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Saunas and the Queen

When she died, the Queen took with her a sense of serene bigness. Bigger than the small things, bigger than the silly things, bigger than so much we’ve chosen to label as important. I was sad and I knew I would be, but what I hadn’t expected was a feeling that an overarchingly powerful, calm, sound voice of reason had disappeared. Amid social media and fake news and Trump and Brexit and the swirling maelstrom of distractions from things that really matter, the Queen appeared to rise above the nonsense, and I couldn’t help feeling many needed that image more than ever.

For all the problems of the monarchy – and this is where I make my case that surely now, please, is an opportune time for Australia to become a republic, thus paving the way for a more equal and just country with a constitution that puts First Nations people at its centre and brings us all with it – the Queen got on with her job.

I was in the UK when she died but I’m writing from Munich, where the winter skidded into the beginning of September, shoving autumn cleanly out of the wings, where it had patiently waited while a gloriously long and scarily warm summer stole the show. Autumn was due to be short – trees would lose leaves in a day or two, as tinder dry as so many were – but it wasn’t given a chance. As Oktoberfest rages, scarves and hats and gloves emerge, muffling the cold, damp ceramic of freshly filled Maskrugs. The Bayerisch know how to drink, but they also know how to do winter, and, besides beer, saunas and warm public swimming pools feature heavily in their survival technique. This winter, though, is different.

Just as summer was a blasting, outlying inferno, so this cold season will be unlike many. Call-ups have spread across Russia and we’re still not sure how we’ll keep Europe running over the next few months, but we’re also four explosions in to a long winter over at Nordstream 1. As fuel prices rise, Munich council has closed all public saunas and dropped its usual 24C swimming pools to 21C. Those three degrees might seem piffling given the Caritas stands welcoming refugees to Munich’s Hauptbahnhof, but they represent the unfolding of a crisis that will leave many thousands shivering in their own homes. In the UK, the BBC’s wall-to-wall narrative, until the 8th September, was unrelenting: eating or heating, which will you chose? That all shifted in an instant as lenses were suddenly trained on Balmoral’s gates and the fuel crisis was dropped for an overwhelmingly tender, if frenzied, media moment.

It didn’t take long to fade. Under the new PM (and the new king), the pound has hit the skids, house prices have been tipped to fall by as much as 20 per cent and the IMF has intervened to point out to the UK that for any economy to work, fiscal policy really needs to complement monetary policy. The fuel price is biting. The news, again, has become what it was before the Queen died of old age and snuffed out a bigness that, for three weeks, pushed everything else aside.

Last week, I flew over Nordstream’s path and when I landed in Helsinki, I was only a few hundred kilometres from St Petersbourg. But in Munich – and I dare say London, although much of its mess is its very own – Russia feels closer than ever. It’s cold, the saunas are off. And this is just the beginning of the winter.

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Never not resisting

I’m running on a track through fields, shoulder high corn on my right and meadow flowers to my left. The sun is high and stifling and ahead of me is a power station, its four white towers just shielded from the crowds at the nearby lake, thanks to dense summer foliage smudging the skyline around eastern Munich. 

As I trudge, I’m listening to Mary Annaïse Heglar at Hot Take talk about the over-egged hashtag theme, resilience. She and guest Ko Bragg both live in Louisiana and have weathered cyclones, droughts, floods and now a summer that is miserably hot. More big storms, more intensity earlier in the season. More Idas, Katrinas, Zetas. “This Gulf is so hot already, I’m just really praying for us,” says Ko. 

There are threads in everything I’m seeing and hearing – and feeling, as I run on a 35C day, my route determined by wherever I find shade. The UK has just recorded its hottest day ever, reaching more than 40C. Raging grass fires set homes alight. Grass fires, homes burning. In England. And I live in Byron Bay, which sits in a region that has done its fair share of being ‘resilient’ of late. In February and March, two major floods in 30 days destroyed a city and a dozen towns, leaving many thousands without homes. Bushfires raged in 2020, the pandemic did its work and those floods wrecked a vast swath of semi-tropical land, sweeping homes, livelihoods and thousands of cattle, horses, kangaroos and koalas into its muddy flow. A cow washed up on our local beach. Everywhere I turn, alarm bells are ringing – and they’re all the same tone. 

So, resilience. I first wrote about resilience when I arrived in Australia in 2010 and interviewed a professor from James Cook University about the community in northern Queensland, which had been repeatedly hit by cyclones. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, his research found. (One of those weather systems uprooted a massive Moreton Bay Fig tree onto my cousin’s roof, scalping his home. So, yeah, the place knows a bit about what it means to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going.)

