I do not want to write about the bushfires of Australia unless in a respectful or mournful way, and I do not want to write of those caught in them other than to praise fortitude, heroism, and to sit with those who have lost their homes and livelihoods, and I know that anything I say will be open hypocrisy as I have no intention of flying to Australia and doing anything to help (and if I did, I would just be getting under everyone’s feet). The Lucky Country does not feel like it at the moment.
It is a land the other side of the world, but to native Britons it is no more foreign than if it were a couple of counties away. We feel the heat, and thank God for providence for our own land that does not suffer in that way.
I should not speak of events of which I have no real knowledge or people, cousins, who do. But then we come to the point of my writing anything at all, on anything, and that is for the insight that events give into the heart of man, and what to do about it. Those fires are illuminating some ugly sides in man that we recognise amongst ourselves.
There have always been bushfires in Australia, since before Captain Cook; before even the Aborigines arrived. This year (by the accounts I have heard) seems the worst in living memory.
There are fierce arguments going on amongst Australians. We can
put aside the Twitterstorms calling for the Prime Minister to be sacked –
presumably they think he is responsible somehow for the fires, governments
being omnipotent of course. No, the argument
is over detached cause.
Everything bad is caused by manmade global warming, according to some, and in Australia that is being pressed hard in the glow of the flames. On the other side are those denying any link to warming or climate change. That deaf-to-each-other polarisation is very familiar to those of us in living Britain over the last three and a half years. In reality, neither side has the whole truth, and neither are they the only sides there are, much as they would like to shut all others out. In the meantime, homes and farms are burning. The heroes are not shouting into the air on Twitter or ABC or in Canberra, but hefting their hoses deep in the glowing bush.
The BBC recently ran a piece in order to demolish a conspiracy theory on the denial side, namely that the fires are caused by hundreds of arsonists – and some have claimed it is even arsonists paid by the green lobby. (I believe it is only a small fringe who go that far, though these days you cannot tell.) The BBC piece was along the lines “this is a mad, fake-news conspiracy; so the climate change theory is the whole truth”. It is not though.
This is not a binary issue: it is not one thing or another, the exclusion of one meaning embracing the other. Both sides are a bit right and mainly wrong. It is not one-cause-and-no-other and not truth against falsehood, but a complex process of countless factors in the continent’s environment leaning on the probability of wildfire, for it and against it, until the incendiary factors prevail. In some of these the green lobby are right – but on others their actions may have caused the extent of the fires.
The green lobby being partly responsible is a dangerous thing to assert in an atmosphere where a side is deemed always right or always wrong. Here it is an inescapable conclusion though. They have not set fires (whatever the conspiracy theorists claim), they have not forced policy that has dried the climate, and they have warned that the actions of mankind can cause global changes, and in this there is nothing but praise – but if in the pursuit of guarding the environment one environmentalist or a group has forced a change in forestry practices which allowed fires to spread further and faster, then he or they might as well have set the fires.
I am in no position to say whether Greens have stopped back-burning of undergrowth, as always used to be done to prevent fires spreading: they have been accused of it even by the Prime Minister, but maybe it is an effect we are familiar with here: no one gives the order, but someone who is not in power gives out a strong impression that causes local officials to change their practices without being told to. I am not there though and cannot tell.
As to the arson theory, that one has been exploded, surely? Not quite: there have been arsonists. Why, beggars belief, except in the twisted recesses of the heart of man – to set a fire is to exercise power, which is a fundamental motivation. There have been very few, mercifully, but they have been some, so that idea cannot dismissed as 100% wrong.
Looking at the natural environment as the greens tell it: yes, Australia has been drying for decades. It has always been dry, but last year was exceptional – the driest on record across much of the continent, and the previous year was dangerously dry too. Two years without ran turned the forests into a tinderbox. That is not a win for the global warming theory though: if it were the gradual increase in world temperature this drying would be a pattern, but just eight and nine years ago much of Australia was the wettest on record. It runs in cycles, not a progression.
In any case if this were a smooth increase across the whole world it would just mean a southward shift in weather patterns, but this is all across Australia. Australia has been warming – but only by about 1 °C since the War, and that makes not a blind bit of difference to the combustibility of woodland. The drying climate does, but that has not been consistent, and may be nothing to do with manmade effects. There are manmade effects on the environment, but this does not look like one: the patterns are not consistent with it.
(Neither is it Australia’s own dynamic position – the continent has been moving northwards at 2¾ inches a year – but even 16 feet since the war will not change the climate.)
The arguments will continue, long after the fires have died down and long after the rains have come at last. Both sides will be right and be wrong, and neither will concede anything to the other.