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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Anonymous said...

I think I saw the photo you are referring to - it was in the newspapers very recently. I read the story with a sinking feeling in my stomach, but I couldn't express that sinking feeling as well as you have done in this blog.

Sam Sejavka said...

Indeed, a sinking feeling. On the front of The Age just a few days ago. Thanks, Meredith]

BwcaBrownie said...

Underground power won't be cut-off by fire, and people can then use their phones and pumps.

Back in February The Age had a page 3 feature on a family whose house survived, but who had paid a $100,000 fine to their council for having cleared their block.

Flying embers are the issue.
Imagine a house completely wrapped in a kevlar-type fireproof cover.

I try hard to avoid all reports of Feb 7th. Am still sick for every mouse and snake and bird and pony, every lost dog and abandoned budgie.
I hate people.

lily was here said...

Don't fear Sam. There are lots of smart people who also live in the bush because they do love the trees and loathe cities and concrete.