Resilience is a word that keeps coming up. But it’s loaded. I have just recorded two interviews with small business owners near Byron, both badly affected by the floods. They didn’t feel comfortable with the ‘resilient’ label. One prefers the word adaptability. The other, well, the other says she sees sadness, exhaustion, anger… not resilience. It reminds me of an ex whose take on life was often to “suck it up”. I don’t like the term’s inelegance, but worse is the implied powerlessness of the suckee. Resilience implies responsibility, collective and individual, but not that of the leaders bandying the word around. It requires enduring the problem, rather than tackling its root cause. It’s often laden with racism and classism, with otherness. It comes from outsiders looking in. “You’ll bounce back, because that’s what you people do,” as Ko put it. Plus, it’s hard to be resilient about a broken climate when the leaders of the country tell us there’s nothing wrong with our shiny, happy climate. Oh, and, why don’t you just leave the area, anyway?

What’s really striking this week, as those meadow flowers crumple and brown, is how the collective demand to be resilient is shared, from Louisiana to London, from Byron to Munich. The heat is coming. But there’s only so much resilience anyone can muster when the city is either burning or sinking and a far-off audience proffers useless pat-on-the-backs, bickers amongst themselves and turns away. 

We need a better word amid the climate chaos. Mary and Ko’s take on it: resistance, not resilience. Back in March, I told ABC radio that Byron and its environ is at the coalface of climate change. We’re living the change, every day – and we need to stand up against the forces that exacerbate it, not let it envelop us. The people of Louisiana – and all of the many interconnected flare points around the world – are in the same boat. “They’re not resilient, they’re resistant,” says Mary, as she describes the people of New Orleans. “They’re defiant in the face of the storms and in the face of the power structure that’s creating this sort of world.”

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She leads

My latest feature, and my first for Patagonia Australia.

Australian leadership – let’s call it what it is: traditional, male and white – isn’t working for many of us, least of all the environment. Bring more women and diverse voices to the table before it’s too late, urges Women’s Environmental Leadership Australia.

Traditional forms of leadership have failed the environment. It’s time for change. Photo: Ula Majewski

Sherie Bruce has trouble calling herself a leader.

The Arrernte and Yolgnu scientist and mother from the NT has stood against Adani’s Carmichael Mine plans on the part of First Nations communities. She’s gently agitated for a Reconciliation Action Plan at the Queensland Conservation Council, where she is deputy chair. She’s influencing a group of people in an organisation that can make fundamental change across a sector that can improve the lives of all Australians. She might not be ‘in charge’, but she’s a bona fide environmental figurehead, creating genuine and lasting positive change. 

“Well,” Sherie eventually concedes, laughing, “that’s leading then, isn’t it?” 

By her own admission, she has a classic case of impostor syndrome, doubting her abilities and achievements. She’s not alone. In the environmental space, women in Australia rarely dominate headlines or public conversations. They achieve results without fanfare and despite the barriers posed by the traditional structures in which they work. Yet, whether or not they acknowledge their wins, their leadership is largely unseen, unsupported and unfunded. As climate goals are ramped up, something has to change – and that something looks a lot like equality. 

“We need to unleash women’s capacity,” says Victoria McKenzie-McHarg, the strategic director of Women’s Environmental Leadership Australia. WELA is a not-for-profit working with women like Sherie to redefine leadership with the goal of tackling environmental and climate disaster. It was in her former roles at Environment Victoria and the Australian Conservation Foundation – and as current chair of Climate Action Network Australia – that Victoria saw a pattern emerge: masculine models of leadership that fail to recognise the challenge, take action and break away from the norms. “It dawned on me,” she tells me from her home (and WELA HQ) in Forrest, in rural Victoria, “that what we were facing was not an environmental crisis, it was actually a leadership crisis.”

“It dawned on me that what we were facing was not an environmental crisis, it was actually a leadership crisis.”

Give women and gender diverse people the space to lead their way, because – and here WELA’s message is disarmingly frank – we will not get out of the crises we’re in by relying on the same outdated leadership that got us into them. 

We know that more female decision-makers leads to better environmental results. The evidence shows that where women are leading, there is more collaboration, greater use of networks and more responses to community. A 2019 study found that more women in parliament meant more stringent climate change policies. At a local level, natural resource management by women is associated with better resource governance and conservation outcomes, according to the UN. In fact, if all women smallholders received equal access to resources, up to 150 million people would no longer go hungry. In the corporate sector, more women on boards increases the disclosure of carbon emissions information. And those most affected by climate change today? Women, girls and the marginalised. 

We know all this to be true, and yet we are still not getting women and diverse voices into the room. Take COP26 in Glasgow, where, on the opening day of the planet’s most urgent climate talks yet – and against a backdrop of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which explicitly champion gender equality – just 10 of the 140 assembled leaders were women. The UK’s top representatives at the talks initially included a sum total of zero women. Globally, just 21 per cent of all government ministers are women. 

