Drought children by Alice Elwell

Photo by Brad Helmink on Unsplash

The grass is dead. It’s summer in Brisbane and we are living through one of the worst droughts in memory. The drought is strangely everywhere but nowhere. In the city, it’s easy to feel disconnected from it. Yes, the temperatures are apocalyptic-level hot, but that’s just summer in Queensland, right? The supermarket shelves are still plump with fresh produce. Water restrictions are not in place, despite the Wivenhoe dam dropping to 60%. Our lives are not disrupted.

But the grass is dead, and the sky is a permanent state of eerie haze, as if our ‘big country town’ has grown up into a bustling metropolis from overseas. We don’t get that sort of smog in the sunshine state; except we do now, because the bushfires rage on and our politicians tell us to look elsewhere.

I look at the grass and I miss it with a strange ache that comes from longing for the ordinary. On my morning walks, I see how the lush verdant lawns of the university are almost obscenely green, a product of the jets of water sprayed by nine sprinklers and a sign that says ‘keep off the grass’, all to maintain the illusion of a picture-perfect campus. Come chase your dreams here and study with us and your future lawns will also be bright and green.

Down the road at the nearby playground, children play in dirt. What was once an oasis in the middle of a semi-circle of apartment buildings is now dusty and arid, the grass long dead. Still, when the air isn’t too thick with humidity, the children scream and run, playing their handball with ferocious intensity and making do with the parched park. Their school uniforms stand out like little primary-coloured flags and I think how unfair it is that they’ve inherited this drying land, divided as it is into those who can afford grass and those who cannot.

The footpaths that used to be bordered with grass are now bordered with dirt and I can’t help but think that soon council will fill the dirt in with pebbles as a water-saving measure and it’ll be as though the greenery never existed. We will accept this new grassless reality and we will forget that there was once a time where sky blue met bright green grass and children had a soft landing when they romped around after school. How will primary school children depict this new world in their drawings – burning orb in the corner, brown dirt below? Pack up the green pencils and textas and crayons, for there is no need of them now. What was once the stalwart of the art box will become reserved for fantasy drawings.

What will education look like for these children, particularly when we continue to centre education on preparing students to be workers? What jobs will be left? When teenagers talk about climate anxiety, I’ve heard adults mock them for openly professing their fears as though the emotional transgression is worse than the reality of an uncertain and frankly terrifying future. In the sanctity of the classroom, I’ve seen students’ emotions bubbling out, unruly and unashamed. These emotions become something adults can contain, challenge and control; unlike the uncertain future looming around the corner. This strikes me as unfeeling at best and unethical at worst. How are we helping students to prepare for the future if we are not also allowing them to grieve for a future that will look so drastically different from the past?

While schooling is ostensibly to prepare students for the future, I cannot see how we can do that when that future is so uncertain. If world leaders aren’t acting on climate change, then the next thing to consider is how we as individuals can do something. But how can I tell students that they can shape the future into what they want when that is basically telling them “Here, you sort this mess out?”. The neoliberal framing of climate change as the responsibility of the individual is something that I cannot promote with good conscience, although of course I believe that we should all do what we can – just not that the ‘we’ should be the citizens while the ‘they’ of the corporations and governments do nothing. I don’t like where this leaves us, caught between activity and inactivity and I wonder what will be the next thing to go from present to past.

I am fortunate to live in my little inner-city bubble. I don’t have to watch livestock struggle to survive in the sweltering sun, or see how farmers cope with failing crops. My existence is connected to theirs through my reliance on agriculture but disconnected by geography. I want to support my students in their grief and I want them to have a future but I don’t have the answers of how to get there. I just mourn the loss of the grass and feel such sorrow that the siblings of the lively children from the park will grow up in a world where the trees and grass in their drawings are brown and not green.

Alice Elwell is a high school English teacher and PhD candidate.