From the Ashes: Australia Re-imagined
*Speakers: Nicole Hashim (N), Dale Nimmo (D), Petra Buergelt (P), Barbara Norman (B)
N: Hello and thanks for joining us today, my name’s Nicole Hashim, I’m the Environment and Energy Editor at The Conversation and I’m hosting this discussion today in collaboration with the National Library of Australia. Before we start I just wanted to pay respect to the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land where this recording is being made. That’s the place that we call Canberra today and I’d also like to pay my respect to the Ngunnawal elders of that land past, present and future.
So we’ve all been very preoccupied with COVID-19 these past few months but we can’t forget what came before it. Last summer’s bushfires killed 34 people, destroyed thousands of homes and destroyed massive tracts of landscape and the plants and animals in it. So from this rupture and this devastation what will emerge and how will nature and our communities rebuild? So to help us answer those questions we’ve got three wonderful panellists with us today. The first is Petra Buergelt, she’s Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Canberra, we have Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor of Ecology at Charles Sturt University and Barbara Norman, Professor of Design and the Built Environment at the University of Canberra.
So first I’ll just ask each of you to briefly introduce yourself and your work. I’ll start with you, Dale, you're an animal ecologist and you're interested in how big disturbances like bushfires affect biodiversity and you’re also on the panel of experts advising the federal government on bushfire recovery. Can you just tell us a bit about your work?
D: Yeah so I did my PhD on how wildlife responds to fire about a decade ago now and since then I’ve worked in different ecosystems across Australia trying to figure out what role fire plays in Australian ecosystems and how it could be managed effectively for biodiversity conservation.
N: Thanks Dale. Now, Petra, you study how people and communities can thrive in the face of change, adversity and chaos particularly after natural disaster. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
P: Yeah so I'm really passionate about how people respond to and deal with chaos, uncertainty and particularly with disasters and my particular passion in that is very often it can be traumatic for people to be in those conditions but from my perspective I see those conditions actually as opportunities to thrive, to transform our belief systems and ways of doing things which are not working anymore and to come up with new and better ways of doing things. In the last couple of years I have had the privilege and the pleasure and the honour really to work with indigenous peoples in Australia, in Norway and in Taiwan as well. From those interactions I really realise the importance of reconnection with nature and living in harmony with nature because this is very much a way of being which can help to reduce a firestorm occurring but also from making ourselves stronger if natural disasters occur, that we can actually respond in much better ways so that we limit the impact on us.
N: Thanks, Petra. Finally, Barbara, you’re an expert in sustainable planning and how to build communities that can cope with change and disaster but also respect nature and you’re also part of a cross-university response to the last bushfire season. Can you tell us a bit about your work?
B: Sure so my background’s in urban planning, coastal planning and climate change and a long time ago I did my PhD in coasts and climate change, wasn’t so interesting at that point but I found it very interesting and I built on my long-term practice and work in urban planning. So my work’s very much about connectivity between those three so how we can build back our cities and our townships in a more sustainable way, design with nature, work with nature, work with communities to build something even better for the future and so connecting urban planning, land use planning with coastal planning and management with climate change adaptation, particularly.
N: Thank you. Now I’ll just stick with you for a minute, Barbara, because not only do you research community resilience to disaster but you sadly lost a family holiday home at Mallacoota over the summer. Can you just tell us a bit about that?
B: Sure so just a bit of background there. Well it’s a house that we had – it’s a holiday house I should say but nevertheless very dear to the four generations that enjoyed that place and mud brick house, very simple place. Like many Australian families and I camped there for a long time since about the age of five or thereabouts. Camped there then bought some land then built a shack and then built a simple house and that’s a story for many Australian people. So it’s more the memories and the history and the long-term friendships that had a personal impact, still does, actually. But also I just want to mention the context of all of that. So I was on long service leave at that time and I drove from King Island, which also has just been recently impacted, right along the southern coast to Mallacoota on my way back to Canberra and I was really struck – this was before the fire, this was in November – I was really struck about the impact of drought and seemed like a very significant impact on the economy of local townships at that point already before the fires.
Then the fires happened and then the floods and then COVID-19 so I mention it because yes, it was a personal impact and then I lost my car in a hailstorm in Canberra so basically I felt a bit of cumulative impact but it’s the cumulative impact I think of these events really concerns me right now. Just one of these events has a huge impact on you personally but a whole series, it is quite massive. You asked me what my personal experience has been, it’s been a very interesting journey. Even though it wasn’t my home home and I feel deep sympathy for those who have been much more directly affected. But even from my perspective I felt the aftereffects two, three, four months later thinking there’s a sadness there but let’s talk about the future.
N: Yeah, okay. I’m just interested in though the state of the land at the time or just before, I think you said that you’d been to that house a few months before and you were just really alarmed at how nature was looking, that it was basically a tinder box. Can you just describe the natural conditions?
B: Absolutely it was like that so as I said I’ve been there for decades and so I’ve seen it in many conditions and this time when I visited, would have been early November, it was like a tinder box and I talked to my long-term friends about that when I was there at that time at Mallacoota. The people of Mallacoota were talking about it too, I mean the CFA then, I think everybody was aware of the conditions. It was just going for a walk, you could see layers of dead wood lying on the ground, it was almost stacked, looked like a fire ready to happen right across and tinder dry.
