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

Morning walk, Stockholm 5 April 2020

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

The air we breathe, a world wearing masks

The air we breathe, and our breath itself, has turned on us. The bushfires in Australia, or wildfires in California, have directly destroyed thousands of lives and properties, and a billion animals at least. But their broader damage has been conveyed via the air, making it unbreathable, effectively uninhabitable, in places whose contemporary existence is predicated on being outside, under clear blue skies.

Now a global pandemic coronavirus, COVID-19, has much of the world in various stages of lockdown, also inside, self-isolating within their homes. Outside, a world is wearing masks.

In December, the streets of Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra were full of people wearing masks, due to bushfire smoke temporarily creating the world’s worst air quality. In California last October, a couple got married wearing masks due to bad air from the nearby wildfires. In March, as I write, airports in Singapore, markets in Hong Kong, tube trains in London are full of people wearing masks, due to the virus.

COVID-19 is not airborne in the sense that bushfire smoke is, whose clouds eventually stretched right across the Pacific. Yet it is conveyed at short range, spread through droplets transmitted into the air from coughing, sneezing or simply talking, which is enough to have people scrabbling for masks.

How horrific to have a world wearing masks (many of which, sadly will do little, as if the return of miasma), to require artificial aids with which to perform our most basic living act of breathing. Jessica Helfand’s book ‘Face’ would be worth re-reading now, albeit through grimy goggles.

The plague doctor in Marseilles (1721) (L), A warden directing a family wearing gas masks during World War Two (R)

The mask, like the ventilator, has become an object through which to understand the dynamics of the virus, a lightening rod for debates about instructions and norms, manufacturing and supply chains, shortages in healthcare systems. Equally, it is everywhere in images of the Australian bushfires.

Amongst the many thousands produced, the image from 2019–20 Australian bushfires that sticks in the mind most was of a mask-wearing 11 year-old boy in a boat, escaping the burnt-out town of Mallacoota, in Victoria, Australia.

Allison Marion’s picture of her 11 year old son, Finn, fleeing Mallacoota (via ABC)

Although thousands were fleeing from the flames, the bushfires’ true immediate damage was via the air, the continental-scale clouds of smoke and ash that produced the world’s worst air quality. I’ve been in a dust-storm in Sydney, in 2009, which lasted only a few hours, but I will never forget it.

‘Life on Mars #duststorm’, 2009

That 2009 dust storm was a relatively ‘small’ cloud, albeit the size of Germany and travelling 1500km, just blown up from the deserts of the interior. The bushfires of recent months are an order of magnitude bigger, and far more damaging, stretching beyond New Zealand, ultimately to Argentina.

The start of the 2019 bushfires, from the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission on 8 September, showing fires burning in the Yuraygir National Park and Shark Creek area are visible. Fires are also burning to the north and south of the villages of Angourie and Wooloweyah.

Air pollution from the climate crisis takes a few forms, one of which is this, the smoke from bushfires. Yet the smoke from various forms of industrial pollution and vehicle pollution has a greater effect, all year round, and globally. This may be the more deadly strain.

As David Wallace Wells writes in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, death from air pollution deaths due to climate change is well beyond the upper projections for even a pandemic like COVID-19.

“Between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees of warming, just that extra half degree of warming, is going to kill 150 million people from air pollution alone. That’s 25 times the death toll of the Holocaust.” — ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, by David Wallace Wells (2019)

That horrifying number underscores that the response to the virus must also address this deeper, more fundamental problem. As we’ll see, the virus and the climate crisis are two sides of the same coin: the virus emerges from the activities that also create the climate crisis. But equally, the slowdown for the virus directly reduced air pollution, and will have positive impacts in terms of carbon, and other forms of pollution. Currently, these environmental impacts are only inadvertent side-effects of the virus. They are not a conscious decision to deploy a strategy with co-benefits, and as such, they will not enable a just transition at all.

The personal response to bushfires and virus is also startling similar, as indicated by the masks — the immediate impact is retreating, into our homes or boltholes, living in quarantine.

Like any child of the 1980s, I will never forget the Chernobyl disaster. There are echoes of that feeling now. The airborne threat today is over those two metres of social distancing, but potentially from anybody you walk by — they are the reactor in meltdown. The threat of air pollution due to climate change is more widespread, over time and space, but often more difficult to perceive, despite its greater toll. The radiation threat from Chernobyl was somewhere between the two: immediate, invisible, and potentially at the scale of Europe.

“I’m afraid of rain. That’s what Chernobyl means. I’m afraid of snow, of forests, of clouds. Of the wind… Yes! Where’s it blowing from? What’s it bringing? That’s not an abstraction, not a rational consideration, but my personal feeling.” — Excerpt from ‘Chernobyl Prayer’, by Svetlana Alexievich (2016)

The virus is an entirely different shape to Chernobyl, yet right now, the streets, the tweets, are also full of ‘personal feelings’, the irrational fears — of Trump’s nationalism, or a fear of the other, or simply of the unknown — drowning out the pockets of rational consideration, the rational fears of the virus. This is what a disaster does.


