Understanding Australia’s wild fires
Published on: Sunday, February 02, 2020
By: Ng Tze Shiung
AMONG the reactions kindled by Australia’s raging wildfire in Malaysia, perhaps the most deeply felt has been the awe of seeing man and the world which he had built being brought face to face with the power and authority of nature. Imagine the confusion when the language coming out of Australia was not one of awe but anger; anger not at nature but at man’s inability to confront nature’s power.
We may be forgiven for thinking that this anger expressed the sentiments of Australia’s climate change activists. While it has certainly amplified their argument – that the fires were caused by climate change – its origin may lie elsewhere.
The debate on climate change in Australia is vigorous and polarised if only because the discourse is comparatively advanced.
There, the scepticism of science towards the health of the environment is uniquely extended to the science itself. This is due to an inherent handicap – climate science as yet cannot be founded on the observation of causes.
It is founded only on the observation of effects. As such, the causes of observed weather and ecological phenomena are deduced, usually statistically, rather than empirically determined.
This flaw is blown wide open by records which show that the extreme climate we are now experiencing had occurred before.
Thus, rather than the planet racing towards an eschatological and apocalyptic end, as climate activists insist, it is also said by climate sceptics that nature is undergoing a state of cyclic inequilibrium.
From these observations of weather and ecological phenomena are derived what each side reasons to be their cause. Climate activists say they are the direct result of man’s economic exploitation and consumption of the planet’s natural resources.
Climate sceptics retort that if man is indeed responsible for anything, it is his denial of nature’s divine creator more than anything else.
Where the quarrel really lies is how each side proposes to deal with the changing climate. For the activists, the answer is in legislation and governance. So far, a universal attempt at introducing a conservation law for the environment has been attempted in three Conferences of Parties in Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris.
The difficulty has been the law’s enactment into government policy, and here there has been little uniform progress due to conflicting national priorities.
Of the countries which participated in the Conferences of Parties, the majority still relies on expedient measures towards the environment than any rigorous state control. This includes Australia.
Government inaction, therefore, is the Australian climate activists’ most livid accusation against both the state and climate sceptics. From the anger that is currently seething across Australia, this might even seem to represent the entire country’s grievance.
Only it isn’t. Public resentment towards the government during the wildfire is not – or was not at first – due to its neglect of state policy but rather its delay in effecting exigent measures. Ironically, this context became apparent only in event of the fires.
If the conflagration should have produced something useful, it is in identifying a potential cause. This is the revelation that hazard-reduction burning had been woefully inadequate. Hazard reduction is an ancient practice inherited from Aboriginal tradition.
It aims to temper Australia’s bushfires by systematically pruning, burning off or clearing away vegetational overgrowth on the forest floor and bush during the colder winter months.
Although there are arguments as to its attainability, hazard reduction is a proven measure.
As with all organisms, grooming is necessary to nature. Man’s failing in this duty thus led to the accumulated fuel by which nature has so forcefully satisfied this necessity herself.
Predictably, climate sceptics have seized upon this revelation as proof that conservationist legislation, in thwarting or prohibiting hazard reduction, was the real cause of the fires.
Yet, as climate activists answered in their defence, there were few green laws of any consequence that had been passed (in nearly two decades of conservative government) to have made any such impact.
Indeed, some activists in local government actually implemented hazard reduction.
But if climate activists are not responsible for withholding the measure, and neither are climate sceptics, then who is?
It might not be evident to Australians themselves, but there appears to be a third protagonist in this narrative.
They are the individual landowner-farmers, who, though small in the size of their properties, are so numerous in number as to significantly determine what goes on in the Australian countryside – incidentally the very same countryside that is now aflame or in cinders.
The general outlook of these landowner-farmers is one of conservationism. Like the climate activists, they believe that man caused climate change.
But they seem to disagree (with the sceptics) that man should adapt to the changing climate or (with the activists) change his ways of existence.
Instead, they tend to pursue the absolute conservation of nature, even in times of drought – so much so that they seem to be hoping instead to reverse the changing climate rather than change with it, hence the recanting of cold burning, pruning, clearing or modification of any kind of any part of nature, and indeed of their architectural and communal heritage in the Australian countryside.
This attitude is neither heretical nor eccentric. It is natural to a fiercely independent constituency that over time had grown attached to the land and planted on its soil generations of families.
In a sense, the Australian grazier is not very different from the 18th century British pastoralist, fearing the demise of the ancient harmony between man and nature, and longing for a return to a past rural idyll.
Faced with the destruction of his world, he looks to government in desperation but finds it unresponsive as it mistook his anxiety for the clamour of the activists. When government eventually took action on the ground, much was already lost to the fires.
Like the Aboriginal way of life before it, the grazier’s way of life will never be the same again. This, I think, is the wildfire’s real human cost, one as tragic and painful as its obliteration of wildlife.
But as with the Aborigines and the forests, life moves on. Nature regenerates, and so will man. The Australian character in the countryside will renew itself. Perhaps in doing so, the climate activists might finally reconcile with the climate sceptics.