Australian bushfire and the othering of nature

Many reactions to the current fires that are burning through forests, mountains and townships in southeast Australia provide illustration of the persistence of not just anthropocentric attitudes in contemporary society. Sadly, they are also ripe with examples of what some may consider bushism’s, the rhetoric of us v them, with them being the environment. Nature positioned as other, an enemy that we must fight against, apparently possesses a pervasive quality that lingers amongst what many hope are changing attitudes—attitudes essential to alter the current path of the often-untold and non-considered impacts of human existence. Today, one of the most conservative journalists in Australia, has launched a scathing attack on ‘greens’ as to blame for the loss of human life — amongst the sensationalist rhetoric, non-human animals do not rate a mention. The title is indicative: Green ideas must take blame for deaths. This tabloid-esque diatribe is full of innuendo and misconstrued facts included to support a premise, rather than actually considering what has actually transpired.

Indicative of the level to which societal attitudes and often non-considered ideologies—normalised over centuries, are the reflections of many of those who were caught up in the fires. One does not have to look far to find descriptions of towns burn-out as reminiscent of ‘war-zones’; imagined as what they would look like after being hit by a ‘bomb’ or the aftermath of a ‘nuclear war’. For many, deference to such terms may help them to process their experiences and trauma they feel. Yet the use of such terms is indicative of problematic normalised ideologies and has significant implications.

Broadly, referring to natural events with the same rhetoric and language as being used to describe the atrocities perpetuated by invasions and attacks against people locates nature as a dualistic other. Nature is positioned in opposition to ‘us’. This symbolism was pervasive in the days of colonisation and conquest. It is explicit in the perspectives of the white colonists following their landing in Australia some 220 years ago. Much had changed in attitudes since then — Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill’s Ecological Pioneers: A Social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action [publisher | google books] provides an indicative investigation of this. Attitudes had changed at an increasing rate in recent times with an increase in awareness of the inter-connectedness of life, yet the separation and positioning of nature as other has resurfaced.

It would be too easy to explain away the deference to othering as a means for many to be able to cope with the loss of life that these fires have facilitated. Such rhetorical devices have been further enabled and re-entrenched to a degree by the actions of the last decade or so of demonising different cultures and positioning them as other. They are grounded in exceptionalism. Perhaps the most clearest example of this is the USA attitude that it can possess nuclear weapons, though any other country that seeks to is a threat to (inter)national security.

It is the position of Iraqi’s, for example, as an other — a culture that is different, nee inferior, to white western (christian) society —  that enables many to simply non-consider the suffering being perpetrated their everyday. In much the same way, it is much easier to other nature rather than accept our place, as a species, in the natural world. It is here that we can locate two aspects of Miranda Devine’s diatribe. Firstly, she positions nature in opposition to our existence. Nature’s existence in its own natural state, in a ‘state of nature’ —  and remember this term has been used for hundreds of years to place other cultures as inferior to whites — is positioned as a threat to our very survival. The explicit and implicit arguments made are that we need to continue to fight nature, nature is our enemy. I am not sure if she, or anyone else who will draw some (uncritical) insight from her rhetoric, is aware of the implications…

Having positioned nature as the enemy, a threat to not just our way of life (as critics of lifestyle change in the west often infer, denying the unsustainability of western attitudes and existence), Miranda Devine has othered ‘greens’ as complicit in these ‘attacks’ on civilised human society. In rendering the greens as closer to nature, she has created another false dualism that further entrenches nature as the enemy. Added to this, and where the bushism analogy really emerges is the implicit message that those with a green persuasion or leaning (i.e. Nature sympathisers’) need to make a choice: they are either with us or against us!

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