These crises — bushfires, floods, pollution, pandemics — are unimaginably deadly, yet they are caused by our activities, by our choices. If the virus finally helps us understand that, we stand a chance of addressing these crises coherently and capably, rather than retreating further, back into our caves.

In Yoko Towada’s quietly shattering novel, ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’, the certainties underpinning our ways of life have been dissolved by the climate crisis, and various other unspecified shocks:

“Yoshiro had to admit it: what he taught his grandson had been all wrong. He remembered telling the boy, “You can’t go wrong with real estate. Get yourself some land in a prime location in the middle of Tokyo and you’re fixed for life — its value will never go down,” but now that all of Tokyo’s twenty-three wards, including prime locations, were designated an “exposure to multiple health hazards from prolonged habitation” area, neither its houses nor its land had any monetary value. This designation was supposed to mean that although when measured separately, neither drinking water, air, light, nor food was over the danger line, there was a high probability of multiple pernicious influences from lengthy exposure to the environment as a whole. Whereas individual factors can be measured specifically, human beings live in the general.” — Excerpt from ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’, by Yoko Towada (2018)

That line, “human beings live in the general”, indicates how these broader shocks — virus, climate, health, social justice — in their ever increasing scale, are beginning to affect our sensibilities generally. They are not specific. They are no longer specific in impact, and they originate from multiple interactions in complex adaptive systems. Even the so-called World Wars of the past could be seen as relatively specific, compared to the impact of COVID-19 or a supercharged El Niño. They are general existential threats.

Bushfires and floods as harbingers of virus

13 years ago, whilst living in Sydney, I wrote a piece suggesting a bushfire on the scale of Dresden or Hiroshima could wake Australia up to the climate crisis. I carefully said I did not want this to be necessary, and certainly not to wish for any loss of life or other destruction, but that it might take something like this to wake the country up nonetheless.

The city as destructive system: Wildfires, Dresden and the case against urban sprawl

Some version of that fire ripped through Australia a couple of months ago, and it looks like much of the country woke up, at least for a moment. I take no satisfaction whatsoever in writing that. It was, and is, horrifying, heartbreaking, and heedless.

It’s horrifying due to the loss of Australia’s vivid life, whether people or flora and fauna. The landscape will regenerate, albeit differently so, but the idea of Australia from six months ago will not. Even in those places without bushfires, an Australia predicated on being outdoors cannot endure in 50°C and with the worst air quality in the world.

It’s heartbreaking, for a country I have a complex but enduring and committed relationship with, as one of my several ‘homes’. But more importantly, it’s heartbreaking for many other truer Australians, and particularly the traditional custodians of the land. The ongoing destruction of ecosystems by the modern colonisation of Australia rubs salt into the wound of stealing the continent from indigenous Australians, particularly given their far longer, and far more resilient, history.

It’s heedless, as it could so clearly have been avoided: by not creating enduring drought conditions through land- and water-use, or by being a huge contributor to global emissions in both production and consumption, or by not building in the wrong way in the wrong place, or by urban sprawl, or by deforesting, or by destroying biodiversity, or by having the New South Wales fire service budget cut by 35%, or by the federal government pulling funding from climate science, and so on. (Scientists finally reinforced that this season’s bushfires were fiercer due to climate change in February 2020.)

And so, over a month or so, 27 million acres burned, 33 people and a billion animals killed, thousands of homes destroyed. The fires were so vast and fierce that they created their own weather systems.

Astonishing Breugel-esque photograph taken on Mallacoota beach, Victoria, during evacuation from the 2019–20 bushfires (left), and smoke rises from a fire burning at East Gippsland, Victoria, image from Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning Gippsland (right)

When Greta Thunberg says our house is on fire, she meant it metaphorically, largely, but knowing full well that houses are burning somewhere. The West, or North, has long since been positioned as the originators of the climate crisis, with the Global South as the unfortunate countries that suffer. But Australia is a member of the North positioned in the South. And so it is on fire, whilst also causing the fire. In that, it is the harbinger of the climate crisis increasingly consuming the rest of the world.

So where the bloody hell is Australia heading?

Much of the point of Sydney, say, for post-colonial Australia at least, is to be outside. When I moved there, one of the poems I encountered first was Les Murray’s The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever’, which captures something of that delight of the temperate New South Wales climate. But what is Australia in the near-future? Impossibly hot summers leading to a neutered Dubai-style urbanism spent largely indoors? Shorter winters that are bone-dry? Or just chaos? Les Murray also said Australia had only two seasons: drought, of which fires were symptomatic, and flood. We may have just reduced that down to one season: ‘extreme’.

