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Australia’s bushfires are a wake-up call: we must build a more humane economy before it’s too late

This article was originally published on opendemocracy.net.  By Katherine Trebeck

Back in the 1800s, scholars in the field of economics cast an envious glance at their colleagues in science.

They envied physics, with its laws of gravity. They looked with green-eyes at those studying chemistry, with its elements and atoms. And they longingly admired their biologist chums with their categorisations and evolutionary adaptation.

Now more than a century on, as we begin the third decade of the third millennium, economics no longer seems to take heed of science, let alone defer to scientific realities.

It is (invariably mainstream) economists with their contentions and blind spots that drive so much policy making, not scientists with their evidence-based models and forecasts.

The tables have well and truly turned. And nowhere is this so sorely – and painfully – acute as in Australia in the summer of 2019 and 2020.

Bushfires rage across the country, fuelled by record heat, and are now surging through acres of parched land dryer than ever after the worst drought in a generation.

In response, the Australian Prime Minister has held fast to a vision that a growing economy is the only option. He told a national TV station that “What we won’t do is engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy-crunching [green] targets which are being sought”.

What Morrison is effectively asserting is that the economy matters more than the science – in fact, that a certain model of the economy matters more, one in which the sole purpose of the environment is as an input to production and where it is assumed that growth will translate to benefits for all. This positions the economy at the top of the food chain, dropping crumbs to communities and extracting from the planet rather than something that is dependent on society which operates as a sub-set of the natural world.

Believing that the economy’s pre-eminence warrants downplaying all other concerns is a mindset that dismisses reams of scientific evidence and warnings. It turns a blinkered eye to why communities are being told to take shelter on beaches, why the Australian Navy is being brought in to rescue them and why a toddler was given a medal to posthumously honour his firefighter father who was killed with two other volunteer ‘firies’ (as us Aussies affectionately term them) when a tree fell on their vehicle.

What is happening in Australia is unprecedented.

It is what scientists have warned would happen.

It is going to be the new normal.

Perhaps most importantly, it is the loudest wake up call mother nature could send humanity to tell us that the wounds we have inflicted on her are taking an untenable toll.

Many times in the past I have heard those advocating for a new economic model say that when a ‘crisis’ comes, the movement for a more humane economy needs to be ready with ideas and visions, as that is when these ideas will finally get traction. That tactic always jarred – it seemed a rather privileged perspective that ignored or discounted that for many years many people around the world have already been suffering from the impacts of an economic model that treated people and planet as inputs to production. But, admittedly, such ostensible lack of solidarity or empathy may have come with some real politik. It recognises – perhaps implicitly – power imbalances.

And many of those impacted by the Australian fires are powerful. Many are wealthy. Many are people who have benefited from the growth-ist economic model because they are perched at the top of the pile. The coast houses of bankers, doctors, and property developers have been destroyed. New Year’s Eve parties have been moved from balconies with their harbour views indoors to escape the smoke. Corporate sponsored cricket matches have been called off because visibility got too bad. Yes, these are the folk with the resources to cope and recover, but maybe they’ll help nudge the balance of the conversation.

While Australia continues to burn, we can hope that what most Australians have been recognising will finally be heeded: that this monstrous cry for help from the planet is what flips back the agenda, so that economics returns to its deference to, and awe of, science. That scientific and natural laws will trump dubious dreams of trickle down. That now that wealthy and powerful people are also being hit by nature’s fury, they will join the ranks of frontline communities around the world and lend their voices and resources to mobilising for the transition that countries like Australia need to make towards an economy that respects the planet and priorities social justice and a healthy environment.

Building this new economic model doesn’t need to be disruptive – it can and must be just. There are ways and resources to protect livelihoods and, even better, to ensure that those most shafted by the current economic model are first served. But no longer can it be dismissed as ‘reckless’ to protect one sector – coal – at the cost of so many houses, lungs, biodiversity and precious wildlife.

Here’s hoping that 2020 is the year that new alliances come together to recognise that this crisis is one that hurts us all, and that a more humane economy that is gentler on the planet is one that will be good for everyone.

 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

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10 Comments

  1. When you have well over 100 people lighting fires deliberately, on land that has not been properly managed with yearly winter burn offs, it seems a little lame to be blaming climate change for the bushfires that result.

  2. Just wondering if anyone knows how Geoff and Zaytuna farm are holding out with the fires in Australia. Has his place been spared the worst so far?

    1. Hi Greg,

      Thanks for asking about us. Zaytuna Farm is ok.

