Showing posts with label Australian environment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Australian environment. Show all posts

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Australia, your chicken is ready!

Over the last 24 hours, French media have been having a field day writing what little they know about the mysterious "mad monk" who has just become Australia's new leader. French journalists all appear to be inspired by the same source material: a rather blunt French-language blog post written by a certain Charlotte Chabas and published by Le Monde [display].


A week ago, French TV viewers were shocked by an evening show revealing the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. After all the hype generated by Tourism Australia's "best jobs in the world" stunts, the marketing seams are starting to show, and people in France are surely becoming aware that the legendary dream world that is supposed to exist Down Under could well be somewhat mythical.


The last time I was out in Australia (already seven years ago), I looked around for serious books concerning the state of the nation, and prospects for the future. Disappointed at finding nothing of interest in this domain, I was reminded of the words of my friend Geoff Brindley: "There is no writing culture in Australia." In bookshops, the shelves marked Australia or Australiana are packed with photographic albums of indigenous fauna and flora, tourist guides and cooking books. Even today, when I ask Amazon to display their books on Australia, there is simply no category of books dealing with contemporary Australian society, politics, economics, future challenges, etc.


In fact, the case of Australia has been handled expertly and thoroughly by the US scholar Jared Diamond. In his celebrated Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), he spoke at length about the alleged "backwardness" of Australia's Aborigines, with the intention of proving that we would be mistaken to imagine the existence of any "supposed deficiencies of the Aborigines themselves".


Today, I find that this 15-year-old book (which earned its author a Pulitzer Prize) has an annoying old-fashioned tone, as if the author didn't take time, before starting to write his book, to catch up on recent findings concerning the genetics of human populations. Sure, his end-of-book notes on further reading mention the great Italian pioneer Luca Cavalli-Sforza, but nowhere in Diamond's chapter on the Aborigines is there any mention of genetics and DNA studies. Worse, when evoking divergences between Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans, Diamond refers to blood groups and the appearance of their hair, with never the slightest allusion to their respective genetic data.

Tasmanian Aborigines provide us with an extreme case of geographical isolation. When Bass Strait was flooded, some 10,000 years ago, Tasmania was probably populated by no more than a few thousand Aboriginal hunter-gatherers. By the time their descendants were discovered by 17th-century European navigators, Tasmanians had become the most technologically primitive people ever encountered on the planet Earth. Now, it's fair enough to blame the terrible solitude of Tasmanians for the absence of the elementary culture of making fire, boomerangs, stone axes with wooden handles, etc. But the author might have drawn attention to another obvious aspect of Tasmania's isolation and small population. After centuries of consanguinity, their gene pool was surely reduced to a minimalist state leaving few cerebral resources for creativity. While avoiding all references to genes, and bending over backwards to avoid being accused of racism, Jared Diamond nevertheless falls into the trap of comparing the respective "smartness" of Aborigines with a notorious pair of ill-fated explorers. "Robert Burke and William Wills were smart enough to write, but not smart enough to survive in Australian desert regions where Aborigines were living."

A more recent and (to my mind) more convincing book by Diamond, Collapse (2005), tackles the fascinating question of why certain human societies suddenly disappear.


The author's presentations of the historical tragedies of the Pitcairn Islands and Easter Island are particularly brilliant. But I was impressed aboved all by his chapter 13, whose title incorporates a disturbing pair of inverted commas: "Mining" Australia. In fact, the explanations in this chapter lead us back inevitably and directly to the starting point of the present blog post: yesterday's coming to power of the "mad monk" (who once said that the notion of climate change brought about through human activities is "absolute crap"), and an environmental disaster such as the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. Let me quote Diamond's opening paragraph, which examines Australia's likely destiny:
Mining in the literal sense—that is, the mining of coal, iron, and so on—is a key to Australia's economy today, providing the largest share of its export earnings. In a metaphorical sense, however, mining is also a key to Australia's environmental history and to its current predicament. That's because the essence of mining is to exploit resources that do not renew themselves with time, and hence to deplete those resources. Since gold in the ground doesn't breed more gold [...], miners extract gold from a gold lode as rapidly as is economically feasible, until the lode is exhausted. Mining minerals may thus be contrasted with exploiting renewable resources—such as forests, fish, and topsoil—that do regenerate themselves by biological reproduction or by soil formation. Renewable resources can be exploited indefinitely, provided that one removes them at a rate less than the rate at which they regenerate. If however one exploits forests, fish, or topsoil at rates exceeding their renewal rates, they too will eventually be depleted to extinction, like the gold in a gold mine.
Then the author sketches the theme of his chapter on Australia in a single chilling sentence, where the inverted commas around "mining" indicate that he's using this term in its metaphorical sense:
Australia has been and still is "mining" its renewable resources as if they were mined minerals.
Diamond pulls no punches in describing the exceptionally fragile nature of the harsh "sunburnt country" that many of us came to love.


