(Image: AAP/Darren Pateman)

The last embers will still be cooling somewhere in some patch of ground in eastern NSW or Victoria. The first big fire of the 2019-2020 fire season is over.

It may be the last, since so much of the most high-risk areas have been burnt out. On the other hand, there’s a lot left to burn, if it all starts again: northern NSW, the forest areas around Melbourne, more of southern WA.

We have three months of high heat to come, and fire season is usually February-March. Since the seasons seem to have shifted back in recent years, that may well continue into April.

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In the meantime, things will play out as they usually do. The devastated communities will be ignored, having had their brief, smoking moment in the sun.

Half the promised donations won’t turn up. The government money assigned to rebuild tourism and other industries won’t start for months, half of it won’t arrive, half of what does will be legally rorted by consultants, etc.

And in a few weeks it may all burn down again. Faced with such a conflagration, the common assumption, and expression, in the media sphere, has been that “this will change us”; that “something has happened”.

And it may have done.

Though this series of fires was less lethal than Black Saturday and Ash Wednesday, and other such hitherto once-in-a-generation fires — largely due to occurring in less populated areas — the total area and the degree of fire-joining was larger (though not as large as some other historic fires).

The sheer level of damage and habitat lost is vast, and weighs on our consciousness more than it once did. The assumption that things simply can’t go on as they are is widespread.

But it’s an assumption which is possibly confined to the knowledge class, and spruiked heartily by the media section of such, for all the usual reasons.

By that, I don’t mean the accusations of propaganda that the right is hurling. This is coming from a point where the right is now fully irrationalist; if actual science constitutes an opposition to the conservative-capitalist framework, then reality itself is held to be left-wing propaganda.

What I mean is that people living in the knowledge frameworks of said classes will see the fires as not merely evidence of, but the presence of, climate change.

Knowledge yokes abstract understandings to concrete events; the scientist in the lab “sees” the chemical structures of the materials they’re working with.

For everyone else, it’s just sludge and powder. That division has become, in our era, a political one.

As “black box” technology takes over more of our lives, and the structures of power, science — which was once taken up enthusiastically by working-class and popular movements as a weapon in their struggle — becomes, for many, the “master’s discourse”, the mode of control of those inheriting power from the old bourgeosie.

Scientific explanation makes the new knowledge class feel energised, surgent; it leaves everyone else feeling more powerless than they were a couple of decades ago.

Resistance to science thus becomes a form of class political resistance, a demand for recognition. The rise of anti-vaxx is one example of this. Vernacular climate change denialism is another. This is not the whacko “BOM did 9/11” stuff, or combover ruminations on the medieval warming period.

It’s the shrug of the shoulders denialism, which attaches to homilies “well the climate is always changing”, “how can we really know” and the kicker: “well I’m just a brickie/truckie/masseur, what would I know. But…”

As acceptance of climate change spreads wider, so too, in parallel, does this new form of denialism, or scepticism, or disengagement.

Such a phenomenon connects with deep human tendencies — particularly the manner in which we concretise and personalise abstract phenomena.

For traditional peoples the thunderstorm is thus obviously and naturally an angry God; for the modern cancer sufferer, with a terminal diagnosis, diets, spirituality, magical healing will take over many minds.

In the case of climate change-caused fires, the concrete and personalised “causes” offered by the right — evil greenies stopping backburning — will be attractive to people who would hitherto have been immune to them.

That is amplified by our deep tendency to see a background and a foreground within nature — that which is unchangeable and is the context one acts in, and that which one can change.

You can’t stop the raging river, but you can dam part of it, and catch the fish that gather therein. You can’t stop fires happening, but you can fuel burn, fight them heroicially on the day, etc.

To conclude that the background is now foreground — that we have transformed the structure of the atmosphere — evacuates much immediate action of its heroic and meaningful content.

To battle brute nature in the name of humanity is one thing; to deal with the shit we caused over and over again is another.

The temptation to shut down the category of climate change altogether is a powerful one indeed, and one that has been taken up by the “ignore it and carry on” brigade such as “Twiggy” Forrest and Barnaby Beetrooter.

There’s a lot of it about: Van Badham’s column on the fires in The Guardian is headlined “The bushfire crisis has shown a way forward for Australia” and then has practically nothing on climate change, but a lot about “community” and fireproof kit homes.

Doubtless all sincerely meant, but also usefully runs interference for Labor, as the party asserts a pro-coal-export policy. De facto, it’s a “left” version of right-wing climate change do-nothingism. How far will this go?

Well things only happen when they happen twice. A one-off doesn’t establish itself as a changed reality. But if this all happens again in February and March, and then again next year, well, a thing becomes its opposite in a moment.

If, after all the heroism, collectivism, and pulling together, the joint just burns down again, the mythologising that both Labor and the right want to call on will exhaust itself.

In the meantime, we are going to need, in the next few months, to find out what people in the burntlands actually think about it, outside media hypotheses (including this one), as the embers cool.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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