The ‘WELA Weekend’ retreat, held in June, saw female environmental leaders from around Australia gather to learn, talk, and connect. Photo: Ula Majewski

So, yes, the word ‘leader’ still conjures power agendas and grey suits, intimidation and alienation. That is, after all, the reason for WELA’s existence. Leadership often looks like Scott Morrison… and Scott Morrison being ousted by a prime minister who actually believes in climate change. Victoria’s relief over Australia’s change of government is palpable. It also looks like Tanya Plibersek as Minister for the Environment and the surge of teal independents – whose campaigns, by the way, were largely driven by women aged 60-plus. But, says Victoria, leadership is also quietly thriving in your school, neighbourhood and local surf spot. 

“I have seen the most extraordinary acts of leadership from the newest volunteer that highlights the inadequacy of our most highly paid corporate CEOs who are failing to lead on a daily basis,” Victoria says. “We have thought for so long that governments lead. Governments never lead, the community leads. And, if we wait for the government to lead, we’re really in trouble because there are not many women in government.”  

I’m reminded of the summer’s disastrous Queensland and northern NSW floods, when obliterated infrastructure and a governmental leadership void was circumvented by unbroken communities. Those who responded were young and old and from all walks of life. But behind every one of the sensational rescue or clean-up photographs was a vast and hidden coordination effort. As one of its accidental leaders, Jacqui Lewis, told me, she was “in awe of the other mostly women” she was surrounded by as she, amongst many other things, secured satellite communications to reconnect isolated communities.

From her back door, Victoria steps into the Great Otway National Park, a swath of temperate rainforest that is one of the most carbon dense forests in the world. It’s a wilderness she walks in every day, but come summer, it’s also a major bushfire risk area. Her experience of climate change isn’t born from research reports, she need only look out of her window. 

“This is a major existential crisis, hero-based strongman leadership is not working for our environment anywhere.”

WELA was founded in 2016 by a group of matriarchs in the environmental space. They are women who helped found the Greens, protested the Franklin River Dam, started the Wilderness Society and Bush Heritage, but, says Victoria, an alum of WELA’s inaugural program, “you don’t know their names, because they’re women.”

In 2019 she had a call from WELA looking for insights as to how the program might evolve, and even survive. The penny dropped. She grabbed a pen and butcher’s paper and, sitting on her living room floor, began mapping out WELA’s scaled-up future. “This is a major existential crisis, hero-based strongman leadership is not working for our environment anywhere,” she told the team. “We need women making decisions at every level, we need to make that happen, how about it?” To their unending credit, they backed her. 

WELA’s Victoria McKenzie-McHarg on a tea break with Ayesha Moss and Asmaa Guedira. “We need women making decisions at every level, we need to make that happen, how about it?” Photo: Ula Majewski

So far, WELA has trained over 130 women and gender diverse people, their ages ranging from about 25 to 75. It’s open to anyone who is actively working for the environment, paid or unpaid, and informally or formally taking a leadership role – whether they call it that or not. Through nine months of coaching, mentoring and two week-long retreats, the program comes at leadership from the top down, bottom up and sideways, and is geared to welcome difference, diversity and constant learning. It focuses on self-development – diffusing impostor syndrome, say – workplaces, campaigning and system change. Donations, including a Patagonia grant, support WELA alongside fees paid by program participants. 

And here’s the thing: it’s absolutely working. Alumni have gone on to lead and win some immense environmental outcomes. Jess Beckerling is campaign director at WA Forest Alliance, which late last year won its decades-long campaign to save WA forests, becoming the first state in Australia to ban native forest logging. She completed the WELA program on the approach to intense negotiations and a massive election campaign. 

Current participant, Chris Shuringa, is the convenor of the newly formed Victorian Forest Alliance, which has brought together grassroots organisations across the state to protect Victoria’s remaining native forests from logging. And for Sherie, joining Queensland’s conservation decision makers means not only a woman’s place at the table, but a First Nations voice, too. 

Their leadership is highly diverse in its approach. It is community-based, collaborative and empowers others. Hierarchies and heroes don’t feature. It sounds naff, Maribyrnong councillor Bernadette Thomas says, but for her, female leadership is about personal connection. She participated in WELA before running for a seat on council and also before finding herself making a coffin and writing a eulogy for a local creek following West Footscray’s uncontrolled 2018 industrial fire, when billowing smoke leached into the local ecosystem, creating a public health and environmental disaster. Her action was followed that night by a $1 million state government recovery plan. “There’s no way I would have stepped out of my comfort zone and done that if it wasn’t for WELA,” she tells me, adding, “I’m not a natural activist.”

