The Schadenfreude of History

McKenzie Wark

In Australia, and elsewhere, the future is unsettling.

Back in sixth grade, I wrote a story from the point of view of a kangaroo caught in a bushfire, leaping and dodging flames as she tries to save the joey in her pouch. Fire is such a regular part of the landscape across much of Australia. Aboriginal people used it actively to hunt for game, among other things. The seeds of certain trees only germinate when exposed to heat. Fire is a familiar stranger.

But not like this. It’s not supposed to burn as far and wide as this. In the southern summer of 2019–2020, forests are burning that should be too damp to catch. Even in parts of the country where fire is expected, the intensity and heat of this summer’s fires are unknown. For smoke and ash to waft into major cities is familiar, but not for it to blanket the sky and turn it Mad Max amber.

Both the Indian and Pacific oceans are giant weather systems, affecting all of the lands around them. That is why rainfall is very unpredictable across much of the continent, a geographic reality to which native species and indigenous people adapted. It so happens that now movements in both ocean weather systems have created an especially dry, hot summer, following an already long period of drought. It would not quite be correct to say that this situation is a direct result of climate change. Rather, it’s the sort of situation that climate change makes more likely. A climate that used to generate unpredictable weather now generates it unpredictably.

I see all this from afar now. Even after twenty years based in New York, the landscape of the American northeast does not quite seem right to me. The leaves are the wrong color green. And what’s the deal with their turning yellow and falling off? On a brief trip back to Australia before the worst of the fires, being in the landscape again made me cry. The birdsong, the colors, the scent of the trees.

I see pictures on my media feed—the familiar shape of my birth continent, ringed with pointers for all the fires. I see maps of highest recorded daily temperatures, with a giant purple stain across the whole eastern side. The weather bureau had to add a new color not too long ago for the new record highs. It was 120 degrees Fahrenheit in western Sydney, last time I looked. I grew up used to high summer heat, my underpants sticking to me on my wooden seat in school, the fans turning too slow, no air conditioning. But it was never like this.

I feel unable to let out all of the feelings I have about it. Everyone I know is safe, although it’s been an anxious time, checking all channels. But how to put that alongside seeing pictures of so much dead wildlife and knowing that many species will never recover? I think about all those animals, desperate to flee the flames. Whole habitats will never come back. The birdsong I used to hear will have notes missing. The magpies, which can imitate other birds, are doing impressions of fire alarms.

I feel implicated. I’m from settler culture, which has brought the continent to this sorry state in a mere two hundred-odd years. My ancestors traveled from Scotland to build gas works for lighting. For years now, much of settler culture has let itself be gaslit by climate denial ideologues in the pay of the fossil fuel industry and promoted by the Murdoch press. We’ve been persuaded to disbelieve our own senses, to neglect the evidence that’s been in front of us for years that “development,” such as it is, can’t go on without breaking this dry, fragile continent. Even many of those not so coerced by this had not expected things to start falling apart quite so soon.

I feel that if I give in to despair, it may prove bottomless. That the things for which I once fought, back when I lived there, amounted to nothing and now can never be. All I could cling to—a faint glimmer of light in the haze—would be that Australia’s entire political apparatus is now exposed as incapable of dealing with reality.

Both of the mainstream parties are franchises of the mining industry, and everyone knows it. The current prime minister, Scott Morrison—referred to by so many these days as “Scotty from marketing”—brought a lump of coal into parliament in 2017, holding it up like a fetish object. The opposition are hardly any better. When the smoke clears, a lot of people will know that they have to take things into their own hands.

That I’m losing my world, the landscape that made me, that’s in me, feels impossible to mourn. That my white, settler ass now feels this way is also a kind of grand historical practical joke. My ancestors destroyed another world to make the one I called home. In the town of Bathurst—the seat of the first outpost of the nineteenth-century Wark family gasworks business—there’s a street named after us: Wark Parade. I have no idea what world, which names were erased to make it so. Indigenous peoples have felt and lived with this loss of world for a long time.

Too little, too late: in my feed is a story about a property not far from my birthplace. The white owners claim the place survived the fires because they’d commissioned what is called “cultural burning” from an Aboriginal expert in the technique. It is a practice different from the preventative burning done by fire services. The fires are smaller and don’t reach into the tree canopies, allowing wildlife to take refuge up there. The objective is the same: to reduce the fuel when the inevitable bush fire sparks.

Such stories encourage settler culture to think that by incorporating some modicum of Aboriginal knowledge and practice, it can continue with business as usual. This particular story did not question why and how the land has white owners. As if one could pay the people from whom the land was stolen as casual labor to come and fix it.

“That I’m losing my world, the landscape that made me, that’s in me, feels impossible to mourn. That my white, settler ass now feels this way is also a kind of grand historical practical joke.”

