Conversations with the devil


Polarisation and tribalism are short circuiting society’s capacity to reason, trust and recover

By David Salt

So I was sitting there having a chat over coffee with some colleagues and the conversation turned to bushfires, as it often does these days. This chat, however, turned unexpectedly fiery.

As it happens, one of my coffee colleagues is a leading researcher on the value of hazard-reduction burning and property protection. He’s carried out multiple analyses on what variables are important in the risk houses face when a catastrophic fire hits. His results have been peer reviewed and consistently point out the same thing.

The research has found that the four most important variables critical to house loss when big bush fires strike are (in order of importance): the weather, the amount of woody vegetation close to houses, proximity to large blocks of native vegetation and, last and of least importance, hazard-reduction burning close to houses (with hazard burning undertaken further away not having any significant influence). This is consistent with a growing body of evidence that hazard burning is a tool of limited value when it comes to protecting people and property.

So far, so good. We often disagree with each other but we’re usually in concord about the ‘facts’ (and open to hearing each other’s points of view).


Then this older gentleman sitting a few seats away from us butts in saying what’s really needed to beat these fires is just getting in there with big machinery and clearing away the native vegetation, opening up fire trails and getting the fire fighters into the forests before the fire gets away. That’s what they’ve done in the United States, he said, and that’s what we should have been done here in Australia! It’s outrageous, he exclaimed, how we’ve allowed this situation to get so out of hand.

We were a bit taken aback by this guy’s uninvited interjection. We asked him where he was getting his information. The United States, we pointed out, was experiencing its own wildfire catastrophes; the evidence clearly shows hazard reduction has limited value; and when a fire starts in the middle of a forest (often by lightning strike) there’s no way fire fighters can get in and contain it before it gets out of control. To even try would be putting their lives at danger.

Well, contesting his ideas did not please this man at all. He said we were talking rubbish prompting one of us to walk off commenting “”I cannot stand such ignorance.”

The interjector then threw down his newspaper (The Australian) and accused us of getting all our information from The Guardian, and that we didn’t know what we were talking about – and then he stalked off as well.

What a buzzkill. We were all left feeling quite flat.

Your tribe wrong

From our perspective, the man was a nosy fool taking his information from the Murdoch press and accepting the denialist cant that the fires are simply a management problem that could be fixed with greater resolve. It’s a line echoing government rhetoric as they grapple with the unravelling implications of climate change.

From his perspective, I expect he thought we were a pack of big talking, know-nothing latte sippers (for the record, none of us were sipping lattes but we do like a good coffee).

Our conversation angered him, he threw his beliefs at us, we acted angrily, challenged his ‘facts’, and he stormed off. Nothing changed, no-one questioned their own tribe’s truth; if anything both parties probably hardened their position.

The thing is this minor, relatively inconsequential altercation is reflective of the broader debate currently infecting our society. Fuelled by fake news, hyper connectivity, prejudice and powerful vested interests, reasoned debate is impossible, polarisation and tribalism rule. We don’t trust anyone outside of our own tribe and we begin with an assumption that the other side is wrong.

I fervently believe the ‘other side’ in this little example was wrong, that the evidence supports my world view; but I did nothing to bring the tribes together, to explore the basis of the beliefs on both sides.

Not only did I think he was wrong, I also didn’t believe talking to him was going to change his opinion (or that his ‘facts’ would change mine).

A world on fire

It seems insane to me after the fire season we have endured that we’re even having the political debates we’re witnessing: that we can’t discuss climate change while the fires burn; it’s the greens fault; it’s all because we don’t do enough hazard reduction burning; these fires are not unprecedented; and the nation needs cheap reliable coal-powered generation; all entwined in the overarching lie – we are doing our bit when it comes to emission targets.

But the consequences of this tribal insanity are dire. First and foremost is the withering of trust. We don’t trust the other tribe or the information it’s producing, and the other tribe doesn’t trust us.

And we don’t trust our leaders because all too often they appear to be speaking from the other tribe, and completely disavowing my tribe.

Our Prime Minister speaks of the importance of building adaptation and resilience, but I don’t trust him. Adaptation is important but mitigation and moving to a carbon-free economy has to happen at the same time, but that would involve them taking on the denialist tribes which he doesn’t seem able to do.

Resilience is equally pointless when the government won’t even spell out what they mean. The bedrock of resilient communities is trust and other forms of social capital. It’s all about bringing people and communities together. The government seems more intent on dividing us and throws fuel on the fires of our hyper-partisanship.

Devil may care

When the devil whispers to us he plays on our prejudice and tells us the other side can’t be trusted. We will not follow our leaders because we do not trust them, and we will not listen to anyone but our own tribe. And then, when we are tested, our strength is divided and our resolve weak.

And then the devil wins.

