Bushfires demand response-ability


FlamesI've never felt the earth move but have sniffed smoke, ashes and the aftermath of bushfires. The fright of inferno is akin to the world being taken away in an instant. It makes bodies tremble and language vanish. In front of violent nature, who are we but helpless and mute?

In bushfires, tsunamis and earthquakes, our relationship to the 'natural' world comes at us like an alive nightmare, and hurts. The natural world might not possess emotions like anger and revenge, but asks violent questions about meaning and action and responsibility. Many ask us to draw a line in our mourning, and only think about the humans. This is repression, for on such occasions humans and nature are bound in a dangerous dance.

In Lisbon 1755 the Western world changed direction. The ground literally moved as the biggest earthquake recorded in Western history hit the Portuguese coast and decimated Lisbon. A tsunami and fires followed. It was All Saints day and many people were at Mass when the earthquake hit. The monarchy fled to the hills to live as nomads, and thousands died.

At the time, God controlled nature. When the quake decimated churches but left brothels untouched the population went wild with rumours that God was vengeful against believers who had lost their way. The great designer of the world was sending a hard message to the Lisbon population through his mute and obedient messenger — the earth.

This natural disaster halted Portugal's imperial project and rendered the Jesuits momentarily impotent, but also founded the modern idea of nature and culture separation. Philosophers like Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire set about exploring what the natural disaster meant. Nature was severed from God, and by consequence human behaviour had no influence on nature's movements.

After Lisbon humans didn't live in the best of all possible worlds, and everything wouldn't be well in the Panglossian sense. Instead we had to make sure we looked after each other and consolidate human communities. Nature was cold, mute and to be treated as we liked, for God had nothing to do with her. Nature made us feel 'sublime' and romantic but lived in a world apart from us. The Enlightenment and modern science fired up.

Today, after natural disasters, those who talk of God's revenge aren't given space, for that is considered anachronistic fundamentalism. Instead we remain back in the aftermath of 1755, as if times haven't changed. Now in the ashes of bushfires God is dead and humans have no relationship with nature's movements. While in 1755 philosophers and lawmakers sought to abandon cultural perspectives that didn't aid the growth of healthy human communities, our time perpetuates the anachronistic idea that humans have no relationship with nature.

Can we still claim that natural disasters are pure chance? When all is well, when we own, possess and operate upon the land, the biosphere and ecological communities, there's no need to question our penetration of nature: our violent tinkering with its systems, flows, equilibrium and connections. When all is well there's nothing to lose except the future, which is hard to conceive or predict. A natural disaster is a loss in the present.

But science, ironically the great Enlightenment creation, tells us that when the earth moves or fires rage we might be implicated.

1755 is a long time ago. Now 'natural disasters' are confused entities. As illustrated in Japan; an earthquake occurs, and two years later we're still battling radioactive leaks across the Pacific. Food chains are infected across borders. Repercussions across places and times and organisms are diffuse and difficult to contain. Natural and unnatural disasters collide in causes and consequences.

Why is fire different? Human land practices and increasing temperatures alter the earth, fuel its flammability and are influenced by politics, law, philosophy and economics. In Lisbon, Western philosophy sought to sever God from nature; now we pretend that the fusion of humans and nature doesn't exist. The term natural disaster shouldn't be trusted. It is superstitious to think that humans and nature aren't locked in a reciprocal relationship with political and ethical responsibility.

It hurts to watch communities being decimated and having to rebuild. People who face disasters are brave and need to be supported. But the reason Western philosophy shifted in 1755 is that people cared about each other and the world. They sought to find an honest way to be with each other. Honesty alters with history.

While the Enlightenment has a lot to answer for, Lisbon also has much to teach us. While those who directly experience disasters are often incapable of immediate reflection, for pain makes us as mute as nature, those who can speak should be allowed voice. We cannot ignore the world around us. These disasters demand response-ability. The human who stops asking 'Why?' is headed for fundamentalism, or more natural disasters — or both.

Now, as in 1755, it's crazy to declare that everything will be well. The natural disaster is a violent question mark. Nothing is the same in the aftermath. While comfort and love are vital, to retell the Panglossian lie that 'this is the best of all possible worlds' is suicidal. While the Jesuits were killed in Lisbon for their cries that human sin rendered nature's revolt, now we face the reverse. Those that expose the lie that humans are not implicated in natural disasters are sanctioned and told to shut up because we're in 'mourning'.

