Australia: A Country in Flames
As fires rage across Australia, destroying lives and communities, politician’s words and promises ring hollow. It’s time for an honest conversation about what this new normal means.
Walking back from the gym this morning, despite the grey gloom and burnt smell heavily permeating Melbourne, I was still caught off guard when I pulled off my hoodie and got a strong whiff of smoke embedded in its fabric.
This small reality check about our current burning land is infinitesimal compared to the hell many have been going through in bushfire-ravaged areas, but at least for a moment, it made even more tangible that we are in the midst of a full-blown crisis.
Politicians are bandying around talks of Royal Commissions, throwing out the mandatory (but understandable) lines about “rebuilding communities” and even putting out advertising campaigns to prove they are “taking action”, even if we all see through the latter for what it is: a not-so-slick attempt at rebuilding a tarnished Prime Ministerial brand.
Talk of climate change is in the mix and must be given the ferocity and widespread nature of the current conflagration being linked to a “new normal” brought about by changing weather patterns.
Butting up against this talk is some “greenie bashing” around changes in back-burning and increased environmental protection that has led to there being more fuel for fires.
But much of this feels like smoke and mirrors in avoiding the real issue. What no one seems to want to talk about, and maybe it’s “not the time, to use that overused cliched politician’s get-out tactic, is whether there is actually any safe way to rebuild communities in areas that will remain fire-prone and could face a similar tragedy in the not-so-distant future.
Sure, we can hold a Royal Commission to ensure our fire and rescue services are better prepared to manage disasters like the one we currently face, which seems practical even if it plays more into the narrative of managing climate change as a given rather then trying to stop it or slow it down through abatement action.
And we can return to bigger backburns and wider clearing in the hope of removing fuel for future fires, although I’d argue that before white man came along, there was a whole lot more scrub and vegetation out there, and, in fact, it is us who are getting in the way of nature by settling in areas that maybe our indigenous peoples knew from their long connection to the land was a bad idea and avoided.
And we can (and should) dig into our pockets to help those devastated by the fires, although as one commentator pointed out recently, this could be viewed as part of a somewhat sinister shifting of the financial responsibility of care from government to private citizens.
But these are all superficial fixes.
None of them addresses the real issues, being, that Aussies live in a country that has bushfires built into its DNA.
We’re happy to settle wherever we see fit, to reap economic benefits from the land, to damn rivers because we’ve laid claim to all we see.
Dorothea Mackellar nailed this with her famous “My Country”…
“Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold.”
As Mackellar points out, there are consequences for her “paying us back threefold”.
Going forward, we need to have a national conversation that goes deeper than what it has previously. It should be a conversation that embraces climate change, that takes on board indigenous wisdom and knowledge of our shared continent and how we inhabit it, that discusses a new way to stay on the land for those who wish to but acknowledges that this comes with growing risk and therefore must be managed better.
My heart goes out to those who’ve lost so much.
To the untold number of wildlife and stock that has perished.
To the homes gone, hearts broken, lives burnt to the ground.
I don’t claim to have the answers, but in the aftermath of the fires, if we approach them in the superficial way it feels our politicians are already telegraphing, there will be more deaths, more towns burnt to the ground, more broken hearts.
And our land of “Rainbow Gold” will be soon replaced by one of “Smoky Haze”.