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Can we save the world, one tree at a time?

Fires are raging across Queensland and New South Wales – 80 across Queensland alone. As is the case with the Amazon fires, for many the strong urge is to hide from the news.

It’s not for lack of caring.

It’s because you don’t even need to have survived fire seasons to remember how this awful story ends – just a childhood memory of Bambi or Smokey Bear. The forest paradise is destroyed, the world made more ugly in its ruin. The animals are left homeless, scarred or dead. Watching the news at a distance is to feel as powerless to intervene and save the innocent creatures as we did back then. We’re just weeping children stuck in their chairs while on the other side of the cinema screen – or the world – that which is most precious is annihilated.

Amid the growing global climate anxiety, there’s an intimate, personal distress induced by these blazes. Other desperate omens – the disappearing glaciers in Iceland, the bioluminescent coastlines in India, melting lakes in the Alps – register as disturbing but more abstract terrors. One explanation of why forest catastrophes are uniquely terrifying perhaps also explains the powerful impact of the Bambi story, even on children who have never seen a living deer. In his book Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness, psychologist David Foulkes suggests animals are recruited as avatars of the emerging self in children’s dreams; they feature heavily within them. “Animals carry human concerns,” Foulkes writes, “and readily become objects of identification.”

So it’s not just on a metaphoric or rational level that we know what’s happening to the creatures terrorised, scorched and destroyed in the flames is also happening to us. We grasp it psychologically. No wonder the instinct is to run away, hoping for a hero, a cosmic deus ex machina or someone’s clever mum to save us, especially given governments from Brazil to Australia and the US seem so uninterested.

Thinking about child psychology, the way children problem-solve and a panic-inspired, imperative emotional need to rescue every Bambi, everywhere, provoked me to the sudden question: Mum, can we regrow all the burning forests in our backyards at home?

Amid much intimation that the Amazon fires are a convenient event for a Brazilian government intent on land clearing, the vocal point was made that Australia also faces a land-clearing crisis. Irrespective of what damage is wreaked by fires, more than three million hectares of local woodland are facing destruction through deliberate means by 2030. This means that three-quarters of already threatened species are likely to lose what remains of their habitat. The UN reports that a third of greenhouse gases are attributable to land clearing for farming. But governments, like that of New South Wales – a state currently on fire – have responded by weakening land-clearing laws and gifting amnesties to illegal land clearers.

The horrifying science is that deforestation itself drives more forests to burn. And this is why both habitat protection and active reforestation and revegetation has to be prioritised by governments – at all levels – in the pressing climate fight. The battlefront is not only to save the forests we have left, but to properly revegetate the spaces humanity has already taken over – for while wildlife areas perish, cities are also warming. Plant life sequests carbon, and retains habitat and biodiversity, but trees also make the most significant contribution to urban cooling – a necessity for liveability as the climate heats.

In Australia there are some efforts to do this at a local government level, but in the absence of a prioritised national strategy, it’s piecemeal. A recent study reported in the Conversation found 54 out of 139 of communities studied “suffered statistically significant” losses of green space within the preceding decade – because it’s not only the Amazon that’s disappearing. In the empty space of any policy framework, we’re building over the Australian backyard – tragically, maddeningly. The backyards and other green spaces of our communities are the one place where individuals can, in fact, make some material contribution to fixing the collective problem.

It’s not the present Morrison government but Bob Hawke’s legacy, Landcare, showing leadership in replanting a denuded Australia. The networked national organisation of community-based groups does mobilise volunteers to assist land rehabilitation. It does plant trees. In the areas where their pilot scheme, Gardens for Wildlife, is running, they will even come to your home and advise how to turn what land you have into a working contribution to carbon capture and habitat extension.

The most dangerous thing about this pilot scheme is the hope it inspires. Imagine if it was part of a coordinated national strategy, funded on a level the climate crisis should oblige. Imagine instead of volunteers, governments employed people in the business of doing the manual work of neighbourhood climate action. Gosh, it might even start to look like those “jobs of the future”, secure and local, so often discussed yet so rarely delivered.

It’s precisely because ideas are dangerous that pursuing these schemes – wherever we can – is so important. Running towards what frightens us instead of away is how we used to distinguish our adulthood from our childhood.

The times are upon us to rebuild our living planet, street to street, place to place, land to land. Not just for the sake of a burning Queensland or NSW or the Amazon. Or just for Bambi. But because to have any chance of surviving the terrible fire, even Bambi has to grow up.

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