In a quite different context (different timeframe, though same timezone), Yoko Tawada’s extraordinarily novel ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’ gives us a sense of such a transformation:

“On Honshu, the area from Ibaraki Prefecture to Kyoto was most seriously affected by climate change. In some years fine snow fell in August, while in February, hot dry winds dumped mounds of sand. Eyes red despite the eyewash they’d used, men would creep sideways along the edge of the sidewalk like crabs, trying to stay out of the harsh, desert winds sweeping down the middle of the street. Women in sunglasses with their hair hidden beneath scarves — pacing back and forth as if they were on a movie set where the shoot was going badly — were actually fighting their anxiety about the weather. During the summer, when it didn’t rain for three months, all the vegetation would turn dusty yellow until suddenly tropical low pressure would bring on a squall that flooded the subway stations.” — ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’, by Yoko Tawada

The motive is entirely different in Dresden and Mallacoota, but both fires are a direct outcome of our activity. Both fires are driven by our choices about how to live, where to live, and the way we build our settlements.

Fire and Rescue NSW firefighters move in to protect properties from an out of control bushfire in South West Sydney (Helitak430, Wikimedia Commons)

There is more to come for Australia, repeatedly now. David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, carefully chooses words that will mean a lot to many Australians, using another war-time analogy:

“This is our Gallipoli; this is our bushfire Gallipoli.”

Bowman describes how the fires must wake Australia up, and finally change “our understanding of what nature is, our understanding of what being Australian is, our understanding of the value of water, the understanding of our relationship to other life forms, our understanding of what fire is.”

More masks, in Cobargo, New South Wales, Australia, 1 January 2020. Photo: Sean Davey / ANP (via The Correspondent)

Yet the Royal Commission announced in Australia, to assess and learn from the bushfires, has been announced, but astonishingly, “it is specifically not tasked with looking at Australia’s carbon reduction policies.” They are asking the wrong questions. Or ignoring the right ones, at least.

Logging is continuing, whilst aid for bushfire recovery is being diverted to the virus, as if that is some disconnected problem. ‘Greenies’ will be blamed, somehow. Australia, like much of the rest of the world, has a conveniently selective memory.

Caught in the 2011 Queensland floods, I documented the drama in real-time as best I could, writing in candlelight until my iPad battery gave up. I updated the account shortly after, noting how people began to almost purposefully forget, within days. I’ve looked back on that piece many times, and in particularly reflected on this inability to learn from an overwhelming, if apparently temporary, crisis.

An earlier Slowdown. Suburban freeway in Brisbane, during the 2011 Queensland floods
Flood: Reporting from the wet front line of the 2011 Brisbane floods

The floods had immense cost, for years subsequently — I note the 35 lives lost at the time, and $30 billion-plus of damage in more detail in articles about the concreting over of Brisbane — but they can leave no trace of the act of forgetting, which was almost a shocking as the flood itself.

So, as with the floods, there is every chance that these largest bushfires in the continent’s contemporary collective memory will not divert Australia from the path that created them. There is the same possibility with this virus, despite its much larger apparent impact. So now is the time to observe, to be fully in the moment, and to start thinking about, and projecting, what comes next.

It seems political leaders have little idea what next with an Australia not predicated on unsustainable growth, whether coal, metals, agriculture, aviation, tourism, property development — all of which, in the Australian mode at least, tend to be hugely carbon intensive and degenerative of natural systems. There is no coherent image of Australia put forward otherwise. The prime minister Scott Morrison is, after all, the man who held a lump of coal in his hand in parliament and said it was nothing to be afraid of. Was the almost unanimous rejection of Morrison’s hand, when offered as solace to bushfire victims, an implicit connection of his politics with those outcomes?

“By consistently choosing short-term economic growth, successive governments ignored climate science, prepared inadequately and left Australia’s natural environment and its people at the mercy of worsening climate events. They allowed a localised, often-manageable seasonal weather event to become a continuous catastrophe, limited neither by season nor by geography.” — Imogen Champagne, The Correspondent (2019)

A lump of destructive carbon, and some coal.

The Australian prime minister’s woeful response during the bushfires is reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth II’s to the Aberfan coal tip disaster, which many will have encountered for the first time in The Crown, recently — another carbon-related disaster, of course. This kind of deep lack of care for people and place is negating perhaps the most fundamental element of the raison d’être for government itself. It’s a clear abnegation of duty regarding the climate crisis, as the successful peoples’ suit in the Netherlands indicates. It’s not hard to imagine that Australian governments could be found similarly liable — this is a country ranked the worst of 57 countries on climate crisis policy, after all, and which actively blocked the climate negotiations in Madrid — and not ‘simply’ ethically, as current and future generations will surely find them, but also legally.

