Red Sun Rising

Sydney Harbour Bridge, blanketed by red haze

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, blanketed by a red haze (photo: Ian Sanderson)

Sydneysiders woke to a strange sight early this morning. A massive dust storm had swept across the state, blanketing Sydney in a plume of dust that stretched for over 600km. It turned the sky an eerie orange-red and I’ve never seen anything like it. It felt like we had been transported to Mars.

The colour came from the red soil and dust of the outback, which had been whipped up and carried inland by fierce gale force winds; it’s estimated the dust plume travelled over 1500 kilometres to reach Sydney. Scientists are saying it might be the worst dust storm in NSW’s history, which I can believe. The pollution in Sydney was awful all day and you couldn’t breathe easily, even after the haze had started to lift.

I was still awake when the dust storm hit. It was incredible; the wind howled and the entire sky seemed to go blood-red in minutes, so much so that I couldn’t see more than 20 metres down the street. The last time I can remember anything like it was after the Black Saturday bushfires, when the sky reflected the fire and there was an overwhelming smell of ash. But even those skies didn’t compare to this; this was like stepping onto another world.

With the UN climate conference beginning in New York, some green groups have suggested that it’s more evidence of global warming. I’m not so sure. Usually I’d be the first person to agree but nature doesn’t need a reason to be wonderful or terrible; I think sometimes these kind of freak occurrences just happen and we shouldn’t ascribe everything to global warming without evidence. I found it very beautiful, despite the chaos it caused.

Unfortunately I didn’t think to take any photos; I didn’t realise how widespread it was at the time. But there are some incredible photos on Flickr and I thought I’d post some of them to give an idea of what it was like. There’s still a dusty smell in the air and the winds are still strong even now, 18 hours later.

I doubt I’ll see anything like it again in my lifetime. Unless I go to Mars.

Under the Bridge

Another view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, from beneath, the eerie light reflecting off the harbour. The bridge just seems to fade away and you can barely see the other side. (photo: Ian Sanderson)

Opera House

Here the Sydney Opera House has all but disappeared, with the dust at its peak in the early morning. Ferry services were cancelled until the haze cleared. (photo: NSW Maritime)

Oxford Street

Sydney’s Oxford Street seems transformed, the sidewalks almost deserted. The sepia tones remind me of a scene from the early years of photography. (photo: Cowboy Dave)

Sydney Towerluna-park

Two of Sydney’s iconic landmarks, Sydney Tower and Luna Park, swallowed by the dust storm. Luna Park was closed due to the dust, winds and poor visibility. (photos: Cowboy Dave and Tolomea)

St Marys Cathedral

St Mary’s Cathedral, lit up a brilliant shade of pink-red. You can see where some of the dust has settled on the grass as well. (photo: JezKerwin)

QVB

Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building, in the heart of the CBD, as the haze has started to lift. Looks like many people found masks or are using tissues to cover their mouths. (photo: Dr. Snafu)

Sydenham Station

Sydenham station is one of the major railway links in Sydney. The station was blanketed by the red dust and trains were late or cancelled for much of the morning. (photo: MOles)

Sydney CBDDarling Harbour

The Sydney CBD and Darling Harbour; the streets are almost completely deserted on the left, while on the right it’s more like Baghdad than Sydney. (photos: Malcolm Tredinnick and Original Nomad)

Bondi Beach Park

Bondi Beach Park in the early hours of the morning. You can’t see it here but some people still took an early morning swim, despite the pollution and low visibility. (photo: sebr)

Traffic-Button

A traffic button at a pedestrian crossing, showing the accumulation of dust. It covered most vehicles as well. You wonder how much work it will be, cleaning up tomorrow. (photo: Malcolm Treddinick)

Is beauty dying?

One of my favourite novels is George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. It’s one of the most beautiful, haunting novels I’ve ever read and it holds up amazingly well when you think it was published in 1949. Earth Abides is a post apocalyptic novel but it’s really more than that. It’s a lament for civilisation; human history unravels, devolves. But even as humans shrink, nature reclaims what it’s lost. There’s a wonderful scene at the end of the novel where Ish looks at the hills and knows that soon he shall return to the hills and the earth, and so shall his children, and the world they leave will be nothing like the one he knew. But life will go on; earth abides.