Sherie might agree. But, since giving WELA a go – and putting her misgivings about a group of “kumbaya” white women aside – she sees that what the world needs more of, and what WELA is determined to bring to light, is leadership that happens to neatly align with First Nations leadership styles. Given Aboriginal women and men have stepped up against the odds for millennia, most obviously in the last 200 years, we have a thing or two to learn from them about leadership and resilience today. 

“It’s collective. There’s no traditional leader with someone at the top,” says Sherie, telling me about her deep links with female elders and to the Arnhem Land, where she spent much of her childhood. “Everyone’s at the same level but someone has earnt the right to speak on behalf of others. You need to behave the right way to hold respect.”

All photos supplied by WELA, by Ula Majewski.

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‘It just doesn’t work’

My latest for The Guardian. This story is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, in the region I call home. Thank you, Anna, for everything you gave for The Guardian’s rental crisis series

Months before thousands of people were left homeless because of unprecedented flooding, rental prices in New South Wales’s northern rivers were surging, largely driven by a pandemic-induced influx of families and young professionals from Sydney and Melbourne.

Anna Glanzen, 40, lives in Mullumbimby.

Her story

I’ve been living in this area for six-and-a-half years; I’m originally from Sweden and came to Australia 20 years ago. I’m a bush school mentor for kids and for many years I ran my own business. I earned enough to get by and loved it.

I’ve since chosen to homeschool my eight-year-old son and work one day a week in Brunswick Heads. We have our close community of friends and other homeschoolers nearby and my son’s father lives within an hour’s drive.

Until four weeks ago, we were living on a lemon myrtle farm near Lismore. We were given seven weeks’ notice to leave because the owners decided to sell – and then the floods hit, making finding a home near impossible. Before that, we were in a granny flat in Pearces Creek, where we were for 18 months. They didn’t want to rent any more due to fears of Covid.

I’m so sad for everyone who lost everything they own in the floods. I have been in friends’ homes cleaning up the aftermath with them; I’ve seen the devastation. My son and I didn’t lose our stuff – the water stopped below our hill – but it makes me feel guilty, trying to find a home when others have nothing. Our belongings are now in storage, but others have to start completely over. My heart aches knowing this. There’s so much grief and so many tears have been shed.

Every time we move into a new house, my son asks, “Do we get to stay in this forever, or is this just for a short time?” And I have to say, “I just don’t know.”

The budget

We need something of our own. And we have a cat, so pets need to be allowed – I promised my son that we would never leave our cat with someone else. My budget, $350 a week, is really pushing it, but could work if I live close to Brunswick and save on petrol.

I have been looking for a home for more than six months. It feels like there are a lot of people who have been escaping the towns and who are trying to move up here. All the prices for those who are already established here have gone up.

People would rather take a tenant with lots of money than a single parent. So many mums and dads I know have nowhere to go – how can you take $450-500 out of your budget for rent if your income [from Centrelink support] is $1,000 a fortnight? And then pay for food and petrol? It just doesn’t work.

The properties

People are getting ridiculous about what they are renting out. My budget’s always been tight but what I can afford has definitely changed. In the last couple of years it’s gone from being possible to impossible. You turn up to viewings and there are 50 people there. You wait your turn to see a tiny place that is dark and smelly. The demand is such that landlords can get away with it.

The flood means there are no rentals around. Even friends with bigger budgets can’t find anything and prices have actually gone up since the floods.

I saw a three-bedroom home in Lismore advertised for $1,300 a week. I looked at a granny flat in South Golden Beach that was $400 a week for a tiny little place with an unplumbed kitchen. The bathroom sink doubled as the kitchen sink.

In Lismore, one landlord wanted $360 a week for a dark granny flat at the back of a block, without a yard. It smelled like rotten fish. How bad was it when it hadn’t been spruced up for a viewing? And it still had a queue of people standing out the front. Sadly, I think it was completely flooded.

There was a great place in South Golden, but it was $450 and I couldn’t bring a cat. It had a mini kitchen and it was fresh, with a little patio out the front and one bedroom. There was also a great little container home on shared land in Wooyung for $350, but, same again – I couldn’t bring a cat.

The result

Through friends, I have found a small plot of land to rent in Mullumbimby and have been gifted a camper trailer for six months. A very kind property owner is charging me a minimal amount each week.

There’s no electricity and no water, so we’ll be living off-grid. I am building an outdoor shower and toilet and the camper is luckily quite big, with a kitchen and a bedroom. There’s even space for a sofa, which is amazing because my son loves curling up and reading a book.

I’m so grateful and relieved. This has potential. My plan is to save and build my own tiny home on wheels, so that we can drive away from any more floods. It’s OK to rough it for a while if it means I am building towards something that is ours. That’s the dream: knowing that our home can’t be taken away from us.

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