So it looked like it was going to explode and we always go to Mallacoota in the summer and - this is my big extended family and I’m one of seven and many now are grandchildren, a big, big clan if you like and I said last year don’t go, we’re not going because my mother’s in her mid-90s, other things to consider and I thought there’s one road in, one road out, it’s tinder dry, I think it’s going to explode. It’s just intuition, I guess a bit of experience behind that as well and so we didn’t and yes –
N: A very good decision in hindsight. Can you just describe the moment that you found out that the house was gone and how that unfolded?
B: Well I knew informally if you like thorough a friend through a phone call that it had gone but I needed to have that verified the next day which was New Year’s Day, have a friend go down and look at the site in the daylight which that happened. It was New Year’s Eve so I didn’t actually share any of that with my family that night because I just didn’t think it was appropriate until I actually had the evidence that it had happened. So then as soon as I had that evidence – I’m an academic after all, I have to look at the evidence so I then told the family as quickly as possible in the nicest way possible in those circumstances so that’s what happened so it certainly wasn’t a happy New Year’s Eve, that’s for sure.
N: Now Petra, you were in Canberra I think watching the fires unfold on TV. Can you tell me what you were thinking about what you were seeing happening?
P: Really profound sadness, to be honest. As I said I’m closely connected to nature and just seeing the massive amount of nature burning and also what really struck me in that is how did it come to that point and what was it in our action which had created that situation ‘cause it’s basically our actions creating what we are experiencing? At the same time also really sad in the sense that as research shows we have been researching disasters, bushfires, other disasters as well for decades now and we actually have a lot of knowledges accumulated locally within Australia but also worldwide and so there is a lot of knowledge which from our side we haven’t been particularly effective in communicating with communities and assisting and working together with communities to make communities stronger and make individual people stronger as well.
So for me it was like if you could feel better together with communities as researchers then maybe we could have prevented a lot of that happening. So for me the thinking was how can we as researchers create long-term relationships with communities and work together with communities where we can bring together the academic, scientific and global knowledge with the local and practical knowledge and really work together to strengthen the communities so that we reduce the damaging intensive bushfires from occurring but also that if they occur, that the people individually but also communities are much stronger to respond to them so that we limit the impact. Yeah so in particular also –
N: How might we do that?
P: How long do we have? So there’s many ways and particular you see the University of Canberra, we are really strong in being a civic community so we are really increasingly reaching out to communities, developing long-term relationships with communities, doing participatory action research where we are working together with communities using the knowledge and from different disciplines from Barbara with her planning knowledge then the ecologists with their knowledge of nature, the social scientists with their knowledge of human behaviour works and how communities are working. So for us, we could work together there much more strongly and I think also what’s really important is to have a look where we could improve how we are working together. I think human beings at the moment are not particular strong in working together, it’s much more a competitive system. So how can we create and equip people and also organisations to collaborate much better with each other? So that’s a couple of things.
But also how can on an individual level and be a practical level, how can you create an environment where we as individual people are much more self-sustainable and self-sufficient? How can we create houses, build houses or at least also come up with housing codes and regulations? We have so much knowledge now how we can build houses which are much better withstanding fire impacts but also speaking also of pandemics how can we create gardens where we can have much more our own vegetables, growing vegetables and fruits as well. So what’s the things we can do practically on the ground? Again we have a lot of knowledge in those areas and can bring that to communities and work together with communities.
N: Thank you. Now Dale, I’m wondering what you were thinking when you saw the fire disaster unfolding in terms of the fate of the animals on the ground given your research focus.
D: Yeah, it was definitely a shock. Being based in Albury we were covered in smoke for weeks – I’m sure the situation was similar in Canberra as well so it was very real for us and fires not too far as well. So my first concern of course was the safety of my family and making sure that we could have clean air to breathe in our house and things like that but of course I was also thinking about how wildlife would respond to these fires. In many ways the fires themselves were fairly unprecedented so it is somewhat unpredictable to try to predict the outcome of an unprecedented event.
We know that there have been massive amounts of mortality, that many, many animals would have died across the firegrounds and that it may take a long time for those ecosystems to recover. During my PhD work one of the main findings was the lengths of time it actually takes for species to recover following fire so we tend to forget pretty quickly, we see the greenery comes back and see shrubs coming up from the ground and we think things are going well but the changes continue for decades and some resources will be lost for 100 years, 150 years for some of these ecosystems if we’re thinking about things like hollows and big logs on the ground, they just don’t come back quickly. So it’ll be a long recovery for Australia’s wildlife and I just hope that we’re going to be committed along the full course of time.
N: After the fires died down I know a lot of conservation scientists were eager to get out into the field and take stock of the damage. Were you involved in any of that and just more broadly what was the general feeling amongst conservation scientists at the time? I know there was amongst some a real feeling of despair that a threatened species that they might have been working to protect for their whole career had been decimated, for example.
