• What Caused the Bushfires

    The world has been quick to sympathise with the Australians over their bushfire catastrophe. But the world has also been quick to criticise their lack of response to the problems created by global warming and the consequent record high temperatures on the Australian continent.

    Before we rush to judgment, however, we should bear in mind that we call them “Australians” because of where they are, not who they are. “Who they are” is “us”.

    They are “us” because they are, as we are, part of a much wider entity. Today’s Australians display attitudes and behaviours that are shared by a large proportion of the world’s population. They represent all of us in grappling, or failing to grapple, with the issues that face them.

    The one thing we can all agree on when considering the scale of today’s Australian bushfires is that they are the consequence of human activity. The continent has experienced summer bushfires since time immemorial; it is the advent of humans in large numbers that seems to have made the difference and that has set the continent ablaze.

    And not just any old humans, but humans representing the epitome of western civilisation. The Australians have, on the whole, made a pretty good job of representing the rest of us; they have created what is widely recognised as a “good life” in their new home.

    But their failings have been real, too, and have been exposed by the bushfire disaster. We, and they, need to identify the factors and characteristics that have produced those failings, since we are very likely to share them.

    Australia, and New Zealand, and many other countries who would claim to be part of what we like to think of as the “advanced” or “developed” world, is a society, an economy and a culture built on the twin foundations of a market economy and political democracy.

    The driving force of a market economy, however, (and, most would say, its great strength) is the incessant pursuit of profit. Profit depends on demand and demand means consumption. Production is a response to demand and consumption, and without ever-increasing demand, a market economy falters; if sales, and therefore consumption and eventually production, fall, there is immediate talk of recession, business failures, unemployment and falling asset values.

    We can see how important demand and consumption are to the performance of the economy when we see how much is spent on advertising with the aim of creating ever higher demand – or a demand that never falters – for what is produced.

    But a literally insatiable demand for new production imposes a huge strain on the economy and eventually on society as a whole. It is not just that, in a world with finite resources, a continued growth in consumption will necessarily reduce the stock of resources; it is also that the processes required to meet that growth in consumption – the exploitation of fossil fuels, for example – will upset the natural balance on which life depends.

    The market economy is, as our history shows, a tyrannical master. Everything – other forms of life, pure air and water – is grist to the mill, not least the labour of working people which becomes just another factor of production.

    Our civilisation has attempted to restrain these aspects of a market economy by establishing a system of government based on political democracy. But the attempt has failed. Democratic elections have become nothing more than bidding wars in which the rival parties try to outdo each other in promising the voters ever greater levels of consumption.

    A responsible politician, offering stable or reduced consumption in the common interest, will be soundly rebuffed. Democracy, in other words, has become a means of reinforcing the very aspects of a modern economy that it is meant to restrain.

    If we, and the Australians, are to avoid further environmental catastrophes, we have to be ready to reconsider some of our most fundamental beliefs about how to create a successful and sustainable society. In seeking an explanation for the bushfires and other similar crises, we need look no further than ourselves. Ask not who tolled the bell; we did.

    Bryan Gould
    9 January 2020