Reading all the posts about Blog Action Day has reminded me of Earth Abides. We seem to be at something of a crossroads right now about the environment ourselves. 20,000 blogs were involved in Blog Action Day and people are angry, worried about what world we’re leaving to our children. I’m concerned as well but I don’t think we’re at the final tipping point just yet; we have to accept our role in the problem, change our policies and the impact we have on the environment, but I still think if given the chance nature will reclaim what its lost. That’s evolution, the way of life; earth abides.

But having said that, responsibility is key. We need to understand that we all have an impact on the world we live in and accept the responsibility to make changes in our lives. If we all put off the changes, say someone else will do it, then the effect is negated. Likewise we need governments to be responsible for making changes, for making industries to adopt more environmentally friendly policies. And the only way politicians are motivated to make changes is if they know it’s a community issue, something they can’t ignore. That’s why Blog Action Day was a great initiative; it got us talking about the environment in ways that matter to us, and hopefully we’ll keep talking about it.

Blog Action Day also got me thinking about something else: Beauty. It was MusEdition’s great post which started it; she described her surroundings and it sounded so beautiful, to turn and look out the window at mountains and birds. Then I read Sulz’s entry and I knew just what she meant about walking through the woods or a park as the sun rises; one of my favourite pastimes is to walk along the beach, see the tide and the sun reflecting off the ocean. It’s something I take for granted sometimes and I shouldn’t; I’m going to try not to from now on.

But then I looked out my window. I don’t really know how to describe it; I live in one of the nicer residential parts of Sydney but I’m surrounded by cakeboxes. The street is filled with blocks of flats and the occasional house; I live near one of the largest parks in Sydney but I can’t see it from here and I’m high up in the flats. In fact, I can’t see trees at all; it’s just a concrete and brick jungle. Well, there is this one scrawny thing opposite that looks like it should be put out of its misery, but I don’t know whether that counts or not.

I live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities (and I do mean that) but today it just struck me how manufactured a lot of it is. And how manufactured our society is. We seem to have this idea of beauty that nothing can really live up to; a person has to look a certain way to be beautiful, our clothes are in fashion one minute and ugly the next, our homes have to have the latest trends, our gadgets have to be new and shiny. If something doesn’t match our standards, we don’t just get it fixed, we remake it in our image; cosmetic surgery, makeup, renovations, there’s always something which can make us or our possessions more “beautiful”.

I’ve never been someone who buys into the whole idea of image; I’m not going to say I don’t care how a person looks, but that’s not everything. I care more about personality and if the person is interesting than their looks or if they’ve got the latest iPod. I think at heart most people would say the same thing. But we still cling to this modern ideal of beauty just the same. And I’m wondering if this is spreading to how we think about the environment as well. When was the last time you saw a natural feature that made you stop and appreciate it? Not something you planned for, but just saw by accident? I know the last time for me: it was a sunset that caught my imagination just the right way. I took a picture of it. But before that I’d gone weeks, maybe months without even thinking about it, without even noticing what was around me. I think that’s true for a lot of people living in large cities.

It’s so much easier to turn a blind eye to the environment when you feel like it’s just your surroundings; when you’re so busy with your daily routine that you barely notice anything outside of it. That’s apathy and that’s the biggest danger of all, that we just exist and don’t care. We don’t see it so we don’t care that cities are taking over more and more land to cover growing populations; we don’t see that animals are being displaced from their homes by bulldozers for a new shopping mall to go up.

That’s why Blog Action Day was a good initiative and hopefully will continue to be; it’s got people thinking about it, noticing again. And as I said, I believe that if we play our role, nature will recover, and that’s why having a message of hope is a good balance. But something which concerns me is the thought that we might save the environment but replace the beauty that surrounds us in the process, and we might not even know what we’ve lost.