Up until reading Diamond's detailed descriptions of the low nutrient levels of Australian soils, I had always imagined naively that our agriculture was surely no less "lucky" than the many other aspects of Down Under in which Australians take pride. But this is not at all the case. We now know that the infertility and salinity of soils in Australia make them unsuitable for nearly all forms of agriculture and grazing. Then there's the terrible question of unpredictable rainfall due to the notorious ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation). I believe that every concerned Australian should make a point of studying Diamond's spine-chilling chapter 13 of Collapse.

Meanwhile, I was thrilled to see a victory photo of Mr Rabbit and his lovely women.


Verily I say unto you that they're as beautiful as a page from a fairy tale.

PS I should explain to readers who've never been to Australia that the title of this blog post is an advertising slogan that was used by the Red Rooster fast-food people.


I'm trying to figure out why that photo of Tony Abbott on the beach reminded me immediately of a red cock, about to crow...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Koala in distress

Who's the arsehole who destroyed my tree?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mummified house

I found this photo on the Internet. It's an old house not far from my birthplace: Grafton in Australia. I don't know the photographer's name, but he appears to be, like me, a native of Grafton. And he's also an excellent photographer.


I don't understand what it is about old houses in Australia that causes many of them to become mummified, like this specimen. That's to say, the structure is clearly abandoned and decaying, but it still retains its original form... in a state of fragile equilibrium. As we used to say about decrepit old-timers: the house is dead, but it won't lie down. Clearly, for a house to survive for long in this mummified state, there can't be too much wind, snow or rain in the vicinity. And the people who pass by don't have the bad habit of dropping smouldering cigarette butts on the ground. It's likely, too, that the timber used in this construction was particularly hard and rugged, in spite of the visible signs of rot in the photo. The inside walls appear to be in quite good condition.

Is it thinkable that the flock of ducks might play some kind of mysterious role in keeping the house upright?

Maybe, for a reasonable financial investment, the house could be restored, and made to look like new. There would be no problem about domestic water, because I see a galvanized iron tank on the verandah. The new resident could use the plow to create a vegetable garden. And there would be no problem as far as transport is concerned, because I can see a fine bicycle leaning up against the wall.

Potential French investors might contact me. For a small commission, I'll attempt to identify and get in touch with the current owner, and we'll see if we can reach some kind of a deal.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Carbon calamity

Folk Down Under imagine naively, stupidly, that (1) global warming doesn't really exist, and that (2) they're making astronomical efforts to thwart this phantom. Do I need to add my opinion that my compatriots are truly, in general, a bunch of dumb losers? I've often talked about Australia's inability to construct a decent infrastructure. The nation is inescapably lethargic (like me in front of a chessboard), with no will whatsoever to win its political and environmental survival.

Click the image to access a New Scientist article on our wide brown bullshit, which will slowly but surely lead to the downfall of Australia as a serious world partner on environmental issues.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Down under danger

Up until today, I had never heard of this maritime creature, the cone snail. Maybe I resided too far below the tropical zone (in northern New South Wales) to meet up with this fellow.



This video surprises me. Are they exaggerating in suggesting that you might encounter such a nasty creature while paddling around in shallow rock pools on the edge of the water? When I was a kid at the beach (mainly at Yamba or Woolgoolga), nobody ever warned me about the possible dangers of picking up pretty seashells. The only notorious enemy that frightened everybody was the shark. I never saw too many sharks, but I often got stung by creatures we referred to as jellyfish.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bush humor when I was a Waterview kid

This is the cover of a famous Australian weekly magazine, Pix, dated 23 September 1946 (the eve of my 6th birthday). The woman is the US actress Rita Hayworth [1918-1987], and we see from a news heading on the cover that she has just started a "new dance craze". I would imagine that they're referring to the jitterbug, which had been spread throughout the planet (including jazz clubs in the Latin Quarter of Paris) by the American GIs. Pix was a popular photo-journalistic magazine with a huge readership: nearly a million Australians.

