10 Feb 2009

Bushfire scapegoating

A narrative is being constructed around the Victorian bushfires of the last few days, the worst in Australian history, a narrative of "mass murder", in which arsonists have killed 180 or so people.

But this assignment of blame is dubious. The most deadly fires do not seem to have been caused by arson, and though some have been, the usefulness of this reduction of the issue to morality and individual responsibility, through the bourgeois logic of criminal liability, is moot. One cannot stop individual acts of arson – one can do more to prevent them perhaps than one can to prevent lightning strikes, but one can't prevent them entirely – and this means that this can happen again.

Why have the most deadly fires in Australian history happened today? Is it because there are more arsonists today? Or because there are more people living in fire-prone areas today? The first question is impossible to answer with any great degree of accuracy, and the second must be answered in the negative. Rather, we should point to two environmental factors: the first, the impact of Australian colonisation on the bush, which has been to disrupt its established balances, and indeed broadly to forbid fire, which has no commercial application, thus storing up trouble (arguably); the second, which we can point to more emphatically and with more evidence, is global warming. It can surely not be coincidental that the fires coincided with the most severe heatwave in Victorian history. And this cannot be coincidental to climate change caused by human activity.