D: Yeah, I haven’t been involved in any of the on-ground field work. I’ve been to some of the firegrounds myself to have a look around and inspect the damage but yeah, I mean it’s hard not to look at a landscape that’s undergone severe fire over a really vast area and not be overcome when you’ve spent a lot of your career trying to protect the organisms that are hopefully dwelling within those same landscapes. I guess with the knowledge of the length of time it’s going to take to recover and the events that preceded these fires as well, the other fires that occurred and the increasing regularity of fires in some of these systems which are potentially pushing them into completely different ecological states where they’ll be potentially unrecognisable. So it’s understandable then that people, particularly those that have spent 40 or 50 years feel a profound sense of grief that a lot of their work has been in vain, that a lot of the work that they’ve done to try to ensure that some areas are protected from other threats which we know can drive biodiversity in a downward trajectory, that a fire can come through and potentially undo a lot of that work.
But I think that in another way that’s also the shock of the moment and it is too early in many ways to conclude that everything in the firegrounds is lost just because it can appear that way. Our Australian wildlife is resilient to fire. The scale of these fires makes it particularly challenging and to my knowledge we don’t know of any distinctions that we could draw down to being due to these fires so far. It’s not to say that they won’t occur but yeah, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how it’ll play out and the surveys are ongoing trying to get a grip of what populations have survived, what the level of survivorship within those populations is and those types of things.
N: Can you tell me about the recovery work? So you’ve been helping drive that in your role on the expert panel. Where do you start? Does it feel overwhelming, a few days after or a week after the fires and you’ve got millions of hectares of burnt land, how do you decide what to do?
D: Well the first thing is to try to get a good understanding of the extent of the damage and so that’s about generalising across the different states because we don’t have a national approach to fire mapping, for example, and species obviously occur across all the borders, they don’t pay attention to whether it’s New South Wales or Victoria. So it was about getting a national perspective on how those species have been impacted and the first thing we do there is look at where do these species occur using different types of models that we can create or expert knowledge and how much of that area burnt? The next step is at what area did it burn? So that can help us prioritise which species we think might be under the most threat of extinction.
So that was the first step and one of the things that became apparent pretty quickly was we had lots of narrowly distributed species in Australia in those firegrounds, reptiles that are only known from a handful of sites, for example invertebrates are only known from one site and the only place they’re known from in all of the world. So when you think about those species they’re the ones that to me demand the most urgent attention and interventions. Then there are other species that might be more broadly distributed but just had by chance a really large proportion of their habitat burned and we also consider really carefully their trajectory prior to the fire. Are these species, were they secure before the fire? Were they widespread or were they on a downward trajectory? Were they already regarded as threatened with extinction? If that’s the case again that means that there’s going to have to be some urgent interventions to try to prevent these species from being pushed closer and closer to extinction.
So that’s the kind of assessment that you can do on a desktop but the activities that are undertaken on the ground which are led by state agencies primarily and different organisations, conservation organisations, NGOs, those activities include things like trying to release the other pressures which will be acting on these species and might interact with fire to further imperil them. So things like feral cats and foxes which are common in many of our landscapes, trying to make sure that we can have an impact on their numbers or in some instances put up fences to exclude them from sensitive populations and that’s what happened on Kangaroo Island which experienced particularly severe fire and they put up a conservation fence to protect the Kangaroo Island dunnart which is a little critter that’s only found on that island and there was real concern about its fight and its ability to persist but they were able to do quick actions to exclude feral cats in that instance to increase the chances of it surviving. Those types of actions take place across the extent of the firegrounds to different degrees but there is also only so much you can do, those actions are quite expensive.
N: Now Barbara, you were involved in pulling together a rapid response team of experts in the days and months after the fires to help with community recovery. Can you tell me what that involved and what work you’ve done so far?
B: There are a couple of phases. In the immediate aftermath I convened a meeting of experts in the Australian capital region if you like and involved academics, people from local government, people from agencies so we hosted that meeting, that was the first thing we did at the University of Canberra. The National Bushfire Agency attended that and they [unclear] 23:58 so very, very early on. Then that led to a number of projects happening across the University and also that initiative led to a cross-campus bushfire response now chaired by our Deputy Vice Chancellor and Petra was part of that so there were some different elements.
My personal work and with my colleagues has been trying to revisit a study that we did in 2013, South East Coastal Adaptation Project funded by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. It was particularly looking at coastal urban futures in the context of climate change so highly relevant to what’s been happening since. That work in 2013 laid out a series of projections informed by the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change science and a number of focus groups with local communities and also a partnership with the School of Arts at ANU so it was a very collaborative piece of work. It laid out possible scenarios from 2030 and unfortunately but accurately it predicted exactly what happened in this last summer. It wasn’t the only prediction we had because of course there’s the impacts of coastal inundation and coastal storms and a number of impacts on our beautiful coasts. So by our climate change science.
So it’s almost like a baseline report if you like because it covered the councils from Wollongong to Lakes Entrance, precisely those coastal councils affected by fire over the 2019/20. The reason I think it had strength was it had University of Canberra, who lead it, with ANU, with University of Wollongong so three big universities in the region and with those councils as well and CFA and a number of other very important players too. So just bringing – sorry, go on, Nicole.
N: Oh just on that you’ve been advising authorities and producing reports for a long time now on how communities can adapt to climate change. I’m just wondering whether that advice is being heeded and is that a frustration if it’s not?
