We chat to Tony Birch ahead of Witnessing Climate Change at the Wheeler Centre

“One of my overall messages about witnessing climate change is that for us to successfully tackle the issue, we all have to give something up. By giving something up in the short-term, in the long-term we will all benefit.”

Many writers shy away from the spotlight of sharing insights into their work, happy for the words to go out into the world unchaperoned. Public speaking and writing are not natural bedfellows, and yet there are certain authors who aren’t only at ease discussing their insights, but have cultivated this talent as part of their purpose. Such is certainly true of Tony Birch, the acclaimed novelist who is also an impassioned researcher and advocate for reversing the devastation of climate change. Ahead of the Wheeler Centre’s Witnessing Climate Change event, he talks of writing and action.
“Well, I have two lives,” Birch muses. “One is my fiction life – I’m sitting here now editing the second-draft of a new novel. I divide my life between writing fiction, which I tend to do early in the morning, and my day-job as a climate change researcher, looking at the issues of climate change and climate justice, and coming up with ways in which people can work more cooperatively around those issues. It’s a bit of a schizoid existence, so I try to separate the fiction-writing Tony to the research-writing Tony.”
In the public eye, it’s the fiction-writing Birch who is arguably the better known. The winner or nominee of numerous awards – the Miles Franklin and the Melbourne Prize among them – he is also the recent recipient of the Patrick White Award, making him the first Indigenous Australian writer to do so. But it’s away from the keyboard that his more urgent passions can be found, and it is here that finding ways to speak and engage with wildly different people and communities comes into its own.
“Around five years ago I worked on a European Union project mostly with school kids, and what I learned pretty simply was that there’s no one way to talk about climate change, and that it depends on who you’re talking to,” Birch explains. “Sometimes, the looming threat that we’re dealing with is so debilitating, that people can become literally immobilised by it, while there are other people who if you talk about immediate threats, they will take a more active stance.
“For me, the biggest challenge is talking to people who aren’t actively engaged with the issue, and talking to them in a way that will get them interested in becoming active in someway, and making them aware of the immediate threats without creating fear. It’s a very difficult task, but it’s interesting that one of the ways science and creative writers or journalists can come together is to say, ‘How can we speak to a particular community?’ and try to finesse your conversation in a manner that will engage them.”
The Witnessing Climate Change event showcases not only Birch, but a host of speakers all drawing from personal insights and observations on the issue. In short, it hopes to promote conversation about the ecological threats facing the world, not through abstract data or graphs, but by sharing lived experience.
“Winona Laduke [a First Nations woman] tells this wonderful story about the memory of seeds and the fact that seeds, in her view, have a memory of the land they came from, and it’s a story of the Pawnee Indians being pushed off their own country but coming back 100 years later because of an invitation to regrow their seeds in the homeland,” Birch explains.
“It’s a wonderful example of two potentially oppositional forces – First Nations people and white settlers – coming together to replenish the ecology of the land. [It’s] an example where if people can work together, and put aside even previous hostilities or histories, by taking a chance on this project, both of these communities benefited.
“One of my overall messages about witnessing climate change is that for us to successfully tackle the issue, we all have to give something up. By giving something up in the short-term, in the long-term we will all benefit. My initial provocation is to say to people, ‘If we’re going to tackle this problem, we need to find ways we can work cooperatively to get energised to do more.’”

Tony Birch will bring his climate change expertise to the Witnessing Climate Change event at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday March 6.