Gaia, the firefighting
We are young Anglo-Australian women from Victoria writing on the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires while emergency services are pushed to the limit fighting 60 active fires in Tasmania. Blanche grew up on the edge of the state forest near Bendigo, in Central Victoria. This is a beautiful grey-green place adapted to and dependent on fire. But Blanche worries that her family has only Holocene-appropriate fire plans, ones that would probably be sufficient if fire patterns and intensities were not changing. Anna grew up in Tasmania, spending her weekends cold and muddy trudging past King Billy pines with her enthusiastic parents in the Tasmanian wilderness – a place that should not burn but where fire has started to irreversibly destroy. We both feel what Glenn Albrecht has termed ‘solastalgia’ for our respective homes: they no longer offer solace and we feel an uneasy sense of displacement, a temporal jarring, one that is only furthered by knowing they were never really our places to begin with.
Australia used to share firefighting airplanes with the US and Canada, but now that our fire seasons are overlapping this may no longer be feasible. In response, Australia has recently procured and deployed the world’s first firefighting Boeing 737, which has been named Gaia.
As friends who met through the Ecofeminist Fridays reading group, this object caught our attention. We think Gaia the Boeing 737 helps tell part of the Anthropocene story, a story which throws into question what counts as the ‘everyday’, as we are constantly being faced with and revising ‘the new normal’.
Gaia is the name the Greeks gave to their Mother Earth figure. For the Greeks, Gaia birthed the world. The 2014 International Colloquium, Os Mil Nomes de Gaia/The Thousand Names of Gaia recognises that many human cultures have a similar figure: Pachamama, Phra Mae Thorani, Dewi Sri, Papatūānuku. In the modern West, we have figured Mother Nature as feminine, nurturing, holistic and healing, and often, vulnerable. For example, Aronofsky’s film Mother! stars Jennifer Lawrence as the personification of Mother Earth, who gives and gives of herself as humans destroy her home, and ultimately, her (Balcazar, 2017). Gaia has also been represented as a self-organising planet (Lovelock and Margulis, 1974) and as vengeful, infuriated, and immensely powerful (Latour, 2017). How we represent Mother Earth influences how we live with her.
So what is it to name a firefighting Boeing 737 ‘Gaia’? As ecofeminists, we find this an incredibly intriguing, troubling and also promising cultural object. ‘This Gaia’ is not an ethereal life force emanating from critters, mountains, and rivers, but a massive assemblage of metal that has been extracted, processed, shipped, manufactured, and flown around the world in order to spray chemicals onto a burning world. What are the possibilities for responsible and responsive fire management in a culture that equates Mother Nature with an object that so epitomises industrialisation, globalisation, and fossil fuel consumption? The NSW Firefighting Service calls this Gaia their ‘angel in the sky’, and we can only imagine the relief Gaia provides to our firies who are increasingly sounding the alarm about the escalating intensity and frequency of bushfires. But ecofeminist philosopher Donna Haraway, in her book Staying with the Trouble, warns us to be wary of anglo-Christian-capitalist ‘sky gods’. And rightly so: Gaia might quench some fires now, but her fossil-fueled efforts are inflaming the planet in other ways.
This Gaia writes two temporalities of climate change mitigation: the immediate postponement of natural disasters, saving lives – and carbon sinks – now; and an increase in emissions that may exacerbate natural disasters in the future. These both contrast with the longer-term strategies needed to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which of course require coordinated government action. This Gaia thus raises messy and provocative ethical questions around what places, times and beings we save and at what cost; what counts as ecological stewardship and what as destruction; in who and what we place our hope; and how different actors are enabled to respond to such questions.
Spraying menstrual-red plumes of fire-retardant chemicals in a vision of feminine techno-futurity, this Gaia also raises questions around the gendered implications of stories of sustainability. Gaia the Boeing 737 disrupts the essentialised femininity of Mother Nature. Here Gaia is no longer a maternal figure who might embrace, regenerate or nurture you through processes operating across deep time, but a hypermasculine hero who darts in to save the day at the last minute. We’re not sure what to think of this: is this a queering of Mother Nature along the lines that Catriona Sandilands suggests, an acknowledgement of her cyborgian status, an effort to disrupt those Western dualisms of man/woman, nature/technology? Or a patriarchal and foolishly fossil fuelled co-opting of her – a technofetishized quick fix?
Ultimately, ‘this Gaia’ speaks to the entanglement of our ecological complicity, vulnerability, morality and cultural imaginaries. This Gaia symbolises how in the Anthropocene, the personal is no longer bound to the local, and how ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’. But while we might be fearful of planetary inflammation and how that plays out in the local fire-prone places we love, we too fly in Boeing 737s. This Gaia thus intrigues and troubles us because we see our own non-innocence echoed in her grand gestures, and she reminds us to be careful about what stories of sustainability we seek to tell and enact.
Anna is a Masters student, an ecofeminist philosopher, a volunteer, a feminist worm farmer, a yoga teacher, rock climber, enthusiastic gardener and works at the University of Melbourne on Wurundjeri county.
Blanche is a passionate climate change and sustainability educator, volunteers with Climate for Change and works at RMIT University in Naarm (Melbourne), on Wurundjeri Country.
Albrecht, G. 2005, “‘Solastalgia’. A New Concept in Health and Identity’. PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, 3, 41-55.
Balcazar. D. (2017, September 22). ‘Mother May I? No’. Bitch media. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/mother-movie-review. Accessed 19/02/2019.
Giffney, N., & Hird, M. J. (2008). Queering the Non/human. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Haraway, D. (2004). ‘A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology and socialist feminism in the 1980s’. In D. Haraway (Ed.), The Haraway Reader (pp. 7-45). New York and Abingdon: Routledge.
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Latour, B. (2017). Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Lovelock, J. E., & Margulis, L. (1974). ‘Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: The gaia hypothesis’. Tellus, 26(1-2), 2-10.
Sandilands, C. (1997). ‘Mother Earth, the cyborg, and the queer: Ecofeminism and (more) questions of identity’. NWSA Journal, 9(3), 18- 41.
Yoder, K. (2018, August 6). ‘In defense of using “the new normal” to describe climate change’. Grist. https://grist.org/article/in-defense-of-using-the-new-normal-to-describe-climate-change/ . Accessed 20/02/2019.