B: I think anyone who’s been in this game is extremely frustrated over the immediate past five, six years so 2013 was almost like a highwater mark for people involved in coasts, climate change, bushfire CRC, a whole lot of terrific work happening in the country and leading internationally, actually. Then almost since then we’ve had a systematic dismantling of those initiatives and I could go on for quite a long time but I won’t but I think those are well documented, the defunding of climate research in CSIRO, the removal of the National Climate Council. The removal of very useful programs like the Local Adaptation Pathways program that was funded by the then government, I think that was Penny Wong, actually, the Minister at the time and so removal of those funding opportunities for local council which will bring me back to answering fully your question in that since the summer and since our first meeting I’ve worked quite closely with some of the local councils, been very much in touch with Eurobodalla Council which had Mogo and Maria and those areas which were very much affected.
Together in the spirit of best practice, co-design, collaboration, we’ve developed a brief for a local adaption strategy for that area that we, Wollongong, ANU, UC again worked together with Eurobodalla and the neighbouring councils to do something a bit like we did in 2013 but hopefully even better. Thing is that there’s no funding source for that now because of the stripping away of all those other initiatives that were there. So we've got some good bottom-up activity starting to work together in very difficult circumstances, very positive contributions and collaborations but there’s nothing to hang our hat on. So I have been in touch with the National Bushfire Agency to see if there would be some possibility there and I’m still waiting for a response to that.
N: So what are the key actions that need to happen?
B: Well certainly when the Bushfire Agency came to that first meeting, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, I gave them three pieces of advice. One was to join the dots so take an integrated approach, the second one was about building back better so let’s take this opportunity to have more sustainable futures for everybody and when I say that I don’t just mean physical buildings and infrastructure. People need jobs, people need futures in every sense of that word, and no white elephants, not that I’ve got anything against elephants, it’s a phrase, in fact I love elephants but it’s just a phrase that I can see a real problem looming. So the National Bushfire Agency has $2b to spend and I’m not just talking about them, I’m talking about all the other big collection of fund groups and they all have their own budget cycles and nationally they have their political cycles and elections so it’s all got to be spent really quickly if you like.
So we’ve got this really strange scenario happening right now, we’ve got those who need immediate, urgent assistance, seemingly some still living in tents so that doesn’t seem to be working very well but the area that I’m most interested in or I guess my expertise is in, I’m not an expert in the emergency area, is more a longer-term strategic planning about how can we take this as an opportunity to work with communities, bringing evidence base from universities, bringing the local knowledge from communities and really deeply think about well if we could do anything in the world what kind of community would we like to have here in the future? Really do some of that scenario planning.
Now this takes time, I guess that’s my key message and I can see on the one hand all this money’s got to be out the door in the next 18 months before the next election to meet those budget commitments nationally and on the other hand the community needs a hell of a lot more time than 18 months to be able to work through these issues even emotionally. Building back in a really emotionally distressed state does not always end up with what you actually want, it’s a long-term process of healing and mental health, physical health, community coming together, understandings developing which is a long way from what can happen in the emergency area which is what if Bob down the road gets something and I didn’t? All the scrapping that can go on because people are just stressed. So I think great opportunities for the future and if we all work together we could do something special.
N: Thank you, Barbara. Petra, you researched the psychological and environmental factors that influence how we prepare for natural disaster and how we respond. How good are we at doing that historically and for example I understand there are a lot of psychological barriers to preparing for a disaster, that people feel like it’s not going to happen to them?
P: Yeah so historically we haven’t been doing too well, historically we haven’t been learning from the past full-stop and there’s a couple of reasons for why we haven’t been learning from the past. One reason is really that our society, our culture is not very good with mistakes, learning from mistakes because if you look at the past we will see that we made many mistakes. So rather than seeing mistakes in Australia, if you could turn it around and actually see mistakes being made in the past as huge learning and growth opportunities and really as a feedback loop from what is not working and also as a clue for what could work better than we could make really headways. Also we have –
N: Sorry, can you give us an example or a couple of examples of some past mistakes that we should have learnt from?
P: Yeah, for example what Barbara alluded to, that we are thinking in those short-term cycles rather than actually in long-term cycles and so for example after doing a response we have a project for a couple of years or maybe just for couple of months and we’re bringing in a lot of people which start from scratch with no expertise in the area. Then they’re building up the expertise then the project stops and those people go away and then when the next disaster happens or extreme event happens we basically start from zero again rather than if you would work long-term together you would build up the expertise rather than always starting from scratch again. That stops us from that making right there.
Also that we are not really working together with communities. We have in the past always communicated top-down and imposing on communities, telling communities what to do rather than actually looking what’s the resources in the community and how can we facilitate the community from the bottom-up developing, using their unique strength and their unique environment and resources, how could we facilitate them building up in that to become stronger? So that’s a couple of ways which hasn’t been working.
Also what we have not been considering, we have a very interesting relationship in the best approach to nature, they are seeing ourselves as separate from nature and this is then leading to actions trying to control or manipulate or manage nature which then feeds actually into creating those disasters as well. So if you could turn that around and actually learn from and really stop and reflect and say hold on, that’s not working, how can we perceive our relationship with nature in a different way? To actually realise hold on, we are nature, we are connected intimately with nature and if you take care of nature and of country and then you can stop the occurring of the disasters in the first place.
N: So just on that, Petra, obviously the way we manage land today is very different to how indigenous people managed it, with fire and cultural burning before white settlement and they were quite effective at reducing the incidence of large fires and maintaining biodiversity. What do you think needs to happen there? I know this is an issue that the Bushfire Royal Commission is looking at. To what extent do you think we need to draw on that sort of ancient fire practice in mainstream fire management today?
