How Fire Reveals Denial All Around

“Concerns about global warming, degradation of fragile ecosystems, and environmental and societal collapse have increased interest in lessons and solutions for today’s environmental issues. Popular writers have turned to a classic degradation thesis of deforestation and presumed desertification within the Eastern Mediterranean as a cautionary tale of how past societies have committed ecological suicide. However, degradation and/or collapse is far more complex than the thesis permits, and uncritical adoption of such simplified stories encourages continued use of inaccurate assumptions about human–environment interaction.

As part of this degradation theory was the “the assumption… that fires have a wholly negative effect on the landscape—just as grazing stunted regeneration, fires stunted regeneration, leaving denuded slopes at a higher risk for erosion… Contrary to this negative view of fire, scholarship has shown that both grazing and fires can play an integral role in maintaining a sound ecology depending on the environment in which they are being practiced. …disturbance (from burning) is quite natural, but the Mediterranean environment is resilient. Grazing and burning, along with cutting, pruning, and coppicing, all can be part of a successful management system for a Mediterranean landscape.” (Harris 2012)

The author is talking about the island of Cyprus in the East Mediterranean, specifically at the time it was under British colonial rule. Another country that was also under British colonial rule at the time was Australia. But these beliefs in burning landscapes as unilaterally negative are not restricted to the colonial period.

Today, the fires in Australia remind me that it is not just ‘climate change deniers’ who are culpable of denying the changing nature of nature itself. The hegemonic belief amongst conservationists, environmentalists and the associated sciences is also that a burning a landscape degrades a landscape. And that people who purposefully burn a landscape are savages. Over the past couple hundred years increasing portions of the Australian landscape have been managed according to this belief system. Now look at the outcome of this lack of fire stewardship:

A visualisation of Australias fires based on NASA satellite data by Anthony Hearsey.
Bushfire evacuees on the beach at the usually sleepy Malua Bay by Alex Coppel.

The irony is that Australia is arguably home to some of the richest cultural resources on dignified burning. If these knowledge resources were broadly valued, land would be better stewarded through cultural burning and these wild fires we now see would not be as damaging or even have spread in the way they have. Here are some introductory resources on this rich fire technology that has largely been ignored out of sheer denial:

‘Landscapes on which aboriginal people are actively hunting and burning are more diverse, support higher populations of keystone species such as kangaroo and monitor lizards, and protect more habitat from burning in summer lightning fires.’ (Read more)

‘Anthropogenic fire is increasingly recognized as an important constructive force in shaping plant communities around the world, and its impact in Australia has been argued to be particularly significant. ‘ (Read more)

‘The system of governance brought across by colonialists seeking to reinforce their ideology of whiteness and its capitalist agenda has failed and here we are – we know the answers and still the masses continue to vote for the failures.’ (Read More)

‘Owners say cultural burning saved their property’ A first hand account of how the cultural use of fire protected land and habitation from burning (Read More)

An important caveat here hearkening back to the aforementioned case study from Cyprus: Indigenous and local elites are not to be uncritically listened to either. In Cyprus, as with many other places, British colonialism succeeded through colonial and local elites working together. Records in Cyprus also show British officers tasks with conducting their superiors orders were not all on the same page and tensions were at play.

Returning to present day Australia here is an example of what looks like neocolonial and indigenous elites signing up together to a scapegoat solution for addressing wildfire, or at the very least indigenous leaders not rejecting their culling being hijacked by the Australian government (perhaps for good reason?), who want to look like they are doing something. My point is I am also not arguing that one should uncritically listen to someone because they are ‘indigenous’ (that romanticism).

In any case, the fires in Australia are not a wake up call to climate change being a massive problem. The fires in Australia are not a wake up call to the corruption of the powerful and politicians not caring. The fires in Australia are not a wake up call to uncritically embracing indigenous voices as homogenously magical.

The fires in Australia are a wake up call to a society that has abused fire but cannot adapt. Adapt its social organisation to address the sources of global warming and adapt its way of life as part of climate and habitat change. But most importantly, a society denying the knowledge it has at hand to understand burning land.

In any case, welcome to the Pyrocene