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.”