      In November 2019 a fire started in the Night Cap National Park (due to a lightening strike) and spread down through the valleys of Terania Creek and Tuntable Creek. The fire was contained approx. 10km north of Zaytuna Farm.

      6,629ha of rainforest has been burnt and there are great concerns over the loss of wildlife and rare native trees to our area.

      You can read more about the fires in our area here:
      https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/12/fires-rage-across-australia-fears-grow-rare-species
      https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-09/mt-nardi-fire-community-defenders/11766036

      You can follow the current fire situation which is currently under control on the link below by searching: MT Nardi Np, continuation 2
      https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/fire-information/fires-near-me

  3. Hey y’all. Calling in from the South of Louisiana, USA. I have been following y’all for quite awhile now, and say kudos to you and koalas. It is so tragic when humans inflict suffering upon the innocent for the sake of the Unholy Trinity: Ego, Ignorance, and Greed. Your not ready for prime time prime minister is so similar to our demented president in the US, it makes me question the sanity of a creator who condones us. Perhaps the creative process will eventually eliminate us through our own faults.
    I have been practicing what is now trendy as permaculture since my rural days on a farm. We lived in a two room tar paper shack on five acres of hard scrabble land that sustained two adults and four kids.
    At the Lacombe Heritage Center headquarters, The Habitat, we practice the ancient Maya method of permaculture and have made several trips over the last few decades to Central America, the Caribbean, and Yucatan to learn from their methodology. We have twinned with Eco-communities in Alberta, Canada and the Yucatan.
    I am wondering if there is any way in which we can establish some sort of learning exchange and working collaboration with y’all in Australia. Like you, we deplore the government sanctioned “Plunder down under.”
    Regards, Tom

  4. “Bushfires rage across the country, fuelled by record heat” reminds me of California. Only problem is that it turned out that most were being caused by utility companies with faulty and very old equipment. Makes me wonder, if just maybe, we are talking REPEAT in Australia. You pull up MyFireWatch and what do you see, most fires are close to the coasts, and the least amount of fires are in area when the DESERT are, if you bother to pull up ‘maps of Australia deserts”. Isn’t that strange, less fire in the deserts, which “tend to be hotter” and more in the coast that tend to be cooler thanks to ocean breezes. It could be that Australia is unique. Seriously?

  5. Climate change is a phrase to replace Climate Warming because during the 1st climate change conference it was leaked that the temperatures in the 1500’s to 1700’s were rigged to suit the argument. No scientist was charged for providing false information, but the authorities did try to find out who leaked the information. I’ve seen many respected scientists criticise the science that is used to demonstrate that man’s carbon emissions has caused the climate change.

    I don’t doubt that the temperatures in the cities, as they have grown, has increased but how do you measure the out put of the sun over the whole surface of our planet? How do the climate change models calculate an average temperature for the whole world at any given time? How do you get the historical average temperatures, going back 100’s of years, so you can quantify the change? About 30 years ago there was a world wide temperature survey conducted. However there was only a few taken over the sea and the sparsely populated areas. The chance of error in these models must be so significantly high that a real scientist would not make any conclusions.

    Carbon in the atmosphere is insignificant even if it was 4 times what is now. How could this cause the temperatures to rise?

    The Prime Minister of Australia said that Australia’s carbon emission represent 1.3% of the worlds output. If Australia cut that to zero it would not make any significant difference to the world’s output.

    Australia is a very dry country and we have and will always have bush fires. The newspapers from the 1920’s tell us that before the 1st dam was built on the longest river, the Murray, at one point in time a child could have stepped across the river. The Darling River a tributary to the Murray ran dry 10+ times in the 1890-1930. Also in this time period it was so hot birds were falling dead out of the sky because of the heat. Inland there were instances of people dying in the streets due to lack of water and many people vacated the inland to escape the heat Back in 1859 the sails of a sailing ship 60 miles off the Gippsland coast caught fire from the live embers being blown offshore. You need to know our history.

    Finally we were all given a brain. We should remain sceptical until we have critically examined the climate warming models including verification of the supporting evidence. Is climate change the new religion?

  6. First of all I want to say that my heart goes out to all the people and animals (greatly) effected by the bushfires. And the men and women working with all their might to put them out.

    Though I also would like to inspire everyone reading this to have a look at Max Igan’s videos about the situation (on YouTube). Yes, the planet is under distress, but man there’s more to the/this story.

  7. @Greg. Ignoring the evidence will only delay a better, safer world and a cleaner, more productive and balanced economy. Learn a bit of permaculture and you will be able to drop the fear and improve the situation for our children.

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