At home in Waterview, Pix was regular reading for everybody, along with The Daily Examiner and The Women's Weekly. As a child, I probably wasn't particularly excited about Rita Hayworth and the jitterbug. The item that amused me most of all in Pix was the regular cartoon by Eric Jolliffe, whose specialty was Aussie outback humor… or funny bush drawings, as we would have said. The central personage was a rough rural fellow known as Saltbush Bill, who was always attired in a felt hat and black waistcoat.

Saltbush Bill lived with his large family in an environment that might be thought of as harsh and primitive, where he was perpetually faced with typical bush problems.

To a certain extent, we rural folk at Waterview were probably in mild empathy with Saltbush Bill and his caricatural milieu. Snakes in tree stumps, for example, were an everyday affair… like spiders, heat, dust, flies and backyard lavatories, etc. I hasten to point out, however, that we knew nothing whatsoever (for geographical reasons) of a dimension that was constantly present in Saltbush Bill's universe: the Aborigines, inevitably depicted by Jolliffe—in a way that would be ethically unthinkable today—as incredibly primitive. If ever Saltbush Bill appeared in an urban environment, it was usually a matter of finding solutions to his rural problems. Here, for example, he's dropping in on the local blacksmith:

[Click to enlarge slightly]

The caption is typically banal, since words played a relatively minor role in Jolliffe's work. Saltbush Bill informs the blacksmith that the name of his old horse is Flattery, "because it never gets me anywhere".

PARENTHESIS: I'm intrigued by the construction technique for the post-office roof. I don't recall having seen anything like that in Australia. Apparently the external wooden frame is intended to keep the sheets of corrugated iron in place. As a guess, I would imagine that the purpose of this technique was to avoid the use of nails, since there would have been several obvious advantages in not using nails. First, you didn't need to have a system of solid rafters capable of receiving roof nails. Then you didn't have to puncture the corrugated metal, allowing rain to leak in. Finally, you didn't have to go into town and purchase nails. I would imagine that the external framework was tied together with wire or string. And, if the metal sheets got blown off in a storm, it would have been easy to put them back in place.

Now, just to make it clear that my authentic family environment was only remotely associated with that of Saltbush Bill, here's a photo of my grandfather Charles Walker [1882-1937], attired in a fine Sunday suit and shiny shoes, with a watch chain stretched across his waistcoat, and a cigarette in his left hand:

[Click to enlarge slightly]

As they say in the movies: All characters appearing in Jolliffe's work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cyclone Yasi about to reach Townsville

In Queensland (Australia), its 10.30 on Wednesday evening. On my computer screen here in France, I'm watching the live display from a webcam located in a central-city flat in the city of Townsville. It's one of a series of webcams whose addresses are indicated on the website of The Australian. And I'm apparently sharing this live display with some 11 000 other online viewers.

[Click the image to access the actual webcam display.]

From time to time, in the foreground, I can see the branches of palm trees starting to sway a little in the approaching winds. But everything, for the moment, appears to be deceptively calm.

BREAKING NEWS: It's 11.30 in Queensland. My post was premature, and my remarks about webcams have become totally useless, because every available webcam appears to have got knocked out as soon as the winds arrived, no doubt through power outage, combined with the impossibility of using, say, an iPhone in the darkness. So, I haven't yet figured out whether there's any good means of following what's happening at a visual level. Meanwhile, I was impressed by this photo of kids bedding down for the night on the bare floor of an old cellar:

It's like a third-world war-time image.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Flood today, cyclone tomorrow

Yesterday, there may have been a bushfire. And the day before that, people were suffering from a drought. That's a huge price that residents of Queensland have to pay for the pleasure of being able to stroll around in T-shirts, shorts and thongs all year round, and never having to scrape ice off the car's windshield on a wintry morning.

