Australia on fire: Priorities, delusions and governments’ duties of care

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Sydney is surrounded by bushfires and enveloped with smoke (Image via Andrea Schafer via Flickr)

Over the past few weeks terrorists have killed six Australians and destroyed 673 homes, 1,400 other buildings and vast stretches of unique bushland.

Well no, terrorists did not do that to us. It was bushfires. Mind you some of those fires are alleged to have been deliberately lit by firebugs. Perhaps we should regard firebugs as terrorists?

The Prime Minister doesn’t seem to be very concerned about fires and arsonists, although he does offer thoughts and prayers. On the other hand, he indulges his antediluvian obsession of stomping on the last vestiges of union power, and his novel Christian approach of holding innocent and sick people hostage indefinitely, and watching them slowly die.

He also spends large amounts of our wealth putting our soldiers in places far from home, fighting people who have the misfortune, like Chief White Halfoat in Catch 22, of living on top of a lot of oil. A few of our soldiers die over there and more die by their own hand after they return home, perhaps because they can’t work out what their trauma was supposed to have been suffered in aid of.

Our soldiers are there at the behest of a foreign government that has conducted three disastrously counter-productive invasions. Some of the invaded people are very angry and a very few of them find their way to Australia and try to inflict harm on us, in revenge. Thanks for that, John Howard, though you said it would never happen. On the other hand, it has given subsequent governments excuses to diminish our freedoms, arm their police and increase their secrecy.

The current leader of that foreign government is an extreme narcissist capable of little more than impulsive reactions to perceived slights. Rather than backing away from him as an erratic buffoon, our own "leader" has decided to imitate the foreigner, presumably because some people, under the influence of our highly partisan and self-interested media, like his bluster.

Meanwhile it is barely summer, and 2 million hectares of land have been burnt since July in more than 7,000 fires that have raged across NSW in the “most challenging bushfire season ever”. In our little town, there is a big fire on either side of us, the wind is up and there is no prospect of rain, nor of a shift in weather patterns at least until mid-summer. We are hardly unique.

Do we dare to imagine what will happen over the next few months? There will certainly be days of catastrophic fire danger because the land is tinder dry. With no rain to speak of, will the fires just keep flaring and spreading, with new ones springing up with each new hot blast from the Centre?

What then is the greatest threat to Australian’s security? A nuclear war seems unlikely at present. China might put our stupid government in the diplomatic equivalent of a headlock but we could deal with and recover from that, because China does not need or want to destroy us. Invasion from the Middle East is hardly a risk, nor even invasion by millions of dispossessed people in leaky boats.

The most immediate and destructive threat is clearly that of bushfires on a scale we have not seen before. Behind that is the threat of more great cyclones and floods, as we have already experienced. At some point the already massive destruction of nearby marine environments will rebound on us. Our rivers are sick and dying, our forests are ravaged, and our farmland is staggering under the onslaught of severe drought, and the destructive and often corrupt practices of industrial agriculture.

One can understand the concept of psychological denial. It is too scary to admit the truth staring us in the face. We change when the pain of staying the same overcomes the fear of stepping into something new.

Yet what can explain an obsession so strong that a government would contemplate spending public money to prop up ageing, planet-destroying coal plants that are no longer the cheapest power option and that are increasingly unreliable in hot and dry conditions? Well, money and political power might be an explanation. Both sides of politics are thoroughly corrupted by money from coal and other special interests.

That distortion of perception and democracy might also explain politicians’ disinterest in the blindingly obvious option of a string of medium-sized off-river pumped hydro storages. The technologies are mature; they require little water, which just cycles between reservoirs; they don’t pollute; and they don’t disrupt the environment. But the idiotic option of an ill-thought-through megabuck, mega-announceable Snowy 2.0 has preempted discussion of and investment in sensible versions.

Our government’s highest duty is to protect us from harm. Yet it indulges the fantasy of a protective alliance with a dangerously armed fool, and it jumps at the confected shadow threats of refugees, greenies, democrats and the well-informed. Meanwhile, the god of dry lightning storms bides his time and the firebug fiddles his passion in his pocket, matchbox quietly rattling.

Dr Geoff Davies is a commentator, scientist, and author of Economy, Society, Nature and The Little Green Economics Book. He blogs at BetterNature Books. You can follow Dr Davies on Twitter @BetterNatureOz.

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