A Continent Ablaze

January 6, 2020

The fires consuming Australia are not a tragedy, writes Marc Hudson. They are the product of 30 years of wilful negligence and greed.

What else is there to say about the bushfires and forest fires raging across Australia that hasn’t already been said by scientists and astute commentators?

I am originally Australian, and with many other expats, a world away, am transfixed by what is unfolding back ‘home’.  We are filled with white-hot anger, horror, despair at the current behaviour of our so-called ‘leaders’, who have ignored the expertsgone on holiday and then tried to use shocked women as photo opportunities.

All those ancient forests, now as transformed as the Great Barrier Reef. All those innocent animals burned to death.  The pain of it is just overwhelming, and you can’t look away, but you must look away.

There are many words that can be used to describe this cataclysm.  But this not a tragedy. A tragedy is inevitable.

What we are seeing now is – in part – the result of wilful negligence, wilful blindness and casual greed. A total failure of leadership by political leaders from the major parties that stretches back not three weeks, or three months, but three decades, when Australians were first warned of the dangers in what was then known as ‘the Greenhouse Effect’.*

My recently completed PhD, at the Sustainable Consumption Institute of the University of Manchester, involved a deep dive into documents from the late 1980s onwards. Already in the 1970s, Australian scientists had begun to measure – and worry about – accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By 1987 they were able to convene a three-day scientific conference.

The following year, the newspapers and airwaves were as full of ‘global warming’ as they have been this last year. Sensible policies around encouraging community education and energy efficiency were proposed in countless reports, speeches and weighty official documents. There were detailed investigations into how to encourage renewable energy research and development, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels was proposed.

Fossil-fuel interests (coal mining companies, electricity generators, large manufacturers) responded with a flurry of lobbying, armed with ‘independent’ economic modelling that ‘proved’ the sky would fall and the Australian economy would be ruined if such proposals were adopted.  They won:  by the time of the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992, Australia’s diplomatic position had shifted markedly from its earlier pro-action position.

By 1995, at the first ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) in Berlin an anti-action stance had solidified.  The tale since then has been the same: Australia’s government has adamantly sided with Saudi Arabia and the United States to scupper ambitious collaboration on greenhouse gas reductions at every United Nations conference. Why? The answer is simple – Australia became the world’s biggest coal exporter in 1984 and has mostly stayed in that position.  Powerful mining interests – domestic and international – obviously don’t want that to change.

When, in 2011, a minority Labor government led by Julia Gillard finally introduced a (hopelessly inadequate) policy response, the co-ordinated campaign by these vested interests was staggering. It involved stoking a culture war that has still not died away and, I argue here, taps into deeper anxieties and prejudices of white male technocrats.

The carbon price Gillard established was abolished, and many of the other policies weakened if not revoked. Federal governments of all persuasion seem never to have met a coal or liquefied natural gas project they didn’t like – with the ‘progressive’ ones simply muttering about fantasy technologies such as carbon capture and storage.

Social movement organizations have, for various reasons, found it extremely difficult to challenge the political-economic consensus. And now the country burns. Those animals burn, those trees burn. We watch.

Will anything change?  It’s hard to see how. There is, I fear, a ferocious embedded contempt for the natural world (and by extension women and people of colour), a desire (need) to dominate which comes from settler colonialism. The last 30 years of failure have also created a psychological path of dependency.

Recently one of Australia’s deeper thinkers on questions of relations between white Australia and Aboriginal people, Don Watson, observed:

‘We might think conservatives would see climate catastrophe as a threat to order and reason, not to mention self-interest. Not the modern strain.

As spiritual descendants of landed classes and traditions of noblesse oblige, the desecration of the natural environment, the loss of productive land to urban sprawl, the degeneration of our river systems, the shrinking of country towns unto death, the loss of both beauty and function in the landscape, and forms of intensive farming that threaten the land’s sustainability – all these should be a plague upon their souls. Not the present crew.’

How can this ‘crew’ be replaced?  Do we have the hope, do we have the courage? We must act together to share and grow this. Do we have the time?  We must act as if we do. Anything else is a betrayal of stewardship.

Disclaimer: Dr Marc Hudson is not now, and never has been, a member of any political party.

*The time frame is not intended to gloss over 230 years of dispossession and slaughter since permanent white settlements began in Australia.  For what the settler colonists destroyed and then ‘forgot’ that they destroyed, see Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.


Teaser photo credit: GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1770761

Marc Hudson

PhD, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

Tags: Australian fires, Australian politics, wildfires