[Click the image to display a set of awesome Australian cyclone photos.]

Human nature is such, I believe, that people happen to congregate in such-and-such a place when everything's wonderful, and that initial joyful contact instills in their minds an exclusively positive attitude towards the place in question, to such an extent that nothing—not even the presence of snakes, spiders, crocodiles, sharks, etc—could ever change their convictions. Personally, that's what happened to me, long ago, when I met up with the great city of Paris. More recently, my first encounter with the mountain ranges where I'm now settled was similarly positive, indeed breathtaking. Those initial moments warped my mind, and prevented me (maybe for the rest of my life) from ever thinking calmly and objectively about my adoptive mountain ranges (the Chartreuse and the Vercors).

On a glorious summer's day, as I gazed at the magnificent landscape and monastic buildings of the Grande Chartreuse, I remember exclaiming to another visitor: "Those monks are likely to be disappointed when they finally get to heaven, because it can't possibly be as beautiful as it is here." Later on, I would discover those same landscapes in the terribly harsh conditions of a Carthusian winter.

Getting back to Australia (which has concerned me primarily, for ages, in a family-history perspective), I'm convinced that the accumulation of meteorological disasters in my native land has no doubt accounted for the destruction of vast volumes of family archives. When I was a teenager, my most precious possession was a big scrapbook containing all the press cuttings describing the cycling achievements of my uncle Johnnie "Cyclone" Walker.

One day, I lent the scrapbook to a friend who was also interested in cycling… then a flood came, and the precious document was destroyed. When people are struggling to survive, they are preoccupied by the immediate future. In such situations, the first things that threatened folk sacrifice—inevitably but sadly—are their traces, if not their memories, of the past.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flood tourists

Peter Nicholson has kindly allowed me to reproduce the following cartoon which appeared in The Australian a few days ago:

We see here the wet and windswept lady Anna Bligh terminating her speech about the legendary toughness of Queenslanders [display]. Behind her, a tourist from Canberra, Julia Gillard, is sticking her massive nose into a camera. The other day, when Gillard loitered alongside Bligh at a press conference, the prime minister looked like a decorative table-lamp in an old-fashioned drawing room. She was posed there, waiting to be turned on, if ever anybody thought that her presence might light up the scene. But nobody seemed to think so. As for Kevin Rudd, I did in fact see video images of him wandering around in the water with a suitcase on his head, and mumbling something about lending a hand to students.

Here's another of Peter Nicholson's touristic visions of Brisbane:

Meanwhile, down in New South Wales, the flooded town of Grafton (my birthplace) received the visit of an American tourist, the premier Kristina Keneally.

Click the photo to access an article on this subject in The Daily Examiner by local journalist Terry Deefholts, who reached the rather obvious conclusion that the premier's excursion was a "public relations stunt". In any case, we could hardly expect any of the Anna Bligh style of rhetoric from such a mediocre woman. Terry Deefholts attempted vainly to persuade Keneally to talk about the notorious local road that I mentioned in my article entitled Highway called Pacific [display]. Her parting gibe to the insistent journalist was particularly condescending: "You could live in Sydney, you’ve got enough grunt for it." Those words sound like something from an old American movie: "What's a smart guy like you doing in this one-horse town?"

The following photo by Lynne Mowbray shows Terry (in the boat) accompanying the editor David Bancroft in the delivery of their newspaper to residents of flooded Maclean.

Another of their many flood photos caught my attention:

The two drovers taking cattle to higher grounds could have come straight out of my childhood memories of floods at South Grafton.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The people that they breed tough

Since March 2009, Anna Bligh has been the state premier of Queensland. Although this has been a prestigious title and task (she's one of the rare Australian politicians who doesn't seem to be playing a role when wearing a worker's hat), I'm tempted to say that, up until now, she has been "merely" the state premier. In the space of a few terrifying days, as flood waters covered Queensland and moved into Brisbane, Anna Bligh has become a stateswoman. In her words today, there were overtones of Winston Churchill in May 1940, when he said to the House of Commons: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

My grandfather and my father, who were both Queenslanders in a way, would have surely been moved by Bligh's words, as I was:

As we weep for what we have lost
And as we grieve for family and friends
And we confront the challenge that is before us,
I want us to remember who we are.
We are Queenslanders.
We're the people that they breed tough, north of the border.
We're the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.
I said earlier this week that this weather may break our hearts,
and it is doing that. But it will not break our will.
And, in the coming weeks and the coming months,
we are going to prove that beyond any doubt.
Together we can pull through this,
and that's what I'm determined to do.
With your help, we can achieve it.