I don't know many people who mourn without asking the heartbreaking question 'Why?' To silence this question is to disrespect grief. All is not well. The French philosopher Michel Serres talks about two laws: to love each other, and to love the world. They belong together. We can mourn the world and each other simultaneously.

Current politicians silence those who mourn the world, the natural, and accuse them of abandoning their fellow human. This lie orders us to turn away from the world, and each other. The natural disaster is a human disaster — we're in it together. It's going to be a long summer.

Bronwyn Lay headshotBronwyn Lay is an Australian writer living in France who has a background in law and political theory.

Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, bushfires, NSW, Sydney



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Bronwyn says that after 1755, “Nature made us feel 'sublime' and romantic but lived in a world apart from us.” The relationship to nature which came out of the romantic movement was certainly one of wonder, while we keep in mind Wordsworth’s sense of fear as well. But this is only part of the story, especially in Australia. The problem our ancestors in Australia had was to see nature as a threat, a dark thing full of dangers. Hence the attitude that if we don’t cut it down or kill it first somehow then it will get us instead. This is why it remains a challenge to explain to some Australians that we live with nature, not against it. The climate change debate, for example, is unnecessarily affected by this mentality. Bushfires only lend credibility to the view that nature is out to get us. Media use of words like Armageddon to describe what is happening in the Blue Mountains only adds to the sense of powerlessness before an almighty and indifferent terror. What help is that, journalists? Bushfire itself is a natural part of Australian nature, but how to manage it on the scale we’re seeing at present is hard, especially as we are a sedentary society fixated on property, unlike the nations who lived here before 1788, who would have been better prepared to get out of the way. One of the big challenges for Australians is learning to handle bushfire as a simple reality of living in Australia. This certainly means doing what Bronwyn recommends, responding and being responsible.
Philip Harvey | 22 October 2013

An excellent and timely reminder. It is also pertinent to recall that Australians have in our midst living examples of the Human-Nature identity in the cultures of the original occupants. To them the synthesis of People-Country offers an example we would do well to contemplate. It is not without great irony that Darwin’s evolutionary explanation, at one time demonstrating human origins IN Nature have simultaneous had the opposite effect, to strip Nature of any abiding sense of Spirit, the dynamic connection between Humanity and Nature which gave us birth. To Aboriginal people, this is already a given.
Jim Bowler | 23 October 2013

“Nature was severed from God, and by consequence human behaviour had no influence on nature's movements”............ It has taken thousands of years for individuals and religions to begin to realise that God is Constant and Universal, and ‘acts’ only through Constant and universal ‘Laws’. If humans behave irresponsibly , of course there will be consequences that will come back to bite them. Even if we act as responsible as we can we may still be met with disasters. There are many lessons we can learn only by trial and error. In the face of disasters we must do what we can to avoid them happening again, and if they recur, to re-double our efforts. It is in our response that our intrinsic worth can be assessed, both by ourselves, and by others.
Robert Liddy | 23 October 2013

But Phillip, in Australia a lot of nature is a threat, is full of danger and does need to be treated with intense respect and sensible management. One particularly huge danger is the eucalyptus tree! The vapour around its top explodes at about 50 degrees C with any spark or even spontaneously. We should not allow human dwellings within a safe distance and must keep the undergrowth well down between us and them. These trees look nice, but are vicious, and have taken over the land because of burning practices over 10s of thousands of years! What`s more, other parts of the world such as California and southern France have imported them...crazy stuff.
Eugene | 23 October 2013

Australia has always been a wide brown resource open for exploitation, open for business and It and its people have been universally ravaged. So what is "natural" in many regions is disputable, for "the bush" is not what it once was. It is largely regrowth and locked up country, amongst semi-urban or ruran developments, filled with proud sons and daughters of Vic Bitter ads, looking for a piece of beauty and terror in their 4WD conquered scrub. That is the undeniable romance. The roof tile in the wattle. Homeowners have piled in, blind as lovers to the history and geography of places prone, more than ever, to extended periods of dry and stinking hot weather. It is in these areas that "controlled burns' have proved nigh on impossible, even more so as the seasons become less predictable and the weather more volatile. It's tricky, very tricky. The Bushfire Royal Commison found that too many people either live amongst the eucalypts, or think they don't. That fires are more frequently, hotter, faster, and huger than anyone can deal with is a fact. They are more like unnatural disasters, like time bombs. And so people grieve for what is gone and what is to come from our disastrous response to climate change- Business as usual.
Alistair Stewart | 23 October 2013


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