Australi war

Waron the environment nears crisis

CanberraTimes 17 Febraury 2003
By David Horton


Since September 11 conservative forces have constantly proclaimed the start of a new age – everything has now changed, they proclaim, and go to war on terror. But we are about to enter a quite different new age, unheralded, and the consequences for the world are far more devastating than anything Osama bin Laden and his bunch of deluded lunatics could possibly throw at us.
We have been living in a post-industrial world, we are about to enter the post-environmental world. Until now, throughout human history, we have been able both to rely on the environment to maintain itself and support us as a species, and to exploit it so that some individuals can make great fortunes. The exploitation is about to reach the point where it is no longer possible for the environment to maintain itself and therefore it will be unable to support us. The analogy with war on terrorism of course is not very close.
Weapons of mass destruction, of proven performance, are, however, at play: greenhouse gases, pollutants of water and air and soil, genetically engineered organisms, and feral plants and animals. But in addition, and this is where bushfires and hazard reduction come in, there is, all over the world, a series of attacks on every piece of natural environment remaining. This is being accentuated in the case of forest and woodlands.
Under economic-rationalist rules, as the forests of the world have been destroyed the value of the remnants has greatly increased and the pressure to be the ones to extract every last dollar from them increases. The same is true of the oceans and rivers.
In the last decade or so there has been a rise in the use of fire in forests as what is euphemistically called a management tool. Commercial and state forests and national parks have all been persuaded to employ people called “fire managers” or similar titles. An industry has grown up, of people who write about fire and its benefits, of people who study fire behaviour and of people who plan and set fires in forests.
The industry has its own jargon and literature and measurements and equations. It produces reports and holds conferences. It puts submissions to bushfire inquiries and talks to politicians and talkback radio hosts. Whole careers can be built around fire, and the industry has become adept at promoting itself and so continuing to grow. It is very much in the interests of individual careers and consultancy groups and companies that the use of fire in Australian forests becomes bigger every year.
Fire managers tend to have training in and links to university forestry departments, or departments of natural resources. They are not ecologists. They have been taught to see a forest as vertical timber. They have also been taught to see fire as a cleansing agent in forests, removing extraneous matter and leaving behind pure trees like a plantation.
Using fire in existing forests is a way of cleaning them up ready for exploitation.
There is almost a religious or mystical element to some of the writing about fire, as if it is a kind of purifying force. When fire managers talk about the effects of fire they don’t mean the effect on the forest ecosystem, but how complete the burn has been as a result of their calculations of wind speed and fuel load and terrain, and how much the trunks have been scorched (reducing the commercial value of the timber). They would be puzzled by concern for organisms other than the trees, because the other organisms have no commercial value and could be seen as potentially competing with the trees or perhaps damaging them. A fire manager using fire in a forest is like a farmer ploughing or spraying weeds in a wheat crop.
The constant emphasis on the benefits of fire, and on its long history, its supposed use by Aborigines, and on the supposed ability of “Mother Nature” to recover, and the intensity with which these views are presented by fire managers seem to me to have helped create an environment in which arson has grown greatly in frequency in recent years.
Television too, with its dramatic pictures of fires, and its constant soothing words about how everything will recover, has also added to an atmosphere in which teenage boys and middle-aged men see arson as glamorous and exciting, and in which the public generally is not careful enough with campfires, cigarette butts, and barbecues. The higher frequency of fires in turn creates a political atmosphere in which fire managers can claim to have the answers.
The interests of the fire managers coincide with the interests of the timber companies. The people carrying out the logging and wood-chipping that are removing the last of Australia’s forests use fire afterwards to burn everything that remains and sterilise the ground for monocultures of pine or blue-gum plantations.
Any plants that might compete have been removed by fire, in the way that a farmer will burn stubble, and then, for good measure, animals are poisoned that might eat leaves from seedlings. Using fire in existing forests is a way of cleaning them up ready for exploitation. Whether Kate Carnell realises it or not, promoting hazard reduction and increased use of “fire trails” (and presumably “fire breaks”) is also a means of getting the access ready for when the remaining forests are logged.
Fire managers and forest industries also, I suspect, share a philosophical view about the role of forests in Australia. The spurious claims about Aboriginal use of fire in the past, and about the adaptation of forests to fire, also serve to support their view that forests have always been created and managed by humans and that there can be no debate therefore about burning, logging and clear-felling. In this view a forest of pines has as much validity as an old-growth eucalypt forest. Indeed I doubt that foresters can see any difference between the two, or rather, that such differences as there are, in the form of complexity, are a bad thing.
If you were to dig deeper still I suspect you would find an even more fundamental concordance of philosophy shared also with many farmers. A world view indeed which lies deep within Western civilisation from the time that agriculture was first developed perhaps 10,000 years ago. This is the view that wilderness is bad, a sign of failure by humans to do their job of running the Earth properly. People with this philosophy see wilderness with horror – all land must be tamed and be economically productive in some way.
A Welsh friend of mine, from generations of farmers, pointed out to me with horror some small area of Welsh sand dunes that had been barred to cattle grazing with a view to preventing total degradation of the landscape, and another small marsh, once drained, that had been allowed to regenerate as a habitat for birds and insects. This was land, he said, that had once been farming land, and he saw the conservation activity as being akin to a return to barbarism. In NSW too, any attempts to take unproductive farming land out of production for conservation reasons are met with huge resistance by farmers – it is not the compensation that is the problem, it is the concept.
So the wilderness areas of Australia must be painted as having once been managed, and must be managed again. Their wilderness to be portrayed as a sign of failure to manage. With the increasing loss of the remaining small areas of forest available to the industry the battle has shifted to national parks. The public fear of the recent bushfires, the result of probably the most severe drought yet seen in NSW, has been cynically seized upon by farmer’s groups, the National Party, and forest industries, to start laying claims. The first steps are the extensive use of fire and tracks and “thinning out”.
National Parks and Wildlife Service staff are to be cowed or broken by the use of legal claims. Talkback radio trumpet the message that conservation groups are to blame for the fires. Populist politicians will promise to get rid of these dangerous parks. The forest industry will take over management of all such areas and, since the park areas are all artificial now anyway, there will be no reason not to “manage” them for profit.
A few more years will see the end of it all. The ability to make a profit out of destroying forests will disappear with the last remaining forests, just as the ability to make a profit out of fisheries will disappear with the last fish. The public, suddenly in the post-environmental age, will look around and wonder how it all happened. Then they will increasingly feel the effects of living in a world in which the environment can no longer sustain life.
I don’t have an answer to the danger of bushfires. I suspect though that frequent fires may actually add to the danger by drying out soil and ensuring that all leaf litter on the ground is fresh dry litter. There must be studies of how better to fight fires, and how to plan cities and design houses. There must be support with modern equipment for firefighters. There badly need to be education programs warning about fire and its dangers, to try to greatly reduce the incidence of such fires. There needs to be increased pressure on the Government to start acting on greenhouse gases. But what there mustn’t be is a successful self-serving campaign by vested interests in which the argument is put that the bush needs to be destroyed in order to save it.
Dr Horton is the general editor of The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia and author of a recent book on Aborigines and fire called The Pure State of Nature. He is a retired prehistorian and paleo-ecologist.


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