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Making Bushfire Babies

What is it like to have a baby in climate crisis?

This book explores the experiences of pregnant women and their partners, pre- and post-birth, during the catastrophic Australian bushfire season of 2019-20 and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic. Engaging a range of concepts, including the Pyrocene, breath, care and embodiment, the authors explore how climate crisis is changing experiences of having children. They also raise questions about how gender and sexuality are shaped by histories of human engagements with fire.

This interdisciplinary analysis brings feminist and queer questions about reproduction and kin into debates on contemporary planetary crises.

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Donna Haraway’s question ‘What is decolonial feminist reproductive freedom in a dangerously troubled multispecies world?’ (Haraway, 2016: 6) is a key provocation for this book, as is her insistence on bringing debates about human numbers into feminist engagement with ecological crisis, an argument developed in Making Kin Not Population (Clarke and Haraway, 2018). Our book picks up this thread, arguing that making kin and making babies are intrinsically connected and should be thought together rather than oppositionally. This chapter describes how we devised and brought together our various methods, including in-depth qualitative interviews with parents of newborn babies and with medical and professionals in medicine, architecture, air quality monitoring, public health and bushfire management. We discuss our decision to incorporate our own stories, to be read in conjunction with those we collected. One hundred images of bushfire smoke and fire were also gathered from participants along with maps they drew of their care networks, part of our multilayered methodological approach. Learning from actor-network theory, we also decided to ‘follow’ significant actors like smoke, air purifiers and flows of air quality data to understand how the smoke and fires impacted the lives of people who were pregnant or parenting a newborn baby and to think about the materialities of the Pyrocene in Canberra and SE NSW.

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What is it like to have a baby in climate crisis?

Engaging a range of concepts, including the Pyrocene, breath, care and embodiment, the authors explore how climate crisis is changing experiences of having children. They also raise questions about how gender and sexuality are shaped by histories of human engagements with fire. The book is underpinned by an interview-based project undertaken in 2020-2021 in South Eastern Australia. The research explored the experiences of pregnant women and their partners, pre- and post-birth, during the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019-2020 and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic. It is also informed by interviews with experts on bushfire smoke and/or reproduction, including clinicians, architects and air quality scientists. Making an original contribution to social theory, the authors draw together ideas from feminist technoscience studies and queer theory about reproduction and kin into debates on contemporary planetary crises. They explore the diverse relations between climate crisis, kinship and reproduction; embodiment and breathing; biosensing and air quality; and Pyro-reproductive futures. The book has a distinctly Australian flavour, but is nonetheless global in its themes. The arguments apply in many ways to other climate-related disasters, such as floods and wildfires in other parts of the world.

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What is it like to have a baby in climate crisis?

Engaging a range of concepts, including the Pyrocene, breath, care and embodiment, the authors explore how climate crisis is changing experiences of having children. They also raise questions about how gender and sexuality are shaped by histories of human engagements with fire. The book is underpinned by an interview-based project undertaken in 2020-2021 in South Eastern Australia. The research explored the experiences of pregnant women and their partners, pre- and post-birth, during the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019-2020 and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic. It is also informed by interviews with experts on bushfire smoke and/or reproduction, including clinicians, architects and air quality scientists. Making an original contribution to social theory, the authors draw together ideas from feminist technoscience studies and queer theory about reproduction and kin into debates on contemporary planetary crises. They explore the diverse relations between climate crisis, kinship and reproduction; embodiment and breathing; biosensing and air quality; and Pyro-reproductive futures. The book has a distinctly Australian flavour, but is nonetheless global in its themes. The arguments apply in many ways to other climate-related disasters, such as floods and wildfires in other parts of the world.

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Mainstream scientific and critical accounts of climate crisis, including those describing the Pyrocene and the Anthropocene, typically fail to consider reproduction and kin, even when ‘overpopulation’ is understood as an important factor in the unfolding emergency. Feminist analysis of these debates also tends to remain rather abstract in its attention to reproduction, with key scholars suggesting that we ‘make kin, not babies’ in order to address these issues. Focusing on people who were ‘making bushfire babies’ in the terrible Australian summer of 2019–2020, we argue that the material details of reproduction in climate crisis must be brought to light, and should become central to ethical and political debate going forward. Climate crisis is already seriously reshaping reproduction and kin; we must find ways to articulate and act upon their complex entanglements.