P: Oh we would be very wise if we would actually listen and value the knowledges which indigenous cultures have been and particularly Australian indigenous peoples have been building up over about 120,000 years. That’s a very long time and during those times a lot of changes in the climate happen so the very fact that indigenous peoples have been surviving for such a long time is that they had close relationships with nature and very intimate and extended and very sophisticated knowledge of nature. You only have go to a [unclear] 37:07 to know actually how sophisticated this knowledge is.
Now if you can draw on this knowledge and really work together with and learn from indigenous peoples and enable indigenous peoples to do what they’re doing best, looking after country and working together with country then we would have a totally different situation. This is increasingly happening now that we are working together with indigenous peoples and enabling them to do the cultural burning. That would reduce the intensity of fire because as Dale said Australia has evolved with fire so there’s a lot of nature that actually requires fire but it’s a very different type of fire, it is a mature fire which is very selective in what it is burning and it’s actually facilitating nature to renew.
Now what we are having, because we are not looking after nature we’re having this intensive, tremendously intensive and widespread fires and that’s the damaging element. So if we would listen to and work together with indigenous peoples we could really turn the tide there.
N: Dale, as Petra just said Australia is a fire landscape where the plants and animals have over the centuries and millions of years evolved to adapt. What are some of the ways that they have done that and how do some of these plants or in your case animals survive these terrible infernos? Given that they’re coming more frequently now and they’re more severe I think that’s [unclear] 39:08 the ability of these species to adapt. Is that right?
D: Yeah so there’s been a lot of work done over the years about plant responses to fire and how there’s various mechanisms, that plants can re-sprout and survive a fire and live to fight another day and a lot of Australian plant species have those adaptations and others don’t which puts them at risk of being removed from a system if fire starts to become more frequent in that system. But we’re starting to learn a little bit more about the wildlife responses as well and their ability to cue in and detect fires from a long distance away and put into motion some behaviours that’ll help them survive fire.
So there was an interesting study that was done, I think it was only last year where some people were in a zoo in the United States and they had some stumpy-tailed lizards near their staffroom where they were cooking up their lunch and they burnt some pastry or something. All of a sudden the stumpy tails started going berserk and racing up and down and trying to escape their tanks and they quickly rushed down to another part of the building which wasn’t affected by the smoke from the burnt food and they found that all the stumpy tails in that area were calm as they should be at that time of day, just laying under a bit of leaf litter or whatever it might be.
So they started to look into it and it turns out that there’s actually quite a few responses like that in Australian wildlife species where a species can detect – in that instance it would have been old-fashioned, through their sense of smell, detecting a fire that’s occurring and that creating a behavioural response that would minimise the effects of being killed. So it might be for a stumpy tail, get the hell out of there, find a crevice or a burrow that you can duck into while the fire passes. There are other species where we know that the cues of fire can cause them to go into torpor so to actually suppress their metabolic rate and that prevents them from needing to go out and forage after a fire which is a particularly bad time to be getting out and about, particularly if you're a little critter like a marsupial or a little lizard or something like that where you have birds of prey coming in and potentially divebombing into the fireground because they can see the prey more easily and the prey’s more exposed.
Now we have feral cats coming in from a distance. There was a study that showed feral cats can detect a fire from over 10km away and move directly to the fire start’s edge, hunt along the edge and then in a few weeks go back home so they know what they’re doing, they know how to cue into fires just like the potential prey species do. But it is something we’re only just learning about, these behavioural responses of wildlife which might explain why sometimes in my experience there is generally a higher level of survival even in areas that are severely burnt than you might expect but it is very species-specific. So species that live in treetops, for example, suffer really high rates of mortality and don’t necessarily have any capacity to survive a really severe fire whereas species that are able to use rocks and burrows and things like that generally are able to fire as long as they have some warning.
N: Petra spoke about the fracture in the relationship between humans and nature leading or contributing to some of these disasters. There was a huge outpouring of grief after the fires for a lot of reasons but the loss of nature and the impact on the buildings and animals was one of them. How might we address the split I suppose and the connection between humans and nature? What did it show you, seeing how much people cared after the fires? How can we build on that?
D: So yeah, I’d echo some of what Petra said about learning from a culture that’s been living in this landscape for tens of thousands of years and having fire very much as an important component of that culture. So I actually think the population of Australia in general is coming around to this idea that maybe a colonial approach to land use in Australia isn’t appropriate and that we have a lot to learn. I really do feel from just my conversations with people that aren’t in science that there’s this growing recognition, hey, we need to start listening, indigenous people have a lot to teach us about how to live in this country.
One of those things I think is the nuance of different approaches to landscape management in different types of ecosystems rather than trying to apply a really broad brush across all these different ecosystems. A prime example of that is the idea that we can apply a target of 5% burning for example across all ecosystems as a broad brush hazard reduction approach rather than thinking carefully about what is the place of fire in this ecosystem? How much is enough? How much is too much? When should it come? What time of year and those types of things. Sorry, Nicole, can you remind me of the question?
N: That’s alright.
D: Gone off on a tangent.
N: No, that’s fine. There was a huge outpouring of grief in terms of the loss of animals so how might we build on that to forge these new connections between humans and nature?
