it either. And although it is that simple, and it is simply a question of living in a civic fashion and designing and building in the right way, the population at large still doesn’t get it. In that SMH article, it continues, "Addressing the 700 assembled scientists, Dr Tim Flannery said: "We need urgent action." Science would drive the agenda on how to address climate change from now on, and this had to be done via the United Nations and the Kyoto framework during the upcoming climate talks in Bali, he said."

And it’s great to see the likes of the heroic Flannery "driving the agenda", but just speaking from a perspective of communication – or indeed marketing, if we must use that term – I still wonder about the tactics employed. If the science community used the same production values that, say, filmmakers had – or politicians for that matter – it might have had more effect already. It’s only with the airing and promotional blaze of Al Gore’s stunt-Powerpoint An Inconvenient Truth that some begin to pay attention. Even then, many, perhaps the majority, have still not thought deeply about it, never mind changed behaviour or attitude.

Sydney bushfires 2002 image from australiasevereweather dot com

I’ve been wanting to see cut-and-paste-sci-fi movie Sunshine for some time, not because I think it’ll be any good, but simply to see an arresting image I’d heard about – a frozen solid Sydney harbour, Opera House and all, locked in ice. A few years back, I started listing a few films that depicted deserted cities, just drawn by how affecting an image it is. With Sunshine‘s snowy Sydney, I understand it affects not just because it’s a vibrant city of 5 million people reduced to ice cube, but also because it’s Sydney, a place generally depicted – increasingly correctly – as baked rather than iced. That most unlikely of film review publications, New Scientist, is hardly likely to have Cahiers du Cinema quaking in its boots, but it did point out the ‘2070 problem’ when highlighting the role played by actual physicist Brian Cox as adviser to the producers of the film:

"Well, it’s true that the Sun is expected to die, but not for five billion years or so. That, says Cox, is too far in the future for audiences to be able to relate to. By setting the action just 50 years in the future, when for example we see the roof of Australia’s Sydney Opera House poking from a huge ice sheet, it gives us something we can worry about." [New Scientist]

Sydney bushfires 2002 image from australiasevereweather dot com

Much as I hate to endorse the shock tactics – I’d really rather people understood the science, had a think, and shifted their behaviour accordingly, but hey – it might be that we need to generate a few more visions, and tell stories that extrapolate from the position Sydney finds itself in; of a city with sea levels rising as fast as food and water prices and surrounded by an inferno closing in at high speed. Apocalypse Sydney is ludicrously overplayed, but sitting here typing away, as the dry heat shows no sign of diminishing well into the evening, we might need a bit of drama to hold that temperature rise to 1 rather than 4.3 degrees.

Sydney bushfires 2002 image from australiasevereweather dot com

[Bushfire images above are from, of the hugely destructive Sydney fires of 2002-3]


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