The current estimate for Aboriginal inhabitation of the continent is at least 65,000 years. The Holocene, the climate epoch many agree is now coming to an end, lasted for 11,700 years, which means that Aboriginal presences stretch back to the last millennia of the Pleistocene epoch. Of course, Aboriginal cultures are diverse and changing. They developed techniques for enduring across many biomes.

If I had to bet on anyone surviving into the Anthropocene epoch, that’s who I’d put my money on—that’s if there’s still to be money. And that’s if the continent remains inhabitable by humans, or life, at all—a caveat it no longer seems hyperbolic to add.

When asked to explain how white settler culture in Australia is different from America’s, I usually say that the US had Lewis and Clark; we had Burke and Wills. Lewis and Clark traveled from one side of the continent to the other and back, discovering many rich, exploitable lands along the way. Burke and Wills got from the bottom of the continent to the top, finding deserts, then swamps, then got almost all the way home—and died. They even hastened their own deaths by eating indigenous plants without washing them in water first, as the local Aboriginal people tried to show them to do.

The archetype of the failed explorer, who goes off and finds nothing a settler can recognize as valuable, was even turned into high literature by novelist Patrick White. In Voss, the journey into the “outback” yields not material but spiritual rewards. For the white explorer, that is. As if there were not already an indigenous relation to country.

One might take some small encouragement from writers like James Bradley, who in novels such as Clade attempt to write in another way about what it’s like to feel that landscape, having become familiar with it, then to slip away and become alien again.

Alternately, one might look to work like the videos of the Karrabing Film Collective. Its members are from the sparsely populated far north. Their work covers topics such as what it means for indigenous people to return to sites from which settler sovereignty has been withdrawn because the land is too toxic to permanently inhabit.

Another of their films, which gave me chills, details the forced removal of Aboriginal people from the northern coasts during World War II. The authorities, perhaps rightly, suspected that in the event of a Japanese invasion, indigenous people might see no reason to remain loyal to the crown. People were rounded up, shipped a hundred miles inland, and herded into hastily constructed barracks fenced in with wire.

I had to check on my own family history after I saw this work, as my father the architect had built a lot of temporary structures in the north during the war. As it turns out, not these ones. But still: somebody’s fathers did. To be from settler culture is to be implicated. There’s maybe too much presumption in even articulating how I feel about history. It might be more enlightening to ask how history feels about me, or people like me, people to whom I can’t not belong.

The town in which I grew up—Newcastle, New South Wales—is the world’s biggest coal port. Together with Indonesia, Australia is the world’s top coal exporter. It is also a major exporter of natural gas and exports a bit of oil as well, just for the hell of it. This is the schadenfreude of history, working its way not through great men but through banal commodities and chemistries. The “prosperity” of the various mineral booms underpinning Australian political economy makes the landscape from which it is extracted unstable and unlivable.

There’s a macabre thought now circulating on the internet that, in the not too distant future, Australians might soon enough become climate refugees. Given the punitive, carceral approach the Australian government currently takes to the refugees landing in its territory, some of whom are surely climate refugees already, this too might be thought under the rubric of the schadenfreude of history: the grand settler obsession with keeping the continent all to ourselves undermined literally and figuratively by the fever of its exploitation.

The unreason of colonial conquest and extraction works its way like an industrial borer beneath the edifice of its sovereignty. Even the Australian labor movement is in debt to extraction. Let’s just mention the great showdown between its Communist and parliamentary wings: the attempt by communists to launch a general strike in 1948 by shutting down the coal industry—which lead to the Labor government’s sending troops down the mines.

The birth of green politics is also sometimes narrated through an energy industry story: the fight to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania from destruction by a hydroelectric dam. Given the extent to which the Greens got caught up in parliamentary politics as well, perhaps it’s worth recalling another origin story from the seventies: the green bans of the Builders Labourers Federation. Under communist leadership, the union claimed the power to assess whether “development” was in the public interest and to refuse to work when it most clearly was not.

These two moments in Australian communist history saw much the same strategy deployed: direct action at the point of production. The difference is that in the forties the objective was worker control of the means of development, whereas in the seventies the question began to be asked as to what development was meant to develop.

Communists always saw themselves as the avant-garde of history. They certainly did so in their leadership of the Aborginal cattle workers’ strikes of the forties. Today one might wonder instead what indigenous leadership might look like, although they would have every reason to want to leave us to the schadenfreude of history—to endure without us.

I’m not optimistic about the chances of any future for the place of my birth and early life outside of the schadenfreude of history. The kangaroo with her joey, dodging the flames—if I wrote about her now, she wouldn’t make it out to the clear and green. She’ll keep trying, though.