The fierce debate over the role of fuel-reduction burning in preventing bushfires has exposed a deep divide in Australia over attitudes to the natural environment.

Over the last three or four decades the dominant attitude to the environment has shifted away from seeing the bush as hostile and in need of taming towards an understanding of it as unique and deserving protection. Instead of transforming the bush for human benefit, the new attitude privileges the natural over the modified and values biodiversity and natural areas for their own sakes. Human impacts should therefore be minimised and reflect an ethic of care rather than of domination.

Forty years ago if you passed a snake on the road it was almost a duty to run over it because it posed a danger to humans; today that is seen as wanton killing of wildlife. Forty years ago we killed sharks that came anywhere near a beach for the same reason. Today, the father of a man taken by a shark will typically declare that he does not want the shark hunted down and nor would his son, who loved and respected the sea and its creatures.

This huge shift has been due largely to the work of the environment movement. Landmark campaigns over the Franklin Dam, old-growth forests, the Barrier Reef and Kakadu have been victorious because they captured the public imagination and governments were compelled to act. So environmentalism has brought a sweeping and irreversible cultural change; wherever they live, most Australians now look on the landscape with new eyes.

However, at every stage the revolution in values has met staunch resistance from those wedded to the old view. Led by an older generation of foresters, “bushies” and their political spokespersons, the old attitudes have seen a resurgence in response to the Victorian bushfires, especially over the vexed question of fuel-reduction burning.

Those who hold to the old view believe that it reflects the true nature of the Australian bush, the one that the pioneers learned the hard way. To give their argument more authenticity they even claim that the use of prescribed burning is a continuation of the practice of Aboriginal fire-stick farming.

The old school believes that, despite its apparent foundation in the new science of ecology, the new view is based on ignorance and softness and could be held only by latte-sipping urbanites. But increasingly marginalised, the old school’s resentment and anger has simmered, especially among those affected by restrictions on forestry and land-clearing.

The cultural split has now boiled over under the pressures and stresses of the Victorian bushfires. The conflagration spurred those of the old school to declare that they had been right all along and that if the authorities had listened to them and taken control of the bush then the devastation could have been avoided.

On the Tuesday after the worst of the fires former CSIRO bushfire expert David Packham launched a ferocious attack on environmentalists, blaming them for the deaths because, he said, they opposed widespread fuel-reduction burning. He wrote that the “folk of the bush have lost their battle to live a safe life in a cared-for rural and forest environment, all because of the environmental fantasies of outraged extremists and latte conservationists”.

Packham’s attacks were carried in The Australian newspaper whose editors could immediately see the opportunity presented by the fires to extend their long-running culture war. Environmentalists had replaced communists as the principal enemy in neo-conservative demonology after fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Venting the rage felt by the old school, Packham followed up two days later with the claim that environmentalists “are behaving like eco-terrorists waging jihad against prescribed burning and fuel management”. (Packham was one of the instigators of the much-criticised “leave early or stay and fight” policy.)

On the same day, right-wing columnist and greenhouse sceptic Miranda Devine wrote that it wasn’t climate change that killed up to 300 people in Victoria but “the power of green ideology over government”. “It is not the arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts”, she fumed, “but greenies.”

Roger Underwood, a former regional manager with the Forests Department in WA, also high-lighted the folly of environmentalist resistance to widespread fuel-reduction burning. Criticising “climate doomsdayers”, he argued that governments can be held to ransom by pressure groups such as those who oppose effective fire management in national parks.

In 2007 Underwood had written of the wholesale destruction of remaining jarrah forests by Alcoa’s bauxite mining. Bizarrely, he did not blame this destruction on the company carrying it out. Alcoa is “an efficient and clever organisation”, he wrote, “and it is a pleasure to see the professional way in which they have approached their operational and research obligations.”

Instead, he insisted that environmentalists are to blame for the vandalising of the jarrah forests because they failed to campaign against it. He speculated that their passivity may be because “they have been bought off”, presumably by the company whose professionalism he so admires. The immediacy and vehemence of the attacks on “greenies” over fuel-reduction burning exposes the deep vein of hatred of environmentalism that runs through segments of the community.

In fact, no-one has argued for a blanket ban on prescribed burning. But the experts are divided on the timing and extent of it. Some fuel-reduction burns get out of control, scarring the landscape and causing unnecessary damage.

This was cruelly illustrated by the case of Sam the koala, who last week became an emblem of the devastation in Victoria. A photograph picked up around the world showed a yellow-jacketed fire-fighter in a burnt-out forest giving a singed and shell-shocked koala a drink from his water bottle. It was a touching image of human-animal unity in the face of the terrible power of nature. The problem was that the picture had in fact been taken a few days before the inferno in the course of a fuel-reduction burn.

It may be that the Victorian fires lead to some sort of accommodation between the old and new understandings of the Australian landscape, a merging of respect for the bush’s natural integrity with a greater respect for its dangers.

Certainly, some tree-changers planning to leave the cities for the romance of bush-living will have pause for thought, and greens on local councils will be on the back-foot for a time. But it is hard to see any significant unwinding of four decades of environmental awakening.

Peter Fray

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