A reflection on the Australian bushfires by Dr Sandie Cornish
The scale and intensity of the bushfires currently burning in Australia are ‘unprecedented anywhere in the world’ according to the Australian Academy of Science. The fire season is far from over and already estimates of up to 18 million hectares have burned. Twenty-seven people and literally more than a billion other creatures may have perished. More than 1,800 homes have been destroyed. The last remaining habitat of the long-footed potoroo has been destroyed. Rainforests long considered too wet to burn have burned for the first time and might not regrow. Endangered species such as the spotted-tail quoll, brush-tailed rock-wallaby and corroboree frog have been impacted and may now be extinct. The armed forces have been called in to help manage the biohazard risk posed by thousands of dead livestock whose carcases are strewn around the country. The extent of the impact on businesses, the supply and price of food, and the economy in general is yet to fully emerge. As public anger and frustration at the lack of insight, urgency and adequacy in Federal government’s response rise, the Midnight Oil lyric ‘how do we sleep while our beds are burning?’ keeps coming to my mind.
Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, Chair of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Commission for Social Justice – Mission and Service, has called the bushfires a ‘wake-up call to Australia and all Australians’ that urges us all to an ecological conversion. In other words, the bushfires are a sign of the times, and we need not just to put them out but also to look into their meaning. We need to discern God’s call to us through this crisis.
‘How do we sleep while our beds are burning?’
How did we get to this point? How could we not see the need for change before our beds were burning?
Actually, many Australians did read the signs of the times. There was sufficient concern in the community and among politicians that Professor Ross Garnaut was commissioned in 2007 by Australian governments at the State and Territory level, together with the Federal Government, to investigate the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy. Having examined the scientific knowledge available at that time, he predicted that, if adequate action on climate change were not taken, we would, among other things, face a more frequent, longer and intense fire season by 2020. His report also recommended medium to long-term policies and policy frameworks to improve the prospects for sustainable prosperity. In 2010 Garnaut was commissioned by the Federal Government to provide an update, which he did in 2011.
On the other hand, over the past two decades loud voices in the traditional and social media have persistently dismissed the reality of climate change, the role of human behaviour in it, and its seriousness for people and the planet. Political parties have been split over whether and how to respond, and leaders in both of the major political groupings have lost their positions because of fallout around the issue. Ideology rather than science has dominated the debate in recent times.
As a result, Australia has not had a coherent energy policy, a carbon transition plan, or adequate emission reduction targets. Bishop Long says,
‘as a nation, we cannot claim to be a responsible global citizen in addressing the moral challenge of our age while we lag behind other nations on climate action and continue to subsidise old polluting industries.’Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen
Climate change has been impacting our Pacific neighbours in catastrophic ways for some time, and now the Australian community too is directly affected. We are suffering the consequences of our own actions and lack of action, and that of humanity at large. Equating the common good with national self-interest is not only morally bankrupt, but it also cannot work in practice in the interconnected web of life on this planet. Whether we choose to be responsible global citizens or not, we are in fact one human family sharing a common home with one another and all of God’s creatures.
Paying attention to the science, and to empirical evidence, rather than ideology, or thinly-masked self-interest, is not just good sense – it is a theological imperative. God communicates with us through the people, places and events of the world. The Federal government seems determined to focus only on immediate needs and rebuilding, and to avoid questions about causes. However an incarnational faith leads us to ask deeper questions about the meaning of events, as well as giving God’s love flesh and bones in practical responses to the needs of people, other creatures and the planet. The victims of these fires need many things: immediate material assistance; psychological support to deal with experiences of grief, fear, loss and anger; and a sense of safety and of hope for the future. They are entitled to have their questions about why this has happened taken seriously and not deferred or deflected through simplistic blame-shifting misinformation.
Bishop Long points out that lament (grieving with the bereaved, displaced and traumatized, and with creation itself) repentance, the effort to repair damage done, and the transformation of behaviour, are all elements of a process of ecological conversion. In his World Day of Peace Message for 2020, Pope Francis adds that ‘we need to change the way we think and see things’ and that an ecological conversion entails ‘a transformation of how we relate to our sisters and brothers, to other living beings, to creation in all its rich variety and to the Creator who is the origin and source of all life.’