D: Yeah and so I think that part of that reconnecting is trying to get people in Australia first of all to be more aware of the unique biodiversity and wildlife that we have that people in Victoria wouldn’t realise that within a few hours’ drive we’ve got amazing little pygmy possums and stuff running around in Mallee forest. So part of it is awareness and I think part of it is pride in the – I think pride’s the wrong word, a bit more ownership of the things that we have, that these ecosystems that are so rich have been maintained for thousands of years that we have inherited. We should take it personally when they’re degraded and when they’re suffering and under our watch we’re losing species. I think that people don’t take it personally enough, that we’re passing on depleted ecosystems to our children.
P: I’d like to contribute there in a couple of ways so first of all in working together with indigenous peoples and in different localities and that might be a challenge so we will need to learn how to interact in culturally appropriate ways with indigenous peoples and in respectful ways. But also in our own backyards and in our families like Australia is in this really great position that many people have houses with gardens so really to go and choose your gardens, to grow your own food, your own vegetables, your own fruit. Also in terms of children, to get children more out into the nature to – actually I’m originally from Germany so we have the school garden movement where the children at school learn about how to grow their own food. In Australia children actually can do that, they can grow their own foods in their own backyards and that way you connect children but also adults with nature and appreciation for nature. Also getting the connection to realise, hold on, actually food does not grow in supermarkets, it actually grows in nature and if we are destroying nature, we are really destroying our foundation of surviving.
Also I think what you would then recognise in being out more in nature and interacting with nature, how important nature is for our health and wellbeing in many different ways, it’s very therapeutic. There’s now a growing body of research as well which very much shows how important nature and the actions of what the social development and for the physical and motor-sensitive development of children but also how therapeutic it is to interact with nature in terms of reducing our stress levels. How more nutritious and healthy home-grown food is, how much exercise it gives us to grow our own food. So actually all of this has multiple benefits so if you can start there I think then we would make a huge difference.
N: Thank you. Alright look, I think we should probably go to questions now. We’ve thrown this discussion open to questions that have come in from social media and elsewhere. The first one I think probably would apply to all of you. Should we be scared about what is to come in future and do you think fear or hope is a better motivator for change? Barbara, I’ll start with you.
B: Well definitely hope. Fear’s not a good place for anyone to be in in any circumstance so definitely one of hope. I think there’s much to be hopeful for so coming from my own experience and background that this is an opportunity for communities to build back better as I said before. That’s not a phrase of mine, that’s actually a phrase from the United Nations Disaster Agency but we’ve heard the phrase snap back, I really don’t like that. I’ve heard even – but bounce back, I don’t particularly like that either but I do like the phrase of bouncing forward. So it’s take this opportunity to make that transition for local communities but with local communities. The point I made before is that they need to be provided with the tools and the funds over appropriate timeframe that will enable those communities to determine their own futures.
I do think this is a really interesting opportunity to focus much more on regional towns and country towns than we have in the past. A lot of our work is on our big capital cities. Clearly we need to be planning them better every day, there’s no argument from me there but I do think that this is an opportunity for governments of all levels to work with local communities and say look, clearly things aren’t working well from many perspectives. This particular event, the fire event, it’s almost been like a tipping point then with COVID even more so, so let’s have a program. If you’re asking me about hope let’s have a national program that is nuanced to local conditions, as Dale said, not a program that says this has to happen everywhere but provides that framework if you like that enables communities to reach out and say look, we’ve got a really good idea about renewable energy or we’ve got a really good idea about smart infrastructure for our local community to start building much more resilience or about green growth, green jobs, about different employment opportunities.
Or we haven’t even mentioned the sort of partnerships that you could have between regional universities and we obviously, two of us come from one, University of Canberra, but regional universities with regional communities and local communities working together. We need innovative funding programs to enable communities to connect those dots. A lot of it is about connectivity but it’s also about a much more sustainable future. So I do think there’s hope, it’s the only way to move forward if you like but I think it’s a special opportunity for this country to better connect with the indigenous people of Australia which we’ve just talked about, much better connection.
The National Library, this whole thing is about dreaming, I think, isn’t it? At the moment and of course the classic person was Martin Luther King who said I have a dream. Well it’s pretty appropriate with what’s happening recently, isn’t it? But I think we should be dreaming about this country, what is our dream for the future? There are far too many conversations about negativity and all those things so let’s have a hopeful conversation and hopefully this is part of it.
N: Thanks Barbara. Petra, do you think we should be scared about what’s to come under – obviously climate change is making the bushfire regime worse or do you think that hope is a better motivator for change?
P: Well I would say being afraid is actually a good thing because it kind of shocks people a little bit out of the ordinary so it’s a matter of being afraid effectively because if you're afraid too much then we're going into doing nothing and are overwhelmed. But if you are afraid a bit and can actually use being afraid as an opening space for seeing what’s really going on and I think that’s what I’m sensing from conversations and from following the media as well. To use it, as Barbara said, as an opportunity to stop and reflect and to look what’s going on here? What’s actually important in our lives? What could be the cause of what’s happening here and how could you move forward? But not in a hopeful way because hopeful is something which is outside of our reach but take agency to take ownership and say hold on, each individual person can actually do something here and what can I do in my life to contribute to turning the tide here?