The heroic spirit of Anna Bligh's emotional declaration reminds me of the poem Australia by A D Hope, which has provided me with a title, They Sought the Last of Lands, for my monograph on my paternal ancestors.

They call her a young country, but they lie:

She is the last of lands, the emptiest,

A woman beyond her change of life, a breast

Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:

The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,

Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,

The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.

In them at last the ultimate men arrive

Whose boast is not: 'we live' but 'we survive',

A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

Talking of "immense stupidity", I hope that Anna Bligh's authentic words will replace the ridiculous slogan that Queenslanders have got into the habit of throwing around: "Beautiful today, perfect tomorrow."

ADDENDUM: I attempted to bring the present blog post to the attention of The Australian (primarily for reasons that might be designated as poetic) through a comment to a relevant article on Anna Bligh. Besides, it was normal, out of elementary politeness, that I indicate my use of their video of the famous Bligh declaration. Unfortunately, my comment has not been published. This is not the first time that I've noticed a kind of xenophobic (technical?) rejection, on the part of The Australian, to comments from beyond the borders of our sunburnt country… notably from France. What the fuck!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Radio news on Australian flooding

Thanks to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, excellent media coverage of the flooding is available here in France.
[Click the banner to access their streamed site.]

We're hearing an awesome new expression, "evacuation centers", which didn't exist back in my childhood days in Australia. In general, the news is reassuring in the sense that the authorities, citizens and media people all appear to be acting calmly and firmly, with no signs of excessive consternation or panic. The only thing that surprises me in the many flood images I've seen is that people often appear to be half-naked, barefoot and generally "under-dressed" for such an emergency. Why don't they at least wear rubber boots (to prevent them wounding their feet in the muddy waters)?

BREAKING NEWS: By tomorrow morning (Wednesday, local time)—according to a forecast in Tuesday's Daily Examiner—the swollen Clarence will have reached a maximum height of 7 meters at Grafton, which is just 1.2 meters beneath the top of the levee at Prince Street. Everything should be OK as long as there's no more rain, and the embankment holds.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Queensland tragedy

French TV and the Internet enable me to follow closely the terrible tragedy that is unfolding in Queensland. Everything seems to be happening on a vastly greater and more violent scale than anything I recall from my childhood experience of floods on the Clarence River at Grafton. The case of Toowoomba is terrifying.

On the French TV news this evening, we saw a video of a half-naked half-frozen guy being dragged to safety after hanging onto a tree.

One of the most frightening aspects of this whole tragedy is the fact that the waters are likely to hang around for quite some time. That would appear to be a completely new aspect of flooding in Australia.

I can't help wondering whether the state and federal authorities are capable of handling this disaster in an optimal manner...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Australian climate muddle

The word "muddle" seems right to me. It evokes mud. Dry mud.

On the eve of the Copenhagen summit, the behavior of Australia's federal opposition has been alarming, to an extent that nobody could have imagined. Australia's Liberal Party was having trouble deciding how to play its federal opposition role on the all-important subject of climate change. In a huge ego confrontation, the leader Malcolm Turnbull let himself get replaced by Tony Abbott.

At a grave moment, when a bipartisan approach to planetary problems would be expected, it's a pity that this game of musical chairs should still be going on in the party of former prime minister John Howard.

Here in France, the fact that the climate-change project of Kevin Rudd has been rejected, and the idea that Australia will be turning up at Copenhagen with empty hands, have given rise to interesting comments in the national press.

A prestigious French think tank named IRIS [Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques] studies questions of a strategic and international nature. [Click on the banner to access their website.] Their governing board includes individuals such as Pascal Lamy (director-general of the World Trade Organization), Hubert Védrine (former minister of Foreign Affairs under Mitterrand), Michel Barnier (Europe's recently-appointed internal markets commissioner) and Philippe Séguin (president of the Cour des comptes). There are younger board members such as the leftist politician Manuel Valls and even the professional soccer-player Lilian Thuram.