One of the biggest problems we’re facing now is overpopulation and crowding. How do you deal with it? With an ageing population and a steady birthrate, how do you extend a city and manage resources without impacting the environment? You can’t spread out further; you can’t take over new sites. The only viable option is to build up and make better use of the space we have; for more apartment blocks to be built, taller and with more vacancies, and for more people to live together, sharing costs. I think that’s the only way we can do it… but it means knocking down more houses, replacing them with flats. It means in 30 years that cities would become much more uniform, dominated by cakeboxes and dull towers, and what beauty we do have around us would be even less noticeable. I find that a very sad thought.

Perhaps it won’t be like that; perhaps I’ve simply used my imagination too much and envisioned something more like Blade Runner than a realistic future. But with the way we value our own ideal of beauty and the trends that come with it, it seems like something that might happen; that we’d place even less value on real beauty, artistry and design. That’s probably a worthy trade, but I find it sad just the same.

Still, life goes on. And earth abides; that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s what Blog Action Day was all about, spreading the message and making people think. It’s certainly made me think and I was proud to have played a small part in the day. Congrats to everyone. 🙂

5 ways you can help the environment

Today is Blog Action Day, a day encouraging bloggers to unite about the environment. Thousands of bloggers are taking up the challenge, including Lifehacker and Treehugger, writing about the environment in a way that suits their blogs. I’ve been torn between a couple of topics, so I thought I’d cheat a bit and do a couple of posts, one today and another tomorrow to follow up. This first one is about some simple ways we all can help the environment. I’m not going to claim I do all of these all of the time, but I try to be mindful of them, and they might give you some ideas on how you can help too. 😉

5) In your home
You’d be surprised by the amount of power appliances consume even in standby mode; just having half a dozen appliances on standby is the equivalent of a 60 watt bulb. If you turn appliances off at the power point and unplug them, it can save a lot of power. Turning off lights when you’re not in the room can also save a lot of power, as can washing clothes in warm or cold water instead of hot. Using the half-flush cycle on toilets, installing a low-flow showerhead and washing dishes when there’s a full load can save a lot of water as well.

4) While shopping
Making sure your tyres are well-inflated can make a big difference in preserving the life of your tyres and saving petrol, and bringing your own shopping bags for groceries is a simple way to cut down on plastics. Buying items in bulk also reduces the need for packaging and costs less. If you drink a lot of water, using a bottle and refilling it will help to stop wasting water and buying more bottles; likewise, buying rechargeable batteries saves you money and stops metals in batteries from leaking into the soil.

3) Changing your habits
It’s probably one of the hardest things to do but changing your habits can have a big impact on the amount of waste you produce. Showering for a minute less each day can save a lot of water, as can making sure the water doesn’t run while you’re cleaning your teeth. Walking, bicycling or carpooling to work also cuts down on the amount of cars on the roads and pollution. Many people still prefer CDs over MP3s, but downloading music from somewhere like iTunes is a very simple way to help the environment; manufacturing CDs uses oil and CDs are not biodegradable, whereas MP3s only use hard-drive space.

2) Being more responsible
Being aware of the impact we have on the environment makes a big difference. Understanding that our actions and habits have a consequence means we’re more aware of the ways we can avoid them as well. Doing something as simple as recycling is a great place to start and get children involved in the process. You can actively seek out materials which are recyclable or have a lesser impact on the environment; refill printer ink cartridges or take used ones to businesses to dispose of; use recycled wood chips in your garden; put leaves in a compost heap. You can be proactive and try to make sure your taps don’t leak and make sure you keep the oven door closed so the heat doesn’t escape. Using fluorescent lighting rather than incandescent bulbs will save you money and use 1/4 the amount of energy. They’re all simple things but being aware of them, being more responsible and taking notice, makes a huge difference.

1) Sending a message
The final and perhaps most important thing you can do is to let people know how you feel. The Australian electoral campaign has just started and there’ll be elections soon overseas; don’t underestimate the power of writing to your politicians and newspapers – every letter they receive speaks for more than just your voice and while they know it’s an issue, they’ll continue to support it. Ask what your school and workplace are doing to be more environmentally friendly, or make small changes yourself to set an example. If you feel especially passionate, join a local community organisation; volunteer some of your time to help clean up beaches and parks or to talk to other people about the environment. Join WWF Passport and join with people to speak about issues and conservation. There are so many things people can do; what matters is raising environmental consciousness. And that’s what Blog Action Day is all about.