A passage in Ben Lerner’s novel ‘The Topeka School’ made me think of Morrison and his ilk recently. A character points out that Wile E. Coyote, chasing his nemesis the Road Runner, frequently ends up running off a high cliff. He remains suspended, however, impossibly suspended in mid-air. It’s only when Wile E. Coyote looks down, admitting his predicament, that he begins to slowly, but meaningfully, fall.

Australian politicians refuse to look down, as the country burns around them. They have nowhere else to go but down, but think they can somehow remain aloft, if they don’t look, if they don’t admit they are suspended in disbelief as well as mid-air, with no firm ground beneath their feet.

You can see Morrison, and his men, doing everything to avoid admitting their culpability. For decades it’s been clear. I was fresh off the plane in 2007 and it was immediately clear. The Australian governing elite, from Morrison to Murdoch, has no idea what form a new ground looks like, of another green world for the country, if it is different to the Australia of the past. There is no sense of a future, only a continued glorious past leading to the sunlit uplands of the present. Yet that present is on fire, under water, locked in its house or wearing a mask, due to air pollution—or now, the coronavirus. These fires, these floods, these viruses, they should all be whacking great punctuation points in that story from the past. Yet still they will not look down, hoping behind hope that they can remain suspended by their oblivion.

But these fires, the floods, and the viruses, have caught up with them. That scorched earth is rushing up to meet them and increasingly, it is likely that most Australians will begin to see that their leaders have not been defying gravity all along.

We will see the same scenario with Trump, and others like him, lobbying to restart the engines on the economy as soon as possible. They have no other ideas, after all. All Morrison has up his sleeve is pointedly going to the cricket during a bushfire, or to the rugby during a pandemic. These are attempts to brush near-existential crises under the carpet, clinging onto what he considers normalcy — really, stasis — rather than facing the systemic challenges affecting country and city, and learning how to rebuild a resilient Australia. They’re wearing blinkers, as well as masks.

We must write these moments to memory, and repeatedly return to them, before looking forward to something else.

Despite both being somewhat temporary, perhaps there is a difference in emotional response to bushfires and floods versus invisible viruses. I grew up on the edge of Sheffield, a short drive from the plague village of Eyam in Derbyshire. The memory of being tramped around it as a sullen teenager has never dimmed, due to the stories latent within the dark peak granite the village is constructed from. The village quarantined itself during the Black Death of 1665, preventing the spread of the plague from London to the north of England. It was an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice. At least a quarter of the village’s population died, yet they saved many thousands more in the surrounding towns. Walled grave plots still exist on the edge of the village, spaced apart to prevent contamination during funerals, as do the boundary stones in the woods around, hollowed out with holes for coins, which would be washed in water or vinegar, and exchanged for food and medicine. In the Riley graves, named after the farmer who owned the field, Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six children, all of whom died over the course of eight days. An early form of social distancing was practiced, with church services carried out in the woods, so people could stand apart from each other. As the plague arrived in infected fleas in a box of linen from London, it traced a path along trade routes, just as with COVID-19.

Riley Graves. From ‘Inside Eyam, the heroic plague village where battle with deadly disease saved thousands’, The Independent, 22 March 2020

I did not have to look any of these details up, despite it being years since I visited. These memories stick.

Each year, however, these same areas of Britain flood, increasingly severely. Yet each year it’s a surprise. (“Wet? This place? Who knew?!”).

As for the bushfires that chewed across the eastern edge of the Australian continent this year, except for those that lost property or were directly evacuated, I suspect that the bushfire smoke that confined the inhabitants of the country’s biggest cities to their homes has already begun to fade with autumn’s clear skies.

Certainly, the virus has taken almost all bandwidth. We may only find out whether Australia has changed, and genuinely taken on board what is happening, after the curves of the virus flatten out. The great Australian novelist, Thomas Keneally, writing from amidst the fires near his home, said:

“These fires have not been a straw in the wind. They have been brutally manifest and undeniable in the force of their argument. They have the power to change politics here and in other places, as long as they are read honestly. After our long glorying in minerals, it is promised that, if it wishes, Australia can be a leader in the new post-fossil-fuel world. It is a destiny our politicians seem unwilling to embrace, but they may have to … For the fires have changed us. Perhaps we, too, need fire to germinate an essential concept.” — Thomas Keneally

We can substitute the word ‘virus’ for ‘fire’ in those first and last lines, and the sentences in Keneally’s paragraph would continue to read well … “as long as they are read honestly.”

“Another Plague Year would reconcile all these Differences, a close conversing with Death, or the Diseases that threaten Death, would scum off the Gall from our Tempers, remove the Animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing Eyes, than those which we look’d on Things with before .. (But) As the Terror of the Infection abated, those Things all returned to their less desirable Channel, and to the Course they were in before.”― ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, by Daniel Defoe (1722)

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.


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