Learn About Climate Breakdown In The Daintree Rainforest With This VR Experience

By Sophie Oddo

At Urban List, we believe it’s important to recognise trailblazers who align their values with actions, which is why we’ve teamed up with Bank Australia to share the inspiring stories of Australians who have joined the clean money movement and aligned their bank with their values.

Implementing positive action to help make the world a better place takes courage, strength and tenacity. But to encourage and help others to do the same, well... that’s worth celebrating.

Here, we chat with climate change activist and Bank Australia customer, Emma Roberts, to chat about how her passion for the Daintree Rainforest and virtual reality installations—and how these passions have spectacularly collided to help inform and educate others on the seriousness of climate change. 

Can you Tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Emma Roberts, I’m 29 and I live and work between Wurundjeri and Wathaurong country. I actually started off doing archaeology but now I’m a producer by trade, and together with my partner in crime Ben Joseph Andrews, I make virtual reality installations and artworks.
I’m really passionate about bringing new voices into VR. I’m absolutely not used to talking about myself and would rather disappear right now, to be honest.

What sparked your passion for the environment and combating climate change?

I’ve always felt very comfortable in natural places; my parents spent a lot of time caravanning around Eastern Australia so I guess I absorbed some stuff there. At the start of 2019, Ben and I drove from Melbourne to the Daintree for a five-month residency off-grid in the middle of the rainforest. We went over the empty Murray Darling basin, past drought-stricken farms in central NSW, through the vast swathes of Queensland burnt in the 2018 bushfires, and then got stuck in the middle of the devastating floods further north around Bowen. Then we arrived in the Daintree in the middle of an astonishing heat wave ten degrees above average, where 50 per cent of the flying fox population died in the course of a week and temperatures on the normally stable mountaintops soared.

It’s one thing to know about the impacts of the climate crisis—and this was certainly something I was already passionate about—but it’s another entirely to be confronted, face to face, with all that in one short burst. Add in the most incredible, long-form immersion in an astonishing landscape, where we experienced first-hand the immeasurable complexity, interconnectedness, and sentience of an ancient ecosystem. It really personalised the issue for me.

Tell us about your latest VR project? 

Gondwana is an online VR event designed to run over 24 hours. In short, it’s a living, breathing virtual version of the Daintree rainforest and surrounding Wet Tropics. You’ll be able to freely explore the rainforest, from tropical storms to mountain peaks to incredible rivers (and of course, the amazing flora and fauna)… but this forest is changing. Over the course of a day’s exhibition, Gondwana artistically brings to life projections of climate data and its impact on the Wet Tropics over the next 100 years.

We have an incredible team on this project, from artist Michelle Brown to developer-slash-general-wizard Lachlan Sleight and our amazing sound team from The Convoy (Erin K Taylor and Matt Faisandier). We’re all incredibly passionate about climate change and the environment and it’s been a real privilege working on a project like this with such a dedicated team and the privilege of guidance from Traditional Owners and some of the top scientists working in the field.

Why is it so important for us to protect the Daintree Rainforest?

It’s kind of funny talking about the Daintree and Wet Tropics in Australia because there’s not a huge amount of consciousness about it here. I had no idea when we started this project that the Daintree was so significant. Sir David Attenborough once called it “the most incredible place on the planet”… so no big deal, really.

The Daintree and surrounding Wet Tropics are a living ark of the origins of our known natural world and have been ranked by the International Union on the Conservation of Nature as the second most irreplaceable World Heritage Area on the planet. It’s understood to be 180 million years old, making it the world’s oldest tropical rainforest (for perspective, the Amazon is thought to be around 55 million years old). An incredibly stable microclimate has given refuge to incredibly ancient species that provide clues to the origins of many global species, from songbirds to flowering plants. In this one area, accounting for just 0.12 per cent of Australia’s landmass, live 30 per cent of Australia’s endemic mammals, 65 per cent of its ferns, 60 per cent of butterflies… to name a few. It’s also home to the Kuku Yalanji bama (rainforest people) who have a rich history of working in partnership with the land, and unparalleled understandings of its fluctuations. 

This rainforest is able to survive and thrive due to a fluke in geography and the movement of tectonic plates. But the threat of anthropomorphic climate change means the Wet Tropics are now facing climate disaster. The most recent climate modeling predicts that a third of all endemic species will be endangered or extinct by 2085 if trends continue—but new evidence suggests that decline is occurring far more rapidly than predicted. In the last eighteen months alone, the Daintree and surrounding Wet Tropics area suffered through the most severe flooding event on record, a series of extreme heatwaves 10 degrees higher than the average, drought, and bushfires in places that had never been burnt before. 

Having been sheltered from the world’s larger climate changes for the past 180 million years, the Daintree’s Gondwanan remnant species do not have the ability to adapt to the impacts of anthropomorphic climate change and rising temperatures. With nowhere else for this rainforest to survive, it’s up to us to stabilise our climate before we lose some of the most important living ecological heritage on our planet.

What kind of change do you hope to see with the help of this immersive experience?

VR is amazing at giving us utterly privileged experiences that allow us to temporarily step outside of our reality. Our goal with this project is to put the human perspective into a proportionate scale. In the Daintree and Wet Tropics, time collapses in on itself, its cycles moving a few rings wider than normal. Gondwana looks to communicate this on an experiential level, to teach us to see time at the speed of trees. We want people to understand how incredible Australia’s ecological heritage is, to immerse themselves in this place that wordlessly communicates its vast, slow ancientness in the trickle of streams, the rush of the wet season deluge shaping and reshaping the landscape. But at the same time, we want them to better understand the data behind climate change on a level that is lived and felt.

One of the challenges in talking about the climate crisis in the Wet Tropics is that it’s really, really hard to spot. If you look at the Great Barrier Reef (which is right next door), people know what bleaching looks like, we’ve been taught to see a clear delineation between what was and what is. In the Daintree, if you don’t know what’s been lost, it just all looks like rainforest. But what we’re seeing is the terrestrial equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral bleaching event. So one of our key aims is also to teach people how to see these changes and respect what is at stake here.

How can everyone help to do their part to combat climate change to benefit the Daintree Rainforest and beyond?

One of the biggest traps when it comes to the climate crisis is feeling like it’s all on you as an individual to right these wrongs. But we have to change the bigger systems at play and draw attention to new models of collective existence. Doing things like avoiding buying second-hand and recycling diligently is fantastic but it’s not the heart of the problem: the heart of the problem is at the top level. 

Advocacy and lobbying your local government, companies, and leaders to prioritise climate action is a huge part of what can be done. You can advocate with your words… and you can advocate with your actions. If they won’t listen to your words they’ll listen to where you put your money and your support. Things like switching super funds or banks, or buying from a bulk food store are a vote for the kind of future you want to see, especially if you combine that with reaching out and letting those companies know why you’ve made that choice. Eventually, a lot of these companies will see the writing on the wall when it comes to what their customers want and will make the switch. Encourage others around you to do the same, and build yourself networks of like-minded people so you don’t burn out as a solo crusader.

And of course, take some time to smell the roses. It can be really easy to think of things as all doom and gloom and not appreciate what we have now. Walk around your neighborhood and learn to identify the birds. Notice how the leaves gather in the wind in the park or how a certain flower is creeping up through gaps in the asphalt. Take up gardening or go on a hike and sit with it all. Hell, move to the Daintree and make friends with a cassowary. The natural world is resilient and so are we—sometimes it just takes a little effort to be able to see it.

This article is sponsored by Bank Australia and proudly endorsed by Urban List. Thank you for supporting the sponsors who make Urban List possible. Click here for more information on our editorial policy.

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