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Climate and Disability Activism: The Perfect Storm

by Jessica Obersby

As I write this, the sky is darkening. Blue-grey clouds rolling in with the smell of dampness and spice. After a slew of days in the 30s, rain will be very welcome. I have tried to work with our climate in regional Victoria and create a drought-tolerant garden filled with indigenous plants that thrive in this area. However, I still notice subtle fading in the stiff sclerophyll foliage as my plants battle the heat. Some days I am torn between wanting to water them, and worrying that if I do, I will make them weak and dependent. 

Gardening is learning. It is experimenting, borrowing and imitating, trying new things – and often failing – and ultimately creating. It is a continuous journey, as you adapt your practice to your increasing understanding. Our climate is changing rapidly, the blink of an eye in an evolutionary sense, and often I wonder if I should just build a garden of succulents and cacti to save myself the potential heartache of losing less robust plants. But I won’t, because my garden represents the fight and the passion in me.  

Conservation is a passion of mine, and so is writing. I have recently gone back to university to study environmental and conservation science, and I think a good use of my particular skillset is to go into the field of science communication. I live in coal country. Most local people I talk to don’t feel any sense of urgency around climate, but every scientist I engage with feels the same way as me: the climate crisis is like a horrific car accident, I don’t want to see any more, but I just can’t look away.  

There have been times in my life when I was very inspired in my climate activism, and times when I was just too weary and overwhelmed to want to face another day. It was only when I thought about it in the context of my disability, that things started to become clearer to me. The energy required to march at a rally, both physical and mental, and the stresses that put on me, meant I was generally excluded from that type of activism. And it made me feel guilty.  

Last year, I said to a friend that I felt like I was spreading myself too thin – that there were so many things I was advocating for I couldn’t give them all the time they deserved. My friend felt the same, and told me they often thought of this quote from Bilbo Baggins in Lord of The Rings, ‘I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’  

There are many people who have helped me learn to navigate and make sense of my experience of being disabled in the world. One of the people who have helped me the most is writer and appearance activist Carly Findlay. Among her many insights is one that particularly resonates with me: that we can do activism in different ways. So can I do activism by writing? 

What is the role of a writer in society? How do I achieve what I want to, using my writing? Writing won’t change the world. But what I often forget is that it can do exactly that, because writing changes the world for the reader. We, as writers, can bring about change – not concrete change, but abstract. Creating space to have conversations, open dialogue, and challenge dominant narratives. We can start the process that leads to tangible change. It is both a thrilling and terrifying thought.  

The poet Andy Jackson says you may think of poetry as a quiet music that moves people, but has no real impact. I don’t think that’s true. I think writing that encourages people to contemplate social issues makes better humans. Jackson doesn’t write a poem with the conscious intention to change things, he writes because he has to. It’s a compulsion.   

I am compelled to write, too. I realise I’m not going to solve a problem with a poem or an essay, but I’m drawn to write about things that weigh on my mind. And writing as activism brings these problems to the minds of others, too. This writing is necessarily a political act, and expressing an opinion is always fraught. There will always be people who disagree and those who want to silence you. If you are disabled, your voice, most often, will be silenced. Our society is built that way, marginalised people are systemically oppressed.  

Considering that roughly 20% of Australians have a disability, that equates to more than 4 million people. That’s why getting diverse stories out there is so important. What started with author Corinne Duyvis and the hashtag #OwnVoices, promoting stories written by authors with lived experience of the characters, needs to be continued by writers.  

It is largely due to that movement that I can see my writing through the lens of disability, and see that it is valid. The disability community, specifically, other writers I have met in this community, has given me a safe space to write whatever I want to write without fear of judgement, mockery or reprisal. Because in this space my story, my opinion, is valid; I am valid.  

So often disabled people are undervalued, or worse, seen to have no value at all. In a capitalist society where people are judged on their productivity, disabled people are dismissed as worthless. Our lives are literally worth less that non-disabled people’s. We are asked to prove our worth again and again, and while the definition of worth remains tied to money, we will always fall short.  

We have seen this most recently with the Covid 19 pandemic. When deaths attributed to Covid 19 were reported, authorities assured the public that everything was all right because only people with comorbidities were dying. Only the elderly, the disabled, chronically ill or immunocompromised. Not people who actually mattered. The official message was that disabled people are expendable, disposable. And now, as Australia begins to open up again and live with a ‘new normal’, deaths of disabled people are accepted as collateral damage. 

Unfortunately, this is not a new concept. The idea of triage – whether in a hospital emergency department, evacuation or rescue in a natural disaster, or deciding who gets the last ventilator in a Covid ward – involves making value judgements about people, whether we like to admit it or not. And with extreme weather events set to increase in both frequency and severity as the climate crisis worsens, governments need to do better by us. Disabled people need to be included in the planning for natural disasters, and appropriate funding made available to enact the plans, not if, but when they’re needed.  

It seems that triage is often necessary, too, for environmental issues in a country governed by those who only see the value of things in terms of productivity. The barest minimum of funding is devoted to environmental and conservation concerns, and even invasive species are dealt with under a triage system instead of dedicating money to preventative measures.  

The commonwealth government has produced weed and pest animal strategy documents that state the negative impacts of pests in Australia are economic, environmental and social. In that order. They also quote figures on the economic impacts – pest animals $1 billion annually and weeds $4 billion – in case you need further convincing of the economy’s importance. These documents describe four stages of pest management on a generalised invasion curve: prevention, eradication, containment, and asset protection. This equates to a triage system, which they call ‘risk assessment and prioritisation’, and which means that because so many pest species are naturalised, all they are really doing is protecting their assets.  

In order to save money on conservation and protection of endangered species, the government uses a triage system, where species are assigned various statuses from least concern to critically endangered, and recently introduced a ‘priority threatened species list’. One-hundred species have been prioritised, out of more than 1800 species listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). In a country that has been a world leader in wildlife extinctions since colonisation, it is not surprising that the 1700 threatened species not on the priority list will also be deemed acceptable collateral damage in the relentless pursuit of productivity. 

If you can’t kill it for its meat or fur, if you can’t mine it, or fish it, log it or dam it, harvest it in any way, the environment has no value to the government. As a disabled person, I feel keenly a connection to our native animals and our land, in that we are treated as disposable.  

At the intersection of my identity as a disabled environmentalist, I see disability communities like ecosystems with interactions between the elements that all have a role; interdependent, we provide one another ecosystem services so that our community can survive and flourish. So I will do my activism in writing. I will connect for my reader the inherent value of a (disabled) person and the inherent value of the (damaged) land, sheltered in my ecosystem and safe in the knowledge that even if I don’t change the world, at least I can begin the process.

Jessica Obersby is an emerging writer who believes stories have the power to change people’s lives. She works as the Writeability Program Manager for Writers Victoria. Jessica is a graduate of the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing program and in 2019 was awarded a Writers Victoria Writeability Fellowship. Her work in progress is YA speculative fiction with a protagonist exploring where disability fits into her identity. 

Next: Winter Trees by Nicole Smith


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