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The Fiery Breath of Change?

Alison Caddick reflects on the Black Saturday bushfires, morality and neo-liberal markets

‘Mother nature’ rode a fiery chariot in recent weeks, wreaking havoc and dispensing no justice or love in the mayhem she created. ‘Mother nature’, as she was invoked many times in strangely archaic ways, came, visited a holocaust upon communities, and people were her mere playthings. Nothing could have stopped her; nothing could have predicted the route or ferocity of her a-rational force, said people time and again, struggling to make sense of what had happened.

There was trouble everywhere with words in this terrible experience. The existential terror, such awe-struck horror: they are visceral and bodied; description failed many a correspondent, while their wavering, or panicked voices conveyed the truth of it.

But ‘mother nature’ especially seemed all wrong, even in the mouths of those who used the idea. The usage carried a fatalistic sense of the force involved — like the capriciousness of older gods — and yet the old chaps who referred to her on TV or radio seemed really to want to embrace her too, to feel the love of the bush that had been reciprocated to them as they had lived in it and experienced her benevolence.

‘Mother nature’ for us today just doesn’t seem to sit well with the ‘fiery chariot’ image. Overall, if the term is used at all, she seems to be softer and giving: the font of life rather than the screaming fury. It seemed the reference points and contrasts were all at sixes and sevens. Many people did not want to believe that the bush they loved could have done what it did, even if some level of dangerousness was accepted by most. It was disbelief that the world could transform ‘just like that’, ‘before their very eyes’, into total, unforgiving, inhuman chaos where none of one’s dearest assumptions might hold.

Various essais at common sense have been made by commentators, and almost everything coming from the mouths of politicians and people on the ground seems to be pressing in the direction of a full recovery of it. That is, where the language used can assume a community of meaning; where the dreadful is shared in communal mourning, and yet is set aside for the common good; where gutsy determination kicks in to rebuild, to recommit, to move on, but not move out. It does indeed fit with everything we have ever been taught about determination, will and spirit.

But there is something that is also disturbing about this emerging push. Not only does this kind of practical common sense appear as an essential prop to some kind of recovery for individuals, families and communities, the language of blame and responsibility too builds on recognisable ‘figures’ around which positions and action, a mighty salve, can be taken. Premier Brumby has right from the start offered an open, broad-ranging Royal Commission that will leave no stone unturned, and his statement of a non-political interest in this pursuit of the truth is wholly appropriate to the nature of the disaster. And yet one fears that not only will immediately practical questions like burning off, building materials and warning systems fulfill much the same function as the Australian will to get up off the ground and start again, but that a blame game around systems of command, the rooting out of arsonists (ideal for pre-emptive profiling), and the demonising of ‘environmentalists’ around prescribed burning could take centre stage.

The last is highly ironical, on several counts. First, the contrast of farmers and ‘ordinary folk’, many of them the suburban dwellers in country areas, with ‘environmentalists’ cannot do the work some wish it to. On the question of prescribed burning, the really hot issue here, there seems to be widely differing points of view among environmentalists themselves. Some do seem to have held back the hand of government in undertaking to prescribe burn to the government’s own recommended levels; others argue for it vehemently as a reproduction of the form of ‘land management’ practised by Aborigines over forty thousand years. In any case, many who argue against it are not just romanticising the bush, as some would have it (not least Miranda Devine, who thinks they should all be lynched), but give (non-aesthetic) reasons related to real underlying land degradation and future burn potential for not doing so.

Second, it is hard to believe that Australians’ popular love affair with the bush, which has seen not only the building of isolated eyries in remote, bush-surrounded locations but also the building of suburbia on the edge of state forests in recent years, has not been at least in part inspired by the trickling down of an environmental consciousness, even if some whose lives have been shaped by it effect to despise it. Environmentalism has, after all (for good or for ill is not readily answered when fires like these hit), reformed and broadened White Australia’s historical attitude to the perception of its home as ‘alien’.

Third, while all this practical talk goes on about a world in which we can control the impact of fire, where we call on tried and true values to do with spirit and will and ingenuity to ‘rebuild’, it is deeply ironical that much broader, deeper issues of climate change in all likelihood fuelled the fires, and their provenance is only known through a form of knowledge and related political consciousness that sees the world in its vast interconnections. We were warned. We have been thoroughly warned, and it wasn’t our practically oriented governments, farmers or suburbanite tree-changers who told us. In the best and the dumbest of Australianisms, commentators and victims who have been telling government not to ‘buggerise around’ with issues like climate change (alas, Germaine Greer did just this) and to ‘put people first’ (overwhelmingly the attitude of every newspaper and media outlet in the immediate aftermath of the fires) have conveyed a willingness to tarry with outmoded outlooks on our connection to Earth, which essentially wish to remain blind to what is happening.

How will climate change be built into the Brumby government’s Royal Commission? This is a crucial question, and surely it must be part of the Commission’s remit. The Greens must push for this aspect of the investigation to be fully considered; to be taken seriously as the real backdrop to any more practical or immediate solutions to the mere phenomenon of fire.

Of course, not even the best of broad-ranging Royal Commissions is likely to take the further step recommended in this issue of Arena Magazine by John Hinkson and Del Weston. Writing on climate change and responses to it — the Rudd government’s hopelessly inadequate carbon trading scheme and recent interventions in the public arena by environmental writers — they argue for a reconsideration of the deepest kind of our way of life and the structures that support it. Without a reconsideration of our assumptions of what makes for the good life, a moral life vis-à-vis human and non-human others, quite apart from the question of planetary survival, we are doomed to remain in the grip of an immoral system: an amoral system of production and distribution, and a structured system of assumptions that understands itself as virtuous, but which has long ceased to examine its sources and its limitations.

Of course I am talking about the neo-liberal market and the consumption values that keep it afloat. But even the ideas of ‘will’ and ‘spirit’, and the comforting notion that ‘ingenuity’ or the practical attitude will get us out of any mess, seem false and shaky at present. Are they really ideals, or are they a mirage? Are they perhaps no more than the deep constructs of our own sense of self-esteem, the last defence of a way of life against furies none wish to face up to? So what if there is ‘human spirit’, a comforting term used massively in recent weeks, if it is blind?

When ‘Nature’ first made its appearance in the cultural history of the West, it was an idea set apart from ‘Culture’. It had connotations of female capriciousness that carried on earlier notions of a female nature, but it had a still stronger derogatory and destructive implication, as historians of science know well. It was conceived as a great passive resource to be mined and plumbed in the service of a rationality devoted to transparent knowledge and practical control. Strangely, today, even ‘nature’, let alone ‘mother nature’, is an archaic idea. As nature has been de-sexed over the recent centuries of Western development, the whole paradigm of control has moved towards a different paradigm of scientific rationality, which as John Hinkson points out in the article mentioned above, has made neo-liberalism what it is: a supercharged growth machine that not only eats up Earth but poisons her as well. Today, she is not only conquered but, as a mere object for the transformational consciousness of the high sciences, it is on the verge of becoming unrecognisable to us all, if only we could see.

These may seem like big leaps — between markets and fires, Western consciousness and a desire just to get on with life. But they are rich seams for exploring where we come from as a people and a culture, and while Royal Commissions must focus on many practical questions, we can always hope that a philosophical restatement of who we are in relation to the bush, and the larger systems of life that offer it to us, may be considered as a crucial guide for real change.

Alison Caddick