I think to become much more open to new ways of seeing and doing things and knowing things and that’s where working with indigenous peoples comes in but also to look into what actually different cultures are doing because there’s a lot of knowledge globally which we can draw up and there’s lots of technology we can use now to make ourselves stronger as well. How can you also psychologically become stronger? How can we develop our capacities? So it’s not something hopeful but actually something actively doing something about it. So I think huge opportunity and something we need to get across and also to take the long-term approach, very important, and to build upwards.
N: Thanks Petra. Dale, what about you? Should we be scared of the future or feel hopeful?
D: Yeah, I think it’s a really important distinction, is between worrying about the future and what it could present and panicking because panic is never useful but it is legitimate to be worried and concerned. Hope also has a role so we need to imagine the future that we want and that’s how we hope the future will be and then we need to use our anxiety about not reaching that future to motivate our behaviour towards and propel us towards that future and also use evidence to realistically look at what alternative futures would look like if we don’t get going and start doing things that’ll propel us towards a future that we do want.
N: There’s another question here about if these natural disasters occur more often and more severely, as scientists have predicted that they will, how does this affect our ability to recover mentally, physically and environmentally? Petra, I might ask you on mental recovery, is it going to get harder as these disasters become more frequent?
P: Yes, it’s basically laying up and it’s one thing happen as we have had this experience in Australia, the first was the drought then the bushfires and then we started breathing a little bit after the bushfires and then the hail set in and that came on top of it and now the pandemic. So as Barbara said it builds up on each other and the longer it takes the more exhausting it becomes. When you’re speaking about recovery, under normal circumstances recovery can take as we know now from research more than 10 years so it is a long-term process anyway. But if you then have the next disaster happening within that time then you basically are constantly being in respond and recovery and then it makes it challenging to rebuild out of it.
So it’s very consuming and given all the scientific evidence now that disasters are becoming more frequent and more severe as well, that’s a real concern so this is I think why this is such a huge opportunity for us to stop now and say before was start going into this really dangerous downward spiral, how can we stop this downward spiral and actually bring it up into an upward spiral and build up in a future which prevents us going down?
N: Barbara, what about the physical recovery and by that for you I mean are we always going to be able to build back? Do we have to perhaps accept that some parts of Australia are not going to be habitable under climate change and more frequent disasters?
B: Well that’s always a controversial area to be talking about, whether we’re talking about rebuilding or retreat if you like. It will definitely be a mix in the future. Having said that I think there’s a much more mature conversation about this now in Australia, I think that’s one of the good things that’s happened. When I used to talk about this around the year 2000 I’d just about be run out of the town but now when I talk about it even on some of the shock jock radios I find that people want to engage in that conversation very quickly and much readily about well what are the options? What is the evidence? Can you help us and work with us to work out where we can build, where we cannot build, where it’s high-risk? So I do think that as the science is coming through – forget about the more hysterical front pages we see sometimes, I’m talking about real communities having real conversations about real situations.
I think it is a much informed discussion that’s happening. I think that’s a good thing. That doesn’t mean it’s not highly sensitive. If you’re talking about someone’s place, obviously deep sense of belonging, it’s incredibly sensitive but you need to provide options, talk about options and again we’re coming back to hope. So building on the cliff face of a coastal eroding area is not a sensible thing to be doing now or in the future but sitting down with those people and talking about well what could we do here? It might take five years, it might take 10. It may be a situation where those people live in say a bushfire prone area until they come to the end of the natural term of their life and they hand that then back to the state forest. I mean there’s a lot of options that have actually happened.
The thing is with this country is we’ve actually done a lot of this already and we forget. We moved a lot of townships when we built the Snowy Mountains Hydro, we’ve moved townships from the coast where we’ve had colonial subdivisions from the British coming out in the late 1800s and inappropriately subdividing sand dunes, basically, and we’ve had to but it all back. We bought back the whole face of Mt Dandenong in the ‘70s so we actually have done a lot of this work in the past. We need to build on that.
N: Dale, just in terms of environmental recovery and nature recovery with severe bushfires are becoming more frequent. Do we need to accept that we are going to lose some species for example or some ecosystems are going to be changed and they will never return to what they were?
D: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any need to accept extinction but we will definitely see a lot of changes. So in fire ecology one of the central concepts is the idea of the fire regime so we don’t just think about a single fire event but rather the sequence of fires that have occurred over time and when they occurred and their intensity and things like that. Because we know that that sequence of fires and their timing is what really shapes the nature of the ecosystem including the structure of the ecosystem. So if you could imagine a forest recovering from a severe bushfire and another fire occurs 30 years later then any development of those resources that I was talking about earlier, things like hollows for example for wildlife, then they’re delayed further. You might not see them again come online for a much longer period of time.
But what becomes really concerning is when fire frequency changes such that the dominant species in the ecosystem change because they can’t actually – so they reach maturity to set seed before the next fire comes about and we are seeing some of that in Australia at the moment. Alpine Ash is one example, it takes about 20 years to get old enough to set seed. It needs to set seed, it can’t re-sprout like some other species can and so it needs at least 20 years only some of those ecosystems have had three fires within 20 years. Some of them have three severe fires within 20 years so as the young individuals are growing up, hopefully becoming the next generation of mature individuals of that Alpine Ash ecosystem they’re burnt and then there’s no capacity for recovery.
