The story of a disaster is, almost by definition, a survivor’s story: If there are no survivors, there is not much of a story. The Old Testament has its Noahs and Lots, figures that God spares so their tales of floods, plagues, famines and massacres can be told, their lessons absorbed by the living. In the final scene of “Moby-Dick,” Ishmael circles the sinking wreck of Captain Ahab’s Pequod, clinging to a buoyant coffin and a verse from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Social media videos of the wildfires that, from September to this month, incinerated more than 48,000 square miles of Australia are usually the work of a smartphone-clutching Ishmael. This person is offscreen but detectable in the video’s lurches and tremors, the way it swings its attention to the carcass of a fleeing kangaroo or a writhing fire tornado; the murmurs of awe or the crackle of a firefighter’s radio as a landscape is reduced to a gray-scale ruin. The narratorial presence is what distinguishes a story from mere information: Our identification with another human being makes a shaky hand-held video stick in the head and heart more readily than a satellite photograph or a statistic. (When you read “48,000 square miles,” did anything actually come to mind? Would you know, without looking it up, that it is an area larger than Mississippi?)
So at first it seemed strange to me that of all the videos of the fires, the one I was most compelled to watch repeatedly was filmed by an inanimate object. Specifically, it was recorded by a Garmin dashboard camera inside a fire truck belonging to the Dunmore Rural Fire Brigade, one of the many local volunteer teams left, amid the fecklessness of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government, to more or less single-handedly fight what may well be the largest-yet climate catastrophe visited upon an affluent, developed country. At the beginning of the video, we see a fire engine and a light truck parked along a country road. The crew members — like volunteer fire crews everywhere, a mix of stocky middle-aged men and farm-boy-looking youths — are ambling around, checking radios and finishing canned drinks. Then a plume of smoke starts spreading from the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
We see the firefighters climb into their trucks and retreat down the road. The smoke is thickening now, faster than you would imagine if you have not seen wildfires and are not acquainted with the improbable, astonishing speed they can achieve, matching that of a car on the highway. The last flashing lights vanish into the smoke, and with them the last trace of humanity in view. Seconds later, the trees alongside the road explode. The sky is gone. The landscape recedes into its basic geometry — the road, a driveway, telephone poles — and then even the geometry blurs into a directionless swirl of fire, ember and smoke.
What’s arresting, on the first viewing, is how quickly — 80 seconds, give or take — you are transported from a verdant country scene to what looks like the crater of a volcano. But as the novelty recedes, on further viewing, what remains is a peculiar loneliness. There is actually a crew sheltering in the truck behind the camera, but you wouldn’t know it from the video. It feels as if the truck, and the camera with it, have been left behind in a suddenly unlivable world.
For most of the time we have understood it as an existential threat, climate change has offered an extreme version of the phenomenon that economists and psychologists call risk discounting. This is the degree to which our sense that a risk is distant — in space or, especially, in time — affects, consciously or otherwise, our assumptions about its severity. The fear has always been that by the time palpable evidence of the threat arrives, and we are sufficiently alarmed to do something about it, it will be too late.
As climate change edges into easily observable reality, one of its corporeal forms has been supercharged versions of the natural disasters humans have always known and feared. Social media would seem custom-designed to convey these calamities, as it conveys everything, with relentless proximity and detail — and it does. But watching videos of the fires, I have found myself puzzled by my own reaction, a mix of rational terror and instinctive sanguineness, the components of the brain working in the opposite way you expect them to when confronted by a catastrophe.
The frontal lobe sees the video and thinks, This is my future, or at least it is my children’s. The amygdala sees it and thinks, Eh, I’ve seen this before. The fire tornado captured by a jittery camera feels like a biblical kind of destruction, but also a familiar kind — familiar, in fact, because it’s biblical. Even in the Old Testament, disasters have a spotty track record as a behavior-correcting device for an eternally optimistic species. We always picture ourselves among the saved, not the drowned. What we are watching is terrible, but someone has lived to tell the tale and upload it to YouTube. Through their survival we imagine our own. We instinctually envision climate change as a series of disaster stories with recognizable beginnings, middles and endings, rather than as a single disaster story that outlives us, maybe all of us.
But there is no Noah in the Dunmore video. We are seeing the scene through an impassive, impartial and unmistakably inhuman gaze. It does not betray the presence of any survivors, or — most important — even an interest in them. This is a disaster film that, for once, tells the truth about the world: that it is indifferent to our fate.
It’s jarring because it’s still a new way of seeing, unavailable to us before we began populating every accessible inch of the planet with cameras. Not long ago, observing a disaster through such a gaze would have required a trip to Pompeii. The city’s instant entombment beneath a dozen feet of volcanic ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was its own sort of nonhuman recording, a distant precedent to our contemporary panopticon. There is a survivor’s account of the eruption, from Pliny the Younger — the darkness, he wrote, was “as if the lamp had gone out in a locked room” — but the disaster’s haunting fame has always been tied to the authorless physical preservation of the city and its thousands of residents, frozen in their daily routines and insufficient preparations.
The story that Pompeii tells is not I lived to tell the tale; it’s They died because they were here. It’s possible to imagine our all-encompassing surveillance apparatus, not so many decades from now, constituting a sort of digital Pompeii, a meticulous global record of our undoing that conveys what our own accounts could not: that all the time we were telling ourselves stories to live, the stories were perpetuating the fiction that living would always be possible.
Charles Homans is the politics editor for the magazine. He last wrote a Screenland column about the presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.