It took me a few days for the impact of the photo to hit me. I’ve never seen a dead child before. Photos of children at the beach are usually accompanied by sandcastles, sun and smiles. What was I looking at? Tears welled up and despair came like a fist in the guts. What is wrong with us? The little two year old boy, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, wearing small shoes with velcro straps because he’s too young to tie his shoelaces. What has become of this world?
Another image appeared in my memory as if to answer my question. It occurred to me that this other image, as banal as it seems, sums up what is wrong with this earth. Two middle aged, privileged, powerful white men, in charge of the treasury in one of the world’s richest countries, lounging on a balcony outside their offices, smoking presumably expensive cigars. I don’t want to make this about Hockey and Cormann personally; that would be unfair. The thing is, it occurred to me, that if little Aylan Kurdi represents the tragic problem of displaced people, fleeing war and poverty, following the human instinct to hope for a better life, a safer life, a life, and having that hope extinguished, then of course a photo of Hockey and Cormann, smoking cigars, celebrating their use of power to strip funding to a rich country’s health, education and welfare programs and their rich country’s foreign aid budget, is surely representative of the problem. It’s not like these men are oppressive tyrants imposed through feudalistic birth-right. They’re democratically elected oppressive tyrants imposed through feudalistic birth-right. And Australians, amongst other rich nations, keep choosing them to make really bad decisions for all of us.
Putting it in I think necessarily simplistic terms, the priority of any species capable of survival should be to a) ensure the health and safety of its population, b) support that population to successfully reproduce and c) to maintain a safe environment for these populations to continue the species. Sorry to sound all Darwinian about this, but let’s call a spade a spade. A world that cares more about the short-term maintenance and growth of the wealth and lifestyle of the richest few at the expense of the health and safety of everyone else is never going to endure.
When those who support the Hockeys and Cormanns are more worried about their electricity bills than worrying about how their offspring will survive in a post-climate change heatwave, drought, fire, cyclone or flood, we’re not prioritising very well. When there are two year olds washing up on the beach, and the Prime Ministers of rich countries are cutting foreign aid and reducing their refugee intakes, and instead planning to spend money bombing the country the two year old has fled from, to save their own job and their own rich lifestyle, something has gone drastically wrong.
We are in the midst of a crisis of displaced people, that of which the world hasn’t seen since World War II. The world is increasingly being divided into the haves and the have nots. This is not about those who can afford the new iPhone and those who can’t. This is about those who have safe lives, where they can house, feed and clothe their families and those who do not. War is making the divide larger. Climate change will make it wider still. We, as a collective species, need to understand that we are at a fork-in-the-road; do something positive about this situation, or expect World War III.
Australia might be an island, where people think they can insulate themselves from the world’s problems, with permission from their government to be selfish and mean. But looking at these two images it’s clear we are not isolated from this problem. No one on earth is. We’ve all seen Aylan Kurdi. It’s shocked us for a moment to forget about footy finals, to put down the remote control, to look at our own children and imagine them lying wet, lifeless and alone. So what do we do about it? The first thing we need to do is to know it is our problem. And the longer we ignore it, the worse it’s going to get.