Friday, September 11, 2009

~ in the wake of the fires, ignorance triumphs

Sometimes, news of the outer world is almost too depressing to bear. And frustrating. Frustrating beyond belief. Sometimes, I think I would rather not know.

In the paper there is a photo of an industrious landowner from a bushfire-ravaged region of Victoria. A post-catastrophe ruling has allowed him to scour his property of vegetation. It allows the culling of trees within ten metres of homes and four metres of fence lines without approval from the council. Small land owners who have a poor relationship with nature can now raze their blocks with impunity.

Never mind that in the face of such mega-fires such a measure would have little effect. Never mind that trees can protect a dwelling by ‘dissipating fire energy’. Tree-culling is the first, most obvious response that comes to these simple minds. They see a pseudo-solution at the end of their nose and they act on it.

Being able to project our thinking beyond the immediately obvious is part of humanity’s brilliance, but too few of us bother to employ that ability. And stupid, destructive decisions result.

A dangerous assumption is being made by these people. They believe we have the right to put ourselves above nature, as if we are somehow separate from it, as if - as the bible would put it - it is our 'dominion'. Never mind that the air we breathe is generated by these trees. Never mind that as a species we are interwoven into a complex ecology of which these trees are a part. T
hese people do not factor the big picture into the equation. That is the province of whinging greenies.

Then there are those who look to apportion blame for the mega-fires and are seeking damages in court - as if any human agency could have stood against such a potent natural force. Certainly, if we bury the power-lines there will be less chance of electricity causing fires. And better organisation might have saved lives. But the fires of February this year in Victoria were near to inevitable. In Australia, fires are a part of nature, no humans are required to start them. This is proven by the fire-adapted ecology of the Australian bush. But these litigators, perhaps, would sue nature for damages if they thought they could get a result.

Human agency is expected to control the fires, and if it fails it is damned. Again the presumption that we are apart. Again the ‘dominion’ paradigm. Rather than adapt [or re-adapt] to nature, we will control it, dominate it. This thinking lies at the root of many bad attitudes towards the earth.

“The ocean is my kitchen freezer," I saw a guy say on a TV fishing show as I flicked past. “When it’s time to eat, I just fish one out.”
I hope so this was his way of saying we should look after the oceans...

Dualism – the concept that the soul is separate from the body – lies deep in the heart of these problematic attitudes. To the religious orthodoxy, who espouse ‘dominion’, the Earth is just a waiting room for the heaven-bound; it is there to feed us, clothe us as we demonstrate our goodness to god’s spy satellites. It is to god that we owe an obligation, not to nature. The religious do not have to worry about their children inhabiting a wasteland, because their children will ultimately be joining them in paradise. No wonder the needs of our base, temporal, sublunary earth are so often ignored in favour of human comfort.

Others subscribe to a milder form of Dualism. They consider the soul and body to be separate, but are not necessarily religious. Perhaps you are one of them? I know I used to be. It seemed impossible that my mind, my being, was nothing more than a sac of jelly between my ears. But the evidence - or lack of it - convinced me otherwise and with this realisation came a greater appreciation of the beauty and complexity of the natural system to which I, and my offspring, are inextricably bound.

To discard Dualism is to accept that the material world is the only world we will ever have and that we must respect it as thoroughly as we do each other.


Though no specific human agency can be blamed for the day of bushfires, humanity as a whole perhaps has a case to answer.

Do you think climate change might have had a bearing on the intensity of these fires? I do. It was the first thing that came to mind when I learnt of the devastation. In point of fact, it was already on my mind as I sweltered in the unprecedented heat.

Surely I was not the only one putting two and two together? I mean, extreme weather events are exactly what the climate scientists are predicting ...

But Kevin Rudd did not mention it in his speech of consolation. No one mentioned it. Indeed, it wasn’t until days afterwards that it was openly considered as a contributing factor. Weird, I thought. Later, a politician criticised another politician for bringing it up, saying it was disrespectful to politicise such tragic circumstances. Politicise? Politics? Climate change has deep political repercussions, but in itself it is as political as a blade of grass. It is the air we breathe. The food we eat. It is a fact of life which we ignore at our peril.

Why did they not draw reference to it? Would it really have made them seem as if they were taking political advantage? Or did it seem too tenuous and remote a thing to factor into the circumstances? Might it have offended the presumed backward sensibilities of the block-clearing country-dwellers? Whatever the case, don’t things have to change? Climate change will have to become a front and centre thing if we are ever to meet to successfully.