IRIS has reacted immediately to political events in Australia through an interview of Sylvie Matelly, a research director at the institute, published in the great daily Le Monde. I find this short interview excellent, since it summarizes well-informed French reactions to Australia's role on the international stage.

Funnily enough, this French analysis of the situation in Australia is less alarmist than the opening lines of the present blog article!

Click the banner to access the French-language article. The journalist who conducted the interview was Audrey Garric. Here is my translation of the entire interview:

LE MONDE: How do you explain the rejection of the government's climate project by the Australian senate?

SYLVIE MATELLY: To Australian political parties, this plan appeared to be too ambitious. Its goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by the year 2020, by 25% with respect to the year 2000. Well, Australian emissions increased by 30% between 1990 and 2007. And they continue to rise because of the country's strong economic activity. Politicians therefore feared that the nation would not succeed with respect to that goal. Besides, the year 2020 seemed to be too close for a nation that had only ratified the Kyoto protocol in December 2007, with the election of the Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd.

LE MONDE: What has brought about that lukewarm attitude of Australian politicians towards environmental issues?

SYLVIE MATELLY: Australians have been divided for a long time by climate-change questions. On the one hand, ecological awareness is quite developed at a public-opinion level. Australians are conscious of the fact that their land is one of the countries most highly affected by global warming. For example, Australians were the first people in the world to banish old-fashioned lightbulbs. The Australian press highlights regularly the consequences of climatic warming upon the desertification of the land, and the tragedy of animals dying of thirst. On the other hand, Australia's economy is highly pollutant. On a per capita basis, it's the world's second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gas. It's a very wealthy nation, with a high standard of living, and its economic growth is dynamic. So, it's a major energy consumer. Above all, its energy is almost totally coal-based. Industrialists and the energy sector have no desire to see their activities curtailed.

LE MONDE: The government intends to resubmit its law project to senators in February. If the text were to be rejected for the second time, what would be the consequences as far as global warming is concerned?

SYLVIE MATELLY: There is little chance that this controversial project, rejected twice by the senate, could be adopted in February, especially if an early federal election is announced, as expected, in the beginning of 2010. In any case, the recent rejection of the present climate-change project cannot possibly influence adversely the Copenhagen summit, since Australia does not have a major role to play in the combat against global warming. Australia may well be the second per-capita producer of CO2, but the nation is down in the 15th position when judged in terms of the gross quantity of emitted gas. The major problems to be handled are more concerned with emissions from the USA, China, the EU and oil-producing nations. So, the rejection of the government's project should not aggravate Australia's problems of desertification and water shortage. In other words, Australians suffer from the consequences of global warming without being in a position to act upon the causes. Nevertheless, the adoption of a climate-change project would have enabled the nation to think about redesigning its economic model and increasing its investments in new forms of energy. Australia might end up lagging in the ecological arena.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hillbilly

I've always been aware that, here at Gamone, I'm basically a lawless hillbilly. And if I don't respect many laws, it's often because I ignore whether the laws really exist, and how they're formulated and enforced. If there were an old-fashioned sheriff in charge, he would surely arrest me and hang me from a tree.

Take the case of my former flock of sheep, for example. When I arrived at Gamone, there was an unwritten law (which I learned from local folk, including the veterinarian) according to which a neo-rural resident such as me, who wasn't a professional grazier, could maintain a flock of up to a dozen or so sheep, to keep the weeds down, and to provide him with lamb meat. But this tolerance ended in the aftermath of a European outbreak, in 2001, of foot and mouth disease. So, before I left for a short vacation in Australia in 2006, I called upon a butcher friend to slaughter most of my sheep. However we left a young ewe and three tiny lambs. Well, to cut a long story short, these animals were frightened by a dog, and they escaped from my place and finally set up a new home on the slopes of a neighbor's mountain property, where they have proliferated in a feral state. Recently, the veterinarian confirmed that, if I were intent upon eliminating these sheep (which is not exactly the case), the only plausible solution would consist of organizing a posse of friends armed with rifles. Unfortunately, I don't have enough armed friends to carry out such an operation.

