Nick Jensen

This World is on Fire

A portrait of Australia in crisis

Australia is a continent of drought and fire, of parched plains and searing heat. Now, in its deepest summer, we are reminded that while it is a place of unique beauty it is the setting for unspeakable terror.

The ancient Australians, who knew this paradox well, were great masters of fire. Practices in ritual burning lay at the very heart of ceremonial life and revealed a sophisticated knowledge of the land’s natural ecology not possessed by their European colonisers. Bushfires, they understood, were as distinctive to Australia as salt is to the ocean. Even foreign audiences recognise this fact, as the scenery is familiar enough: an incinerated “ute” here, some mangled sheets of corrugated iron there, while a lone brick chimney stands defiantly above a wild frieze of gesticulating wood and rubble – the fragile centrepiece to a post-apocalyptic world.

In 1851, shortly before the first gold rushes, deadly bushfires torched much of New South Wales and the newly formed colony of Victoria. European onlookers gaped at its speed and ferocity. Never before had they encountered a conflagration of such magnitude. But the current bushfires blasting their way through much of coastal Australia seem to be of a different sort. Not simply a chain of flares, leaping from tree-top to canopy, but a vast breaker of spitting red heat, driven forward on screaming winds. The sun’s glare does not pierce and bore as in usual summers. Instead it hangs mute behind a vast curtain of crimsoned cellophane, veiled in smoke and bleached in bloodied pastels.

From the rainforests of Queensland to the peaks of the Blue Mountains, bushfires have ravaged more than eleven million hectares of land. Altogether the flames now cover an area larger than that of Belgium, and the smoke plumes which swell above are said to be larger than Europe. According to NASA they will soon circle the globe. Footage captured by evacuees stranded on Mallacoota beach resemble scenes from Dresden or Tokyo during the fire bombings of 1945.

M. W. Hunt /

M. W. Hunt /

As it stands, the bushfires have claimed twenty-nine lives, as well as destroying countless homes, towns and livestock. Scientists predict that a billion animals have perished in the flames, with the probable extinction of species. The causes of the disaster are familiar yet various. Longer droughts and hotter temperatures have turned kiln-dry country into an immense powder keg, primed and ready to blow. Wild winds, lightning strikes and arsonists have also played their part.

A raw combination of disbelief and anger now grips the country. The tenor of discussion is bitter in some quarters, incensed in others. Serious blunders have been made. Where, many have asked, are the resources needed to combat such a disaster? Why weren’t proper preparations made in prescribed burning and fuel regimes?

In press conferences, the country’s leaders have looked gormless and inept, ready to crawl under the nearest rock until the whole thing washes over. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under intense scrutiny following an ill-timed holiday to Hawaii and a series of excruciating publicity stunts designed at recouping his ailing reputation. Attempts at damage control have quickly turned to farce. But Morrison has made himself an easy target, as key voices in the Liberal-National Coalition have refused to acknowledge the direct influence of anthropogenic climate change on the bushfires. Predictably enough, this has enraged the green-left to an almost comic degree, with the novelist Richard Flanagan providing the headline act in his subtly titled New York Times piece, “Australia is Committing Climate Suicide.”

However, the government’s benighted response has also divided sensible, right-leaning liberals, who see their deflections as shameful in the face of such a crisis. After weeks of reproach, Morrison has yielded to a more precise rhetoric. While his 2019 election campaign skilfully neutralised Labour’s climate preaching, he will no longer be able to avoid the subject so blithely. Indeed, if the government’s commitment to greater emission reductions is to be taken seriously, it must be presented as a genuine priority. The vital question, then (so often broached, yet seldom attempted), must focus on how to execute a credible national energy-climate change policy which does not damage the country’s economic prospects.

It is a strange experience to walk through bushland after it has succumbed to fire. Burnt trees stand out like skeletons in a landscape heaped in ash, and the stench of smoke stays in the nostrils. While the force of the blaze destroys much in its path, rarely does it flatten everything, for the peculiar genius of the bush lies in its ability to survive and transmute.

Of course, it will be a hard-fought and bloody battle. On the one hand there are the likes of Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who insists that self-exploding cow turds are just as much to blame for the bushfires as the effects of global warming. His portly chum George Christensen is little better, arguing that a malicious spate of incendiarism is the primary cause of the fires.

Then, at the other extreme, there are the serried ranks of Extinction Rebellion, whose sententious posturing has done little else but rile people against their cause. To criticise even the slightest proponent of their crusade is to court a modern-day auto-da-fé, in which accusations of unbelief and denialism are deliberately deployed to thwart rational debate. Equally, to oppose the total and immediate abolition of low-cost fossil-fuels is to be reviled as a wicked heretic, set on global destruction.

In Australia these grim polarities have combined to make a terrible situation considerably worse. They have allowed dogmatism and idiocy to get in the way of unity and understanding. From both sides, blind ideology and resentment have shattered any chance of striking common ground or, indeed, common sense.

It is a strange experience to walk through bushland after it has succumbed to fire. Burnt trees stand out like skeletons in a landscape heaped in ash, and the stench of smoke stays in the nostrils. While the force of the blaze destroys much in its path, rarely does it flatten everything, for the peculiar genius of the bush lies in its ability to survive and transmute.

Then, shortly after the fire, nature’s hand intercedes: the regeneration begins. Fresh shooting eucalyptus leap from hidden apertures and dense thickets of scrub and banksia unfurl at the feet of tall redgums. Even without rain, the charred soil is blanketed in a haze of perennial greenness, as life erupts from the most improbable places. Right across its timbered ambulatories a melancholic beauty descends, declaiming a new period of hope and renewal. Soon the bush will be restored, and people will return to their towns to rebuild their lives.

In these difficult times politics must seem trivial, even nasty. While scattered rainfall has offered a brief moment of reprieve, the present clashes over the causes of the bushfires show no signs of abating. Indeed, it is clear they will carry on long after the last flames are extinguished.

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