As the destruction continues, we also continue to lament, but we do not, as Bishop Long says, ‘simply remain in lament’. We should all examine our consciences on the question of intergenerational justice and the universal common good. Are we only now concerned about climate change adaptation and risk mitigation because we can see how we ourselves are directly affected – because our own beds are now actually burning? Have we been willing to prioritise action to reduce carbon emissions and to contribute materially to a just carbon transition for all people and communities – or have we been kicking the can down the road? Did we vote in the last election in ways that placed our own short-term interests ahead of the fate of our common home? Are we willing to change the way we live in order to repair the damage done and rebuild a better future?
‘How can we dance when our earth is turning?’
There are lessons to be learnt about the need for critical reflection on opinions that are presented as news or facts, and the danger of not effectively challenging misinformation. Even now, apologists for the status quo continue to seek scapegoats, to spread dangerous untruths, and to peddle simplistic ‘silver bullet’ solutions (for example, there should have been more back burning) to complex problems. We need regularly to ask ourselves if what we read, hear or see is actually true. We should ask ourselves who benefits from these positions – is it the poor or the earth or our grandchildren?
More than ever, we need a properly funded, apolitical, national broadcaster that can be relied upon to provide timely, factual information, especially in times of crisis.
Privately owned media organisations may be driven by profit or the political agendas of owners. They may, or may not, serve the public interest.
We also need to consider anew the responsibilities of people, communities, business, and governments. All have a role to play. Our personal actions matter. They might not achieve the systemic changes that are necessary, but they give external expression to our values and commitments. They focus our minds and hearts on the important questions, and they engage our will to play our part. Our personal actions can manifest the desire for change and even provide a market signal.
Business groups have long asked for a clear energy policy to provide greater certainty for investment. It is astonishing to see some businesses moving towards renewable energy sources and divesting from carbon for economic reasons while governments that profess a commitment to free markets seek to entice or even force them to keep polluting and uneconomic coal power stations running! Beyond the short term, sustainability is good business.
A philosophical commitment to small government should not excuse the political parties which have formed government from the role of proactively organising and promoting the common good. Only governments can legislate the requirements for urban planning, building standards, land, water and wildlife management. It is the role of governments to provide emergency services, to plan for and coordinate disaster responses, and to regulate economic activity as necessary to protect people and the planet. A clear and coherent energy policy would provide certainty for investment in renewable energy and green technologies thus hastening the emergence of sustainable jobs for the future. Jobs and care for creation are not opposed – they are both part of an integral ecology, that is, a way of living in right relationships on this planet.
It is heartening to see the generosity of so many people in response to this crisis, but we should not need to rely on celebrity donations and fundraisers. Don’t our elected governments have the power to organise the contributions of the whole community through a progressive tax-transfer system? Writing in a section of Laudato Si’ (On Care for our Common Home) on dialogue and transparency in decision-making, Pope Francis warns that
‘if in a given region the state does not carry out its responsibilities, some business groups can come forward in the guise of benefactors, wield real power, and consider themselves exempt from certain rules …’Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, n 197
How accountable are big name donors to the people of Australia? Do we want them to shape our response to this crisis? Are we happy for our governments or essential services to become beholden to donors?
‘We need to change the way we think and see things’
Today the church year enters Ordinary Time, but these are not ordinary times. However this bushfire season might be the new normal if we do not act.
We are all called to live simpler, more ecologically sustainable lives. It means disengaging from a consumerist culture and facing anew questions of value and meaning. We will need to adapt to changed conditions of life on the planet.
We are called to understand ourselves as creatures among God’s creatures. This is the big shift in teaching in Laudato Si’. Our relationship with the other beings and things of creation is not one of management or supervision – which is what a theology of stewardship often amounts to – but one of care and kinship. For many mainstream Christians this will be a spiritual revolution! Habitat restoration, biodiversity and species preservation, together with land and water management must be part of our bushfire rebuilding.
Can we imagine God asking us: ‘where is your sister long-footed potoroo? Where is your brother corroboree frog?’
We are called, both personally and nationally, to a commitment to the common good which is universal and intergenerational in character. We cannot put off ecological questions, leaving them to future generations – or future governments – to deal with. Nor can we refuse to engage seriously with efforts to limit global warming because our contribution seems small. Much more ambitious carbon reduction targets are needed along with an energy policy and an economic transition plan informed by science. We are all in this together and we are responsible for each other.
We are called to dethrone the market economy which we have made into an idol. We need to engage in serious ethical reflection on how we organise the allocation of resources and the production and distribution of goods. What part can the market rightly play? What else is needed to ensure an integral ecology that heeds the cry of the poor and the earth?
Our beds are burning. It is time to wake up and smell the smoke.