Stop getting all Biblical about the bushfires

Angry summers are nothing new in Australia.

Nick Cater
Columnist

Since Hollywood is supposed to inject drama into our lives, we can hardly complain about the hyper-dramatised version of world affairs presented from the stage of this week’s Golden Globes.

Australia’s bushfires were perfectly timed to feed the industry’s voracious appetite for suspense, emotion and existential threats from unnatural forces.

Cate Blanchett paid tribute to volunteer firefighters ‘battling the climate disaster’ in her home country. ‘When one country faces a climate disaster, we all face a climate disaster, so we’re in it together’, she said.

Events in the Middle East were seamlessly woven into the narrative. ‘We see a country on the brink of war, the United States of America… and the continent of Australia on fire’, said Patricia Arquette. ‘While I love my kids so much, I beg of us all to give them a better world.’

The elevation of this year’s bushfire tragedy as Hollywood’s cause du jour is not without material benefit. Phoebe Waller-Bridge announced she would auction her Globes tuxedo to raise funds for bushfire relief. Millions of dollars have been pledged in charitable assistance from the stars themselves, tens of millions from corporate philanthropists, and untold millions through social-media channels they have promoted.

Yet Hollywood’s romantic presentation of the bushfires as a parable of human folly is about as faithful to reality as Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance on the bow of the Titanic.

Rather, it is a product of the cultural pessimism that has driven Hollywood since the arrival of the anthropogenic disaster movie in the 1970s.

The sharp change in the prevailing wind is evident in the contrast between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Earthquake (1974). Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) is a loveable outlaw in a frontier state, blessed with unlimited opportunities for redemption. Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) in Earthquake is a shame-faced engineer crawling through the wreckage of Los Angeles, encountering nature’s revenge against a species that has been too clever by half. ‘For the first time in my life, I’m ashamed of my profession’, he confesses.

Were Bushfire to become a movie, it would tell the story of nature’s revenge on Australia, once regarded as an idyll occupied by noble savages living innocent lives in harmony with Mother Earth.

The arrival of modernity aboard the First Fleet in 1788 triggered a perceived outbreak of human rapaciousness that continues to this day, based on the assumption that humankind could plunder nature’s bounty with impunity.

Since Australians are commonly believed to have the second-largest carbon footprint on the planet, a claim that is both inaccurate and misleading, nature’s fury is understandable under the circumstances.

There are not enough waterbombers in the world to rescue the smug and greedy Aussies from this one. Repentance is the only path to salvation.

If the best way to reduce the bushfire threat is to end global consumption of fossil fuels, Australians will be at the mercy of many more angry summers to come. There would be little they could do to help themselves. Even if Australia cut all its emissions, they amount to a share of the global total of little more than one per cent.

Besides, the portrayal of bushfires in Australia as a byproduct of modernity hardly stands scrutiny. The native eucalyptus trees, rich in inflammable oil and shedding large volumes of dry bark, have achieved an evolutionary advantage through their ability to facilitate and survive fires.

Aboriginal people used fire as a hunting weapon. Early settlers to Australia were warned to be wary of bushfires, ‘one of the most remarkable circumstances peculiar to the Country’, as the Sydney Times reported in 1837.

‘Seldom a night passes, but the horizon is illuminated by the tremendous fires which rage in every direction of the compass, and blaze in a greater or less degree according to the nature and thickness of the bush, and the degree of wind blowing’, the newspaper reported, in an account that could be recycled to describe conditions in much of south-eastern Australia this summer.

‘If any remedial measure can be suggested by any Reader of ours’, the article optimistically concludes, ‘we shall be thankful for the favour of hearing from him’.

Angry summers once united Australians in a battle that pitted human ingenuity and courage against a common enemy. The burden fell principally on communities rather than governments, with more than 180,000 volunteer firefighters serving in little platoons across the country.

Operations were coordinated in each of the six states and two territories, rather than from Canberra, a division of responsibility both constitutionally and logistically sound.

Today this pragmatic, bottom-up approach to fighting bushfires, evolving over more than 200 years of European settlement, is contested. The challenge is intellectual, stemming from the conviction that the complexity of bushfires can be reduced to a single grand theory that will inform the application of a grand solution. Proponents argue that the federal prime minister should take charge of this crisis, for the solution is national and international, not local.