Clearing trees and increasing fuel burns may or may not offer some localised protection, but in the larger scale will make catastrophic bushfires more likely because they add carbon to the atmosphere and weaken nature’s mitigating effect on climate.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

~ knowledgeporn

These days, as I may have previously mentioned, I cannot imagine getting into bed of a night (or an afternoon) without my ipod and the growing store of utterly fascinating wisdom contained within. Constantly, I am discovering new podcasts by brilliant commentators and thinkers. Constantly, I am driven to my books or to the net to research things I’ve never heard of before. The universe is an utterly fascinating place, if you are interested in it, if you are in your manic phase and not weighed down by the leaden disinterest of depression.

I’ve added new list of links to the Sails of Oblivion sidebar. It includes all my current favourites like Reasonable Doubts (anyone conflicted about religion should listen to this – the mental agility of these guys is sometimes breathtaking), Skeptoid (The slow pitiless torture and execution of urban myths, alternative health nostrums, historical shibboleths and general wrong-headedness by the infuriating Brian Dunning), and Skeptics’ Guide to The Universe (the predominant sceptical podcast which, besides being rather entertaining, updates the progress of scepticism-related issues and advises on critical thinking).

I realised yesterday, when the new episode of The History of Rome appeared in my pod, that I’d been looking forward to it at least as much as the latest True Blood. There’s something about ancient Rome that does it for me. Simple as that.

And similarly with The Bible. Having been brought up a strict Catholic, The Bible was first presented to me as immutable, flawless and sacred. Consequently, in these latter days, I love seeing it picked apart and revealed as the imperfect work of fallible human minds. The related history and mythology is also captivating, as is the language - and in these regards, The Bible Geek is uber-knowledgeable, a talking concordance.

Sometimes, I wonder if anyone else is having the same experience as me. My delight in this newfound voluptuary of knowledge is a solitary vice, yet the net is a social phenomenon. There should be other lazy brains out there being driven to thought …

As regards the New Scepticism (or ‘Freethought’ as it is often described in the US) this really seems to be the case. There is a bone fide movement fomenting over there, spawned in the dark years of the Bush administration - when science found itself beholden to the madnesses of the extreme Christian right - and then set free to prosper with the rise of Obama. The nation’s freethinkers have organised themselves and are raising a loud, clear, measured voice against the powerful kooks that plague that country, be they conspiracy theorists, the anti-vaccination lobby or young Earth creationists.

Predictably the effects are spilling over into our fair land - despite our tendency to apathy and our lack of hugely influential maniacs against which to fight. Sceptic and atheist groups in Australia are feeding off the clamour in the US and consequently finding their feet. New web presences of a sceptical bent are always appearing, often produced by students. The Skeptics In The Pub phenomenon is catching on. And, excitingly, Melbourne is hosting The Global Atheist Convention in 2010. Its rubric is ‘The Rise of Atheism’. Let’s hope there's truth in that title.

As a young teenager, shortly after I lost my faith, I looked forward to many things: flying cars, the colonisation of Mars, and a world free of religion. Naively, I believed that by the turn of the century humanity would have developed sufficient intelligence to abandon such childish comforts as faith in an afterlife and a caring omnipotent god.

Naturally, as the years passed, my hopes were dashed. I had to recalibrate my opinions regarding humanity.

But now, I wonder, I just wonder, whether we might be seeing the glimmerings of a new Enlightenment.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

~ underground rivers

What an unusual, extraordinary month. By chance and queer circumstance, it proved to be an authentic festival of the early eighties. Now that the floodtide from the past has ebbed away, I’m shaking my head in astonishment.

And to think … that something so wonderful was spawned in an effort to address my little [big] problem and the financial boa constrictor which travels in its wake.

It feels a like a dream. An incursion on the general ordinariness of life from the luminous underground rivers of memory. I imagine it will be the last time I have the chance to revisit the mayhem of my youth in so comprehensive a fashion. Any effort to recapture the particular feeling at the Corner on the gloomy, wet afternoon of The Ears gig would be only to risk disappointment. And to belabour what was expressed in 'Livin' in DogFood' would be sheer pointlessness.

From this point on memories will degrade at a faster rate, people will die more often. The tall figures will withdraw into the mists…

Now I must begin learning lines for my part in Lynne Ellis’s production of Shakespeare’s bloodthirsty Titus Andronicus. And there is my drug-related presentation at the ANEX conference next month. There is a piece I’m preparing for The Last Tuesday Society. There is my monthly confabulation with a philosopher-psychologist. And my secret obsession with a certainAnd my vow not to let music slide away this time. There are the finals. There is my family. And there is, of course, my little [big] problem...

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