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All of the parents in our study were caring for a newborn during the bushfires and/or the COVID-19 pandemic. These crises threw up intense challenges as ‘families’ were articulated in particular ways by health and other governmental authorities. ‘Families’ were often connected to ‘homes’, as if they are the same thing. New terms, such as ‘care bubbles’, had to be invented to acknowledge that this is often not the case and new rules were invented about who was close enough (emotionally and legally) to be allowed to be physically co-present in homes they do not legally share. How did pregnant women and parents of newborns seek help in extreme and unprecedented environmental conditions? How did formal and informal pregnancy, birth and postnatal care change in this period? In what ways does climate crisis make more people aware of the challenges of kinship and of the need to think again how we understand kin, including kinship with the more-than-human? Responding to these questions, we draw inspiration from Donna Haraway’s work on response-able and inclusive futures, and related writing on queering kin-making possibilities beyond heteronormative nuclear family reproduction in the context of both reproductive justice and ecological crisis

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During the bushfires, pregnant women were advised by public health authorities to avoid bushfire smoke because of its possible negative effects on foetal development. This chapter describes how our participants attempted to follow this advice by staying indoors, taping up windows and doors, purchasing air purifiers and monitoring air quality in their homes. We explore the rise of local citizen science projects that collated and shared air quality data, and ask what it meant for families to try to avoid the intense smoke and make decisions about their families’ health amid complex and rapidly changing information landscapes. We also describe the experience of escaping fire, and the significance of information sharing via social media, phone apps and radio during times of great danger. We show that being pregnant or parenting a newborn in these circumstances often created intense anxieties about exposures that were impossible to control. Such experiences, we argue, drawing on the work of Michelle Murphy (2013: np), expose the unequal distribution of risks that constitute life in climate crisis, and the need to collectively learn how to live with the ‘unchosen rearrangements of embodiments’ of the Pyrocene.

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How are climate, mass ecological destruction, reproduction and population linked for the parents of newborns? What, if any, were the implications of the bushfires for the way they think about the relationship between climate and reproduction? To explore these questions, we asked parents in our study: “How do you feel about the idea of people having children in general, in the context of climate change?” We wanted to know what feelings are provoked by making bushfire babies and imagining their futures. Some imagined geographic and communal formations where they could seek refuge from environmental disasters, for themselves and future generations; others professed profound ambivalence about reproduction; and others expressed solastalgia – the loss of capacity to gain comfort from one’s environment. Sometimes participants’ responses felt like a justification or a defence, while at other times more like perplexity. Often our question provoked disconcertment and even embarrassed laughter. Conceptually, we try to open up questions about the connections between climate, reproduction and multispecies kinship.

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This chapter traces breath in mothers’ stories about bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic to contribute to a theorization of breath and breathing as feminist politics (Ahmed, 2010; Górska, 2018; Irigaray, 2004). Drawing on feminist new materialist thought that recognizes breath as intra-active phenomena (Barad, 2007; Górska, 2016), we configure breath as a mode reflection and attention to the material politics of living through crisis. We argue that breath is a material force that shapes lived experiences by materializing mother subjectivities that indicate inequalities around who bears responsibility for protecting children in crises. When the agency of the material world is acknowledged, smoky and virus-filled air eludes human control, leaving mothers to experience what one participant characterized as ‘mum-guilt’ over their ‘failure’ to prevent children’s exposure to the effects of smoke and COVID-19. A new materialist orientation to breath disrupts notions of human exceptionalism that scaffold notions of women having sole or primary control over the health and wellbeing of their (un)born children. Instead, women are recast as an inextricable part of a complex web of material relations where responsibility is materially distributed and not individually held. At a theoretical level at least, this conceptualization releases participants from ‘mum-guilt’ by recasting this responsibility to the world.

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What is it like to have a baby in climate crisis?

Engaging a range of concepts, including the Pyrocene, breath, care and embodiment, the authors explore how climate crisis is changing experiences of having children. They also raise questions about how gender and sexuality are shaped by histories of human engagements with fire. The book is underpinned by an interview-based project undertaken in 2020-2021 in South Eastern Australia. The research explored the experiences of pregnant women and their partners, pre- and post-birth, during the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019-2020 and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic. It is also informed by interviews with experts on bushfire smoke and/or reproduction, including clinicians, architects and air quality scientists. Making an original contribution to social theory, the authors draw together ideas from feminist technoscience studies and queer theory about reproduction and kin into debates on contemporary planetary crises. They explore the diverse relations between climate crisis, kinship and reproduction; embodiment and breathing; biosensing and air quality; and Pyro-reproductive futures. The book has a distinctly Australian flavour, but is nonetheless global in its themes. The arguments apply in many ways to other climate-related disasters, such as floods and wildfires in other parts of the world.

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