Australia on fire

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Australia on fire

The fires in Australia are not a tragedy, writes Marc Hudson. They are the result of 30 years of bad treatment of the environment and greed.


Fire trucks in a bushfire in Werombi, 50 km southwest of Sydney, Australia, December 6, 2019. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas/via REUTERS

What more can we say about the fires in Australia? Scientists and others have said it all.

I am Australian, and with many other Australians I live away from Australia now. And we cannot stop thinking about the fires back ‘home’. We are very angry and we are losing hope at what the so-called “leaders” are doing. They are not listening to the scientists, they have gone on holiday, and then they tried to shake hands with shocked women firefighters as photo opportunities.

All those old forests are now changed just like the Great Barrier Reef. All those innocent animals are burned to death. The pain is too much, and you can’t look away, but you must look away.

There are many words that we can use to describe this terrible situation. But this not a tragedy. You cannot stop a tragedy.

What we see now is partly the result of deliberate bad treatment of the environment, blindness, and greed. The leaders of the major parties have failed - not for three weeks, or three months, but thirty years. Then Australians had the first warning of the dangers in what we called ‘the Greenhouse Effect’.

I have just finished a PhD, at the University of Manchester. I looked at documents from the late 1980s onwards. Already in the 1970s, Australian scientists worried about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By 1987 they had a three-day scientific conference.

The following year, the newspapers and TV and radio were as full of ‘global warming’ as last year. Many reports, speeches, and documents suggested policies for education and energy saving. There was research into renewable energy, and a suggestion for a carbon tax on fossil fuels. Fossil-fuel businesses replied and said these ideas would ruin the Australian economy. They won. By the time of the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992, Australia’s policy changed completely away from taking action.

By 1995, at the first ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) in Berlin there was nothing but anti-action. The story since then has been the same. Australia’s government has supported Saudi Arabia and the United States against working together on greenhouse gas reductions at every United Nations conference. Why? The answer is simple – Australia became the world’s biggest coal exporter in 1984. Powerful mining companies don’t want that to change.

In 2011, Julia Gillard’s minority Labour government introduced a (very poor) policy to help the situation. But the powerful mining companies campaigned against it. And I think it is about the deep anxieties and prejudices of white male technocrats.

Julia Gillard’s carbon price was stopped, and many of the other policies made weaker or stopped. Governments of all kinds never seemed to dislike a coal or liquefied natural gas project. The ‘progressive’ ones only talked about fantasy technologies such as carbon capture and storage. For many reasons social movement organizations have found it very difficult to challenge all of this. And now the country burns. Those animals burn, those trees burn. We watch.

Will anything change? It’s difficult to see how. I am afraid there is a terrible hate for the natural world (and therefore for women and people of colour), a desire (need) to dominate which comes from colonialism.

Don Watson is one of Australia’s deeper thinkers about relations between white Australia and Aboriginal people. He said: ‘It is possible to think that conservatives would see the climate crisis as a threat to order and self-interest. But not the modern conservatives.

We Australians should be ashamed of the destruction of the natural environment, losing land to cities, the destruction of our river systems, losing country towns, losing the beauty and use in the landscape, and intensive farming. But the modern conservatives are not ashamed of any of this.’

How can we replace these conservatives? Do we have the hope, do we have the courage? We must act together. Do we have the time? We must act as if we do. Nothing else is possible.

(Please note: Dr Marc Hudson is not now, and never has been, a member of a political party.)


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)