So instead of an Alpine Ash ecosystem you have a scrubland that develops instead and that shrubland might be composed of species that are more fire-prone as well and so it creates a positive feedback. In a way that’s just what ecosystems do when a change in fire severity occurs or fire frequency then it makes sense that the species assemblages in that area should adapt and that those that are more fire-adapted should become dominant. But it’s just really disconcerting for people that are used to knowing these vast areas of one type of ecosystem to all of a sudden see them transform before their eyes into a different type of ecosystem. Also when you lose those dominant species and you have an ecosystem change like that you obviously lose all the fauna that’s associated with them as well. So in ecology we’re always thinking about that cumulative stress and not just of fire but also the droughts that preceded the fires, the loss of habitat that preceded the fires and all those types of things as well.
N: Thanks Dale. So look, I think it would be nice to end on a hopeful note and I think as Barbara said the event series is Australian dreams. We’ve covered this a little bit but I just wanted to know for each of you just briefly if we look back at this point in history what do you hope that Australia has learnt from the last bushfire season? I’ll start with you, Petra.
P: I think it would be very useful to realise that we created it but also that’s very powerful because we can also create a different future so that we’re realising the power we have actually to create a thriving [unclear] 5:20 to coexist and live in harmony with the natural environment. We become open to new ways of seeing the world which then would give rise to new actions as well and to learn in this particular respect from indigenous cultures and to really reconnect with nature and to get in harmony with nature.
I think if we can get that right then we would make a big, big progress here. Also too as we said before to learn to think long-term and also to have the big picture and to see every element of what we’ve been just talking about, of the human level and of the nature level as being interconnected and so that the more we are taking care of nature the more we are actually taking care of ourselves.
N: Thanks Petra. Barbara, just briefly, what about you?
B: I think that we need to provide the tools and the resources and invest much more in local communities to enable them to have these conversations to do their own visioning, talk about their own future and have platforms where they can connect with their regional institutions, regional TAFEs, regional universities and to build the skills as well. We haven’t talked much about local economy and that’s a critical part of this. Good outcomes that could come from this need to have good economic outcomes, people being able to have more sustainable economic futures, environmental futures and social futures.
All of that is required but they need to be given the tools. I think one of the big lessons from my perspective, and I am sort of hopeful, maybe that is not the right way but I wish if you like, is that we also recognise much more the role of public service and public good out of all of this. That it has a really important role in helping communities to provide for their own futures and that it’s all very much about partnerships. I think there’s far too much stripping back at the margin all over the place. This is all part of building much more resilience for those communities in the future.
N: Thanks Barbara. Dale, what do you hope are the lessons that Australia learns from the last fire season?
D: Yeah, I guess one thing I hope is that the fires have jolted some people into accepting the reality of climate change and maybe there are fewer sceptics now than there were prior to the fire season, I hope, and so that we can get some action on climate change both in Australia and further action across the globe because it is going to take a global effort to get in control of this situation.
In terms of what I hope, I think reiterating what others have said as well, I hope that we can with more humility learn from other cultures, in particular indigenous Australians about how we can live in a better way in this land more in line with the ecosystems that are here so that we can potentially prevent these things from occurring so often.
N: Absolutely, thank you. Look, I think that’s a really good place to end the conversation. Thank you so much to all of you, it’s been really fascinating and thank you to everyone who’s tuned in today.
P: Thank you.
B: Thank you for the opportunity.
N: Thanks Nicole.
End of recording.
“The more we are taking care of nature, the more we are taking care of ourselves.”
Last summer’s bushfires left Australia profoundly changed. Lives and homes were lost; almost 13 million hectares of bush was incinerated. Food and fuel systems broke down, and city-dwellers choked on toxic smoke. From this tumult and devastation, what new vision will emerge? How have the fires forced us to rethink ourselves, our communities and our relationships with nature?
Join social scientist Petra Buergelt, animal ecologist Dale Nimmo and planning expert Barbara Norman – whose family sadly lost a home in the fires – as they explore what will rise from the ash in the months and years ahead. Chaired by Nicole Hasham, Environment + Energy Editor at The Conversation.
Presented by The Conversation, the world's leading free, fact-based news source written by academics and edited by journalists and The National Library of Australia.
Petra Buergelt is Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Canberra. Petra studies how people and communities can thrive in the face of change, adversity and chaos - particularly after natural disaster.
Dale Nimmo is Associate Professor in ecology at the Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University. He is an animal ecologist with broad interests in how 'big' disturbances – things like fire, drought, and land clearing – influence biodiversity.
Barbara Norman is Professor in design and the built environment at University of Canberra. Barbara lost a family holiday home at Mallacoota this fire season. She is an expert in sustainable urban and regional planning and seeks the best ways to build communities resilient to change, while respecting the natural habitat. She is contributing to a collaborative cross-university response to community bushfire recovery.
Nicole Hasham is a Walkley Award-winning journalist based in the Canberra press gallery and a Visiting Fellow at The Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy. Before joining The Conversation she was environment and energy correspondent and federal politics reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. She has more than 15 years' experience in print and online media as a journalist and editor.
Feature image: Loui Seselja, Kangaroos in damaged nature reserve area, Canberra bushfires, 18 January to 14 February 2003, nla.cat-vn3064615