The fires have served as a wakeup call for some and yet there have also been reports of political focus groups finding that many ordinary Australians are responding to the fires by entrenching their positions. There’s research backing this up showing fires and extreme weather do not change climate skeptics into believers. But drawing back into our tribes is not helping the situation.

There’s a real challenge here. How do we stop the compounding of a natural disaster with a human disaster of more polarisation? How do we nurture a more civil and productive discourse in our democracy?

A good start might involve a chat with our neighbours about how the fires affected them and what they think we should do? Or inviting that interjector into your coffee conversation and engaging with how he or she sees things. It’s only by understanding another person’s frame of reference that we can possibly hope to influence them.

Image: South Coast fire ground (Photo by David Salt)

Environmental sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

In the face of a worsening global crisis, can’t we find some common ground?

By Peter Burnett

‘The Environment’ has been a major public concern for more than fifty years now. Surveys consistently place the environment among the issues of greatest social concern, while numerous scientific reports continue to document a general and ongoing environmental decline. What’s more, the effects of environmental decline are becoming increasingly obvious, not only through intense heat, drought and cyclones, but also as previously unknown phenomena such as multiple coral bleaching events and arctic wildfires.

With all this concern and things getting worse, you’d expect action, but paradoxically, having gained considerable momentum in earlier years, environmental policy seems to be moving more slowly as the problem worsens, like an icebreaker that slows and eventually becomes stuck as it moves further into the pack ice. Even the Paris climate agreement of 2015, which looked at the time like a significant breakthrough into more navigable policy waters, now looks to have been no more than a patch of thinner ice. Optimists can retain some hope because of growing indications that renewable energy technologies might mitigate climate change, despite policy efforts. Yet technology is much less likely to solve other dimensions of environmental decline, especially biodiversity loss. We still need good policy.

The greatest obstacle to progress on policy is the polarisation of political views on the environment. In modern discourse, we have become so used to associating environmental concern with the political Left that we’ve lost sight of the fact that caring for the environment, especially when seen through a sustainability lens, is actually a fundamentally conservative idea. Perhaps navigable policy waters can be found in the roots of environmental concern, among older notions of what we would now describe as environmental sustainability.

Good husbandry

Concerns about human impacts on the environment go back to antiquity. Some 2,500 years ago, Plato compared the denuded hills of Attica to bleached skeletons, while just over 2,000 years ago the Roman writer Columella lamented the depletion of agricultural land on the Italian peninsula.

Searching for a solution, he argued the need to maintain the ‘everlasting youth’ of the Earth through good husbandry. This is as clear a definition of sustainability as any you’ll find today.

In the early modern era, the roots of sustainability can be traced to the great Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and his theories of private property. Locke argued that by investing their labour in harvesting goods from nature, individuals gained the right to regard them as private property. But he attached a proviso to this. The right to convert natural goods into private property would apply only where there was enough left in common for others, in good condition. This provides another good framing for sustainability.

In usufruct to the living

In the eighteenth century, the French Revolution prompted Thomas Jefferson to reflect on the rights of the present generation to bind those coming after, leading him to argue that ‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’. This was a reference to the Roman civil law concept of ususfructus, which was the right to use the land and take produce, without impairing its capacity to produce. (This is not old hat. Margaret Thatcher made much the same argument in her famous statement to the 1998 British Conservative Party conference that no generation has a ‘freehold’ on the earth: ‘All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.’ )

Early sustainability concerns were not just philosophical reflections. Wood shortages affected a number of European countries in the early modern era. In 18th century this prompted discussion in German forestry circles on how to use natural resources in the interests of present and future generations, leading Von Carlowitz to propose a principle of nachhaltende Nutzung (sustainable use). This implied the need to keep the harvesting of trees within rates of regrowth.

Two centuries later, in 1908, US President Theodore Roosevelt, riding the Progressive Era tide of public interest in conservation, established a National Conservation Commission, which then made the first survey of the natural resources of the United States. Even into the early years of the ‘Great Acceleration’ of economic growth after World War II, the economist Ciriacy-Wantrup was arguing that we shouldn’t run nature down because the cost of restoring it would be unacceptably high.

Society is a contract…

None of these arguments is even slightly suggestive of what might be described today as a ‘Green Left agenda’. In fact, you could argue that conservatives were all over this issue more than a century ago. What is common to the arguments is an express or implied concern for the future, especially a social obligation to future generations. This is entirely consistent with the argument of another conservative, British philosopher and MP Edmund Burke, that ‘Society is a contract… between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born’. This concern is also the essence of ‘intergenerational equity’, the principle underlying the modern ideal of environmental sustainability.

With broad support for environmental causes on the Left, and with the strong conservative pedigree of sustainability, why isn’t there bipartisan support for policies to keep the environment in good condition for future generations?