Inevitably, bushfire-management policy has been engulfed by the phenomenon we might call the politicisation of almost everything. It has descended into an unseemly, sniping public argument over academic theory where pragmatism was once the order of the day.

Black and white judgements have been made where nuance was once demanded. Both sides attempt to arm themselves with silver bullets. Each side argues its case on terms incomprehensible to its opponents. Positions harden, false motives are attributed, moral virtue is claimed and the country is at loggerheads.

An early casualty of this fractious debate was the prime minister, Scott Morrison, denting the authority he has enjoyed since winning an election against the bookie’s odds last May.

The trap was set early by the climate-explains-everything movement. Australia was dragging its heels on climate-change action, it declared, and Morrison was heedlessly, and probably malevolently, steering the nation towards disaster.

That narrative was palpably false. Australia is one of a handful of nations to exceed its Kyoto emissions-reduction targets, and will probably beat its Paris targets as well.

The carbon footprint of the average Australian has shrunk by a third since 2005 and the carbon intensity of the economy has fallen by a quarter, a record far better than comparable developed nations like Canada.

Yet the case against Morrison was pursued to the point of exhaustion on both social and traditional media, which, blinded by confirmation bias, insist on portraying him as the dolt they would like him to be, unconcerned by either climate science or bushfire relief.

Never mind he has mobilised Australia’s reserve defence forces to assist with evacuation and the delivery of supplies to isolated fire-affected settlements. One journalist reproached him on Twitter for arriving to meet firefighters without water or snacks to share from his pocket.

As a committed Christian, he is criticised for offering not just thoughts but also prayers by those who find religion distasteful.

Damned if he does tour ravaged communities, damned if he doesn’t, Morrison’s real crime is to be a prime minister from the tradition of Australia’s pragmatic centre-right in an era when feelings prevail.

Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre and a columnist for the Australian.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Sam Belfield

10th February 2020 at 2:51 am

Interesting article and thread. For me most critically, the article states ‘The native eucalyptus trees, rich in inflammable oil and shedding large volumes of dry bark, have achieved an evolutionary advantage through their ability to facilitate and survive fires.’ Australian Biologist Jeremy Griffith highlighted and expanded on the implications of this habit of the Eucalypt in this recent confronting article in The Spectator https://www.spectator.co.uk/2020/01/the-science-of-bushfires-is-settled-part-2/.

David Porter

12th January 2020 at 4:16 am

So far I’ve evacuated my house twice. Yesterday the warning level dropped to Advice but today it’s back at Watch and Act. I’m not looking for sympathy–I have an effective sprinkler system and home insurance.

The ‘sky is falling’ narrative from the media and social media and the politcal attacks on the PM have not been of any assistance at all, to anyone. Plus metropolitan and rural firefighting has always been a state, not federal, responsibility. I thought those people refusing to shake the PM’s hand were rude (and I’m no fanboy of the PM). Today I read an article in The Guardian linking the fires to Australia’s historic dispossession of aboriginals. Even ignoring the obvious historical innacuracy–it was Britain that colonised what became Australia, so it’s all Harry and Meghan’s fault–the thesis is so stupid it made me wonder if the author was being satirical.

I have been amazed how almost everyone jumped on the “it’s climate change” bandwagon without a shred of evidence. That is classic confirmation bias. Nobody suitably qualified has yet asserted, with reference to facts, that the current fires existed only because of, or were exacerbated by, anthropogenic global warming. It may be global warming, it may also be various oceanic rainfall drivers not favouring rain overall eastern Australia and it may poor fuel reduction burning. It may be all 3 and it may be different for the different fires across a very big country.

A calm and sober assessment of future fire mitigation strategies is about the only the useful thing anyone can do. In reality, there aren’t many options–lots of little fires to reduce fuel loads or a few big fires. Planning controls to limit building near bushland and to require fire-resistant house (1) will not reduce fires, although it may reduce their impact and (2) have other problems–many Australians love living in the bush in houses that are not fire bunkers.

Any assertion that any law can be passed in Canberra to reduce global temperatures and the intensity of bushfires in Australia must be rejected as false. China, the USA, the EU, Japan, Russia and India account for 67% of global CO2 emissions. Australia is about 1.15%. Do the maths.

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