(Image: AP/Lillani Hopkins)

Well the story of the erupting volcano was kind of diverting, until we all realised people had died, how many, and in what horror. That is added to by so many of the dead being Australians, for anyone other than the thoroughly deracinated.

Now they stare out at us from tourist photos — that stand-by genre, the silly shirts, the big colourful drinks raised to the camera. It’s heartbreaking and haunting, and it is acquiring a double resonance from what is happening on the other side of the Tasman at the same time.

As Whakaari pours smoke from a wholly natural event — that rarest of things — New South Wales pours smoke from an event whose character, in its intensity, is human-caused. Whakaari is nature as we used to think of her (and why we called her “her”), separate and majestic. That is of course why those tourists were there that day; to feel — by being in the presence of a mighty force larger than themselves — a release from the shittiness of being human, and a capacity for awe.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

Get more and save 50%.

Subscribe now

The particular form of such regard for — and involvement with — nature is relatively recent, and coextensive with the rise of industrialism and technology, and their hollowing-out of nature through mastery by means of knowledge. That distinct 20th century figure, the mountaineer, only really emerged after the aeroplane was invented; it only became meaningful to climb mountains — as an experience — when you could hop over them in a machine. Before that they were either a God or a nuisance.

It’s not hard to see that the Whakaari story haunts us now more than it might have hitherto because we are standing on the edge of inferno and death — in Sydney, in NSW, in history.

The path we have taken is equivalent to the tourist expedition; a small bunch of people making a buck and a wider group who assume that those in charge knew what they were doing. Whakaari (Pakeha name “White Island”, because you can’t have too much allegory) is privately owned, and were it state-managed it seems certain that access might have been more tightly managed.

For the few hours they were together, those passengers and crew constituted a distinct society and culture, with its own “state”, laws, authority, history and culture. Then it was gone in a flaming moment. On the geographical time scale of the volcano itself, the decades in which we have turned the earth into a fire chamber, and the half-day of the tour, are essentially equivalent amounts of time.

The evisceration of a boatload of tourists — nothing is more everyman for our era than the tourist; like pilgrims in sackcloth, we have all donned the tropical shirt, to do something that might be vaguely diverting — is nature putting on a masque as prelude; recapitulating in moments, the action to later follow.

The question to round that out is how do we use such in the face of indifference to approaching catastrophe?

Do we take from it the observation that many people still take nature as “given background”, and that such a conception of nature may be not only part of the way it is “consumed” — as the unconsumable sublime — but also relatively deep-seated in the human psyche?

The knowledge class becomes frustrated at the residual, “vernacular” climate change scepticism of many in the mainstream (which is possibly a greater obstacle than the deranged denialism of minuscule right power groups), but they forget how “unnatural” natural science is: to see the world as invisible processes of atoms, whose action on a massive scale is capable of total transformation by minor ratio changes on a micro scale.

The failure of the knowledge class to not understand that living within such a framework makes one a worshipful native of it is causing numerous activists to go literally mad with frustration.

The situation does suggest an asymmetry which may lead to strategic insight: to have abandoned the island landing that day, one could have tried to either convince the tour captain and crew to take the financial hit of some refunds, due to an event that they themselves understood as possible and lethal; or one could have tried to to explain the process of the volcano to the passengers, convince them of its imminence, and to petition the captain and crew; or, failing that, one could have attempted to take over the boat?

Does this scenario (yes, I know there are many variations) suggest a strategic imperative might be to spend more time radicalising scientists to political action to address a catastrophe they already understand, as opposed to starting from scratch with, well, passengers?

Such “strategic elitism” may be a necessary consideration as, with less time than we thought we had every time we think of how much time we have, we stare at our future over the flaming edge.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

And now you get more from your membership than ever before.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
Get more and save 50%