Meanwhile, there's another subtly different approach. At the annual luncheon of the senior citizens of Choranche and Chatelus, I found myself seated alongside a neighbor who, with his sons, is one of the last surviving hunters. (My children and I have always referred to his property, strewn with decrepit vehicles and rusty machinery, as Tortilla Flat.) He seemed to suggest that, if I felt that these sheep were capable of provoking accidents by wandering onto the road (which has always appeared most unlikely), then I should simply write a letter to the president of the local hunting association informing him that I would refrain from reacting in any way whatsoever if ever stray bullets happened to hit the sheep. The general idea is that such a letter would normally have no visible existence, and the president wouldn't even reply in any way whatsoever. But I could expect the sheep to start to disappear quietly and mysteriously. In these circumstances, my letter would only reappear publicly if ever I decided to take the hunters to court (a theoretical possibility) because I had the impression that they were shooting my sheep. As you can see, it's a murky approach to problem-solving.

Another example of my hillbilly behavior concerns the burning-off of dead grass and weeds in spring. At Gamone, I decide personally to perform these operations at appropriate moments of the year, and I operate section by section, in such a way that there's never a wide wall of flames. By "appropriate", I mean that I judge that there's not enough wind to cause the flames to escape, and there's still enough dampness in the vegetation to prevent it from reacting like explosive tinder.

The reason I'm talking about rural laws in France, written and unwritten, is that I've been learning a lot, over the last few days, about astonishing rural laws in Australia. More precisely, in the wake of the sickening fire tragedies that are still unfolding in my native land, I've been trying to comprehend what went so terribly wrong, and why. Obviously, for countless reasons, there's little in common between my tiny property on the slopes at Gamone and the vast bushlands of Australia. But I've been making an effort to grasp the nature of the situation in Australia.

If I understand correctly, hillbilly behavior such as mine would be unthinkable in modern Australia, where rural laws of all kinds are abundant and rigorously enforced. On the other hand, I've discovered that not everybody in Australia considers that all these laws are "good".

In rural Australia, the vegetation that could be consumed by fire in a particular zone is referred to technically as fuel. And the process of eliminating excess fuel is referred to as prescribed burning, shown in this photo:

One of Australia's leading specialists in the domain of bushfires is David Packham, of Monash University. In one of his websites, he shows an Australian country property in which excess trees and other fuel have been removed in such a way that the house would be almost 100% survivable, as he puts it, in the case of a bushfire.

In the following photo, on the other hand, there's a house, hidden behind the vegetation, which would have a survivability near zero in the case of a bushfire:

In my eyes, the first photo looks like any old property that could be found in France, whereas the second photo is that of a strictly Australian situation, unthinkable here in France.

Packham is particularly outspoken concerning the bushfire tragedies that have just hit Victoria: "Absolute irresponsible mismanagement has been the environment in which a lot of Australia has been operating for the last thirty or forty years, and we just cannot go along like this unless we're happy to accept the sorts of disasters we've had." He has accused environmentalists of behaving like "eco-terrorists waging a jihad" against prescribed burning. It's a fact that future legislation will stigmatize controlled burning as a key national threat to biodiversity. If this draconian legislation were to go into action, as planned for 2010, then controlled burning would be considered henceforth, from an ecological and environmental viewpoint, as a "key threatening process" whose nasty effects are to be likened to those of global warming, land clearing and feral cats, pigs and foxes.

In fuel-filled landscapes where Australia's indigenous flora and fauna are encouraged to thrive in luxurious liberty, we have seen that homes and their human occupants can be wiped out by flames in less time than it takes to race outside and get into the family automobile. It will take me some time to acquire an informed opinion on this weird situation in Australia. Meanwhile, even if I were capable of uprooting myself and moving to the Antipodes, I must admit that I'm quite happy to remain a Gamone hillbilly.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wrong equation

It's understandable that Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd should be disgusted, like any ordinary observer, to think that bushfires might have been lit deliberately by arsonists. But it's too early to accuse potential culprits, if indeed they exist, and it's unfortunate that Rudd's use of the expression "mass murder" has been quoted everywhere in the international press.

In evoking the notion of evil Australians in a desperate attempt to explain this tragedy, Rudd is trying to solve the wrong equation.

