The Burning Beach, by Tim Winton

4 April 2018

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We have heard a lot about warming oceans in the past couple of decades. Even to me it always sounded so far off and technical. 

To my mind a two degree jump in sea temperature was no big deal. But that was before I saw what it meant. That’s when it got personal, when it literally hit me where I live.

Here in Western Australia in the summer of 2010-11, we had a serious marine heatwave. One morning on the central west coast beachwalkers started seeing thousands and thousands of birds along the shoreline. Birds as far as the eye could see. When they went down to investigate they saw the tideline covered with dead and dying abalone. Thousands upon thousands of them. The sea had suddenly gotten too hot for these molluscs. So they climbed out of the water and off the limestone reefs to escape, only to find themselves, literally out of the frying pan and into the fire, roasting to death on the blinding white sand. A mass stranding of abalone. No one had ever seen the like before.

Just think of that — a creature so desperate to escape its own intolerable world it casts itself on a burning shore to die. The pathos of it. And think what it might mean for all those other creatures unseen and unnoticed beneath the sunlit surface. That really got me. It went deep and hard. Partly because abalone has been such an important part of my family culture, my diet, my sense of the ocean’s teeming life. Some of my happiest memories of childhood are about gathering abalone with my parents and siblings. When I was a kid this shellfish was a staple, growing in such abundance I could fill a string bag with them in ten minutes before school. We called it muttonfish. In the 60s, I’m embarrassed to say, we baited our craypots with the stuff. On our honeymoon my wife and I dived for them. Abalone was our first meal as a married couple. In time we showed our kids how to collect them and cook them, just as our parents had taught us. Over the years we learnt to collect them more sustainably. We had our secret spots, colonies of the mollusc we collected from sparingly and seasonally. But now, in our part of the world, the population is decimated and the fishery closed for the foreseeable future.

The boiling-frog moment

People talk about the boiling-frog moment. Well, this was mine. Then last summer images started coming back from the Great Barrier Reef showing massive coral bleaching, and I have to confess I really struggled to accept the reality of it. It wasn’t nearly as close to home, it’s true, but the implications were so much worse.  Not just for me and mine – for all of us. And once enough time had passed for scientific surveys to show that 22 per cent – near on a quarter of the world’s largest coral reef – was lost, it was pretty hard to pick yourself up and keep going.

Yes, we’d stopped the dumping of dredge spoil on the reef in 2015, a terrific outcome, and I was glad to have had a tiny part in that. But this? It was a massive blow, and it came at a time when the national government was undermining climate science and renewable energy, when it and the Queensland government were doing everything in their power to smooth the way for the world’s biggest coal mine, effectively subsidizing the world’s largest reservoir of carbon pollution in the Galilee Basin, just inland from the Reef. The sick feeling I had watching this unfold – it really got its hooks into me.

But despair is not an option. Neither is cynicism. And what’s a nihilist but someone who has nothing and nobody at stake? Who can afford that sort of cowardice?  Not me. And not mine.

We are at a moment in history in which we’re fighting for the Great Barrier Reef’s very survival. 

At moments like these it’s important to remember that we, ordinary citizens, have real power. We need to remind each other of this. When people have access to good clean information, when we share knowledge and spread the word, when we give what we can for the common good, when we get organized, we can do mighty things. I know this because we’ve done it before. The Franklin Blockade. In the old-growth forests of Western Australia. James Price Point. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve been there to see it unfold at Ningaloo and in the marine parks decision of 2012. And in the face of mounting horrors these are the moments I steel myself with.

We are at a moment in history in which we’re fighting for the Great Barrier Reef’s very survival. The reef is now fighting for its life. The world’s largest living structure, the only one you can see from space, it looks so enormous and robust. But it needs help. Right now. Our seas are warming and growing more acidic. And if a living structure as big as this is in trouble, then we’re all in jeopardy.

I realize that for many Australians, especially those in southern cities, any kind of coral reef seems like a distant reality. People will still ask, ‘what’s this got to do with me?’

Well, the answer is pretty straightforward. Our survival as humans depends on the health of the seas. 70 per cent of the earth’s surface is ocean, and when the oceans die life on this planet is no longer viable. Whether we realise it or not, we’re in a relationship here. And for the most part during modernity, it’s been an abusive relationship. Abuse has its roots in a fundamental lack of respect. That’s a vital part of what we’re trying to turn around in our grand, global re-education project, this multigenerational existential re-framing that people unhelpfully call the ‘green movement’, or ‘environmentalism’. It’s been about bringing some respect back to our relationship with nature, the world that makes our life possible. To me that’s just humanism, enlightened self-interest, a change in attitude and stewardship that’s taken hold in my own lifetime and may yet save us from oblivion.

Marine Philanthropy on Sydney Harbour, 2017.

We have come such a long way in our thinking in such a short time. But the natural world is now changing faster than our adaptive response. As citizens, organisations, businesses, governments, we need to think and act faster, more consistently, more concertedly in our mutual long-term interests. Because we’re getting close to the pointy end, here. It’s a rescue mission now. And not just a mission to spare coral. Because if we can’t save the Barrier Reef we’ve sealed our own fate. A planet that can’t sustain it’s greatest coral reef will eventually become a place that can’t support human life. Yes, it’s a rescue mission, alight, but it’s us we’re saving, us and those who come after us.

We’ve been so lucky. We’re unique creatures, sentient beings, with potent choices. And a burning will to live and prosper. A species of genius, with immense capacities and a record of remarkable achievement. But perhaps our greatest gift is our moral sense. We have an underlying belief in the common good. Yes, we know we’re lucky. But we also know that what we do with our good fortune is what defines us. As individuals, families, nations, as a species. When it comes to global viability there are no disinterested bystanders – we all have a dog in this race. Like the abalone, there’s nowhere else for us to go.

We’re at a turning point. The decisions we make about the Carmichael coal mine will have an impact upon the reef, on our global atmosphere, on the state of our oceans. When the histories are written about this era let’s hope to God they record the moments when we got it right. This looks to be one of those moments. None of us can afford to get this wrong. Remember, we are creatures of the blue planet. If we cook ourselves here at home the only other option is a burning beach.


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