Friday, January 11, 2013

A Brown Land of Beauty and Terror

We British are obsessed with the weather.  If it rains in the summer (which happens a lot) we get depressed.  If it snows (which happens occasionally) the country grinds to a halt.  And it only takes a day of sunny weather for crack teams of photojournalists to start hunting for nubile young ladies cavorting in public fountains.

So imagine what life would be like if you transported a few million Brits to a country where they get some real extreme weather.  Or if that is too painful, you only have to look at Australia.

The bush fires raging across the southeast of Australia are a tragedy for all those involved, especially people who have lost their homes and livelihoods.  But conflagrations are not an unusual feature of Australian summers.  Every January, as I shiver is rural Kent, my in-laws in Perth report sweltering temperatures of 40 degrees.  Leave an Australian city and you’ll see a plethora of road signs warning of the risk of fire.  Of course, current technology, especially air-conditioning, makes extreme heat more bearable than it used to be.  But modern life has also made Australians forget how hostile the environment in which they live really is.
Australia is a vast desert island.  Its north coast is swamp, the east and southwest scrubland.  The area which is both reasonably temperate and fertile is a small proportion of the whole.  Admittedly, a thin veneer of Englishness overlays the desert (and it’s getting thinner as the country’s population gets more diverse).  Bondi Beach looks surprisingly like Bournemouth and some of the older buildings in Australian cities can seem jarringly familiar to a visiting Englishman. But they didn’t ship convicts to Botany Bay because it was a holiday camp. 

In the olden days, Australians faced the intimidating climate with a frontier spirit.  They knew that carving a life out of the unforgiving environment was tough.  The national character still reflects that. And, until recently, every Australian schoolchild used to learn Dorothea Mackellar’s poem My Country by heart.  

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains,
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror,
The wide brown land for me.

As so often, the poet gives us truth less varnished than any prose, despite being constrained by metre and rhythm.   During the Queensland floods on 2011, Clive James, an elderly Australian exile and no mean poet himself, wrote a beautiful article for Standpoint about this poem.  Those flooding rains, like today’s fires, were a terror for all concerned.  But, contrary to the media narrative, they were not a surprise or a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.  They were the inevitable consequence of living somewhere as inhospitable as Australia, even if modern comforts had made people forget where they were.

Today, Australia is fabulously wealthy.  That means that floods, droughts and fires cause enormous monetary loss, even while the cost in human lives is mercifully low.  And with a population of 22 million, there are now many more people living in marginal areas where these three apocalyptic horsemen like to gallop.  Their wealth and healthy economy will allow Australia to recover quickly and perhaps, once again, forget what a miracle it is that they have been able to turn their country into the wonderful place it is today. 

By the way, this blog post isn’t about climate change.  But if it was, it would say much the same as this excellent piece from the Tom Chivers in the Telegraph.  

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Rabbi said...

Oz is still the best address on the planet.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, he looked at it and said "oh what a failure! How can I repair this mess? I know, I will create Australia".

unkleE said...

As an Aussie, I appreciate your comments James. But of course most of us live in big cities, and most parts of the big cities are not affected (so far) by bushfire or flood. So I don't think too many are living in marginal areas, and probably the number is shrinking slightly as there is still a tendency for the country (the areas most affected by fire and flood) to thin out as people move to the cities. Although the number of city dwellers who live on acreage on the city fringes, which with modern freeways can now stretch to 100 km from the city itself is increasing (and these are the properties probably most in danger from bushfires), so this may partly balance out the migration to the safer cities.

Probably the greatest threat to safety in the future (given climate change, which I accept) is coastal erosion from rising water levels and increased occurrence of bad storms. With most Aussies clinging to the coast, and the largest and most expensive homes tending to be closer to the ocean, we/they face a seriously bleak future, a future that has already arrived for quite a few.

But my perspective is from Sydney on the east coast, and your relatives' perspective is Perth on the west coast, so expect some differences between how we see things.

Rabbi said...

unkleE said...

"As an Aussie, I appreciate your comments James. But of course most of us live in big cities, and most parts of the big cities are not affected (so far) by bushfire or flood."

The people of Brisbane (the 3rd largest city in Oz) and Toowoomba say "hello".