He's also tackling the wrong equation when he talks about rebuilding homes and towns by means of financial resources allocated towards the planetary economic crisis. Instead of reacting to the bushfire tragedy in the style of a clear-thinking statesman, the prime minister has let himself be carried away by his emotions... in a style reminiscent of that of his predecessor, John Howard, who once suggested that Steve Irwin should be given a state funeral. Clearly, our Aussie leaders are most emotional chaps, swayed by the force of chance happenings.

The true equation is well known. Its main variables concern the Australian habit of residing in the vicinity of trees and shrubs that are transformed into tinder by stretches of dry weather. Visitors to Australia are struck by the way in which suburban and rural houses are often integrated into magnificent landscapes of native vegetation. Personally, I've always envisaged such splendid environments as a wonderful reaction to the stupid behavior of agricultural pioneers, once upon a time, for whom trees were enemies, to be destroyed, because they consumed the nourishment in the soil that might be used to grow grass to feed sheep and cattle. It would be sad, of course, to see Australian houses located in bare fields, like outback bungalows on the stark slopes of dusty hills. But maybe there's a midway solution to the landscape equation that would consist of being surrounded by just enough low vegetation to avoid the rugby field effect, but not enough to create a suicidal Joan of Arc setting whenever the weather happens to be exceptionally dry. Meanwhile, the naive idea of attempting to find and neutralize arsonists, branded as home-grown terrorists, reminds me of the regrettable Dubya and his alleged "axis of evil".

BREAKING NEWS: Queen Elizabeth has just donated an unspecified sum of money to the Victorian Bushfire Fund, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy has offered material assistance that could be flown into Australia from New Caledonia. Meanwhile, various observers (including BBC journalists and a Queensland university expert) persist in evoking the existence of arsonists, and even rambling on about their psychology and motivations... although little evidence has been made public yet to support this hypothesis. There's an obvious danger that all this talk about the "enemy within" could end up generating a national psychosis, causing people to become suspicious of certain neighbors... particularly if the neighbors' property happened to escape destruction by the flames. I simply cannot understand the logic (?) of spreading rumors about arson prior to the actual capture of a significant number of suspects.

RELEVANT ARTICLE: Concerning the obvious fire danger of houses surrounded by trees, an informative article by Asa Wahlquist in today's The Australian is entitled Council ignored warning over trees before Victoria bushfires [display].

NOT ARSON: The Sydney Morning Herald has just revealed that the deadly Kinglake fire was not caused by arsonists [access].

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bushfires in Australia

In the south-eastern state of Victoria, bushfires have just taken the lives of 65 people and destroyed hundreds of houses and countless thousands of hectares of vegetation.

I've just listened to an amazing radio report from an on-the-spot journalist. He describes the plight of members of a rural family who were awoken in the early hours of the morning by a phone call from a neighbor, informing them that a fire was approaching their property. They immediately darted down to a creek, accompanied by their dogs, and jumped in. Their heads, above water, were protected by wet blankets, while the fire charged over them.

On Saturday, the temperature in Melbourne had risen to over 46 degrees Celsius. In Sydney, it's a few degrees less. In that kind of heat, without air conditioning (which wasn't widespread in Australia when I was a young man), it becomes almost impossible to lead a normal working existence. [In my university office in Perth, in 1986, I remember aiming an electric fan at my Macintosh computer, to cool it down.] The other ingredients in a recipe for disaster are oil-saturated eucalyptus trees in residential yards, high winds and crazy arsonists.

Yesterday, a mindless Sydney newspaper (which shall go unnamed in my blog, as they've been operating on a shoestring budget since the boss kicked out their top journalists) dared to print a nice beach photo alongside a silly story about people flocking to the ocean to combat the heat, as if this were a solution. Sadly, the sunny outdoor Australian lifestyle is no guarantee against the devastation of heat and fire.

BREAKING NEWS: The murderous fires in Australia are the top item on TV news in France. The death count could be higher than 100. This extraordinary photo of a retreating firetruck was taken near Pakenham, east of Melbourne:

There's an obvious question in the minds of everybody: Is it thinkable that the extreme climatic conditions being experienced at present in Australia (drought, heat and bushfires, with floods in Queensland) might be advance signs of the consequences of global warming?