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Book Review: Paul Collins' Burn

I just finished Paul Collins' Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia, and I must say that I find it to be a curious book. Collins tells the story of bushfire in Australia from roughly the Black Thursday fires of 1851 to the Alpine and Canberra fires of 2003 (albeit not always in chronological order). The obvious point of comparison would be Steve Pyne's Burning Bush (1991) and The Still-Burning Bush (2006), which are usually treated as the definitive works on this topic. Collins' citations of Pyne are sparse and invariably favorable. Yet Burn makes a case nearly directly opposite to Pyne's.

Collins and Pyne have vastly different interpretations of the last 150 years of fire management. They agree that the early European settlers burned frequently. Pyne argues that the early 20th century saw a period of elite-mandated fire suppression similar to what prevailed earlier in India and later in the US. In his telling, this policy was unsustainable because of the impossibility of continued suppression over such a large and sparsely populated area, and its warrant was signed by the massive Black Friday fires of 1939. Collins, on the other hand, laments that the anti-fire scientific elites were unable to put their ideas into practice at all. As he sees it, the Black Friday fires were a result of widespread human-caused burning (both directly and via long-term alterations to the ecosystem), but the facts were grossly misinterpreted so that they were taken as an endorsement of continuing the pyrophilic status quo.

The political debate in Australia over fire management is roughly polarized into two camps: the "localists" and the "environmentalists" (though my research has found that this polarization is not reproduced among the general public). The "localist" position -- of which Pyne's more recent book reveals him to be an adherent -- is that rural people have a good understanding of their environment and can be trusted when they say that regular controlled burning is necessary to manage fuel loads. The "environmentalist" position states that anthropogenic fire is destructive to the ecology and so nature should be left alone. Connected to these two positions (in real life, though the connections are not entailed by logic) are constructivist and naturalist positions, respectively, with regard to nature.

Collins takes up the "environmentalist" side with gusto. He boldly touts the superiority of scientific expertise, portrays rural people as irresponsible and ignorant, and claims concern for ecology as the exclusive property of his faction*. But his rhetorical bark is out of proportion to his evidential bite, which consists at best in citing scientists who "correctly argue" for positions congenial to the "environmentalist" view, and at worst in psychoanalyzing the presumed pathological motives of those who disagree with him.

To get a more detailed look at what makes Collins' brief for the "environmentalist" side unconvincing, take his discussion of the "fire-stick farming" thesis. "Fire-stick farming" is the idea (popularized by Rhys Jones) that the Aborigines used fire extensively to modify their environment in ways congenial to the growth of plants that are tasty to humans or game animals. Among the sins of fire-stick farming proponents, Collins says, is that they ignore the diversity among different Aboriginal groups in different parts of the continent. Yet he goes on directly to claim that the Aborigines couldn't have had a significant environmental impact because the Dreaming worldview stresses continuity rather than change -- a blanket generalization if I ever saw one. (As it happens, the over-generalization charge against fire-stick farmers is not actually true. For example, Sylvia Hallam's Fire and Hearth, which Collins cites as a notable example of the genre, makes detailed distinctions between Aboriginal practices in different parts of southwestern Australia -- much like Benson and Redpath, who Collins names as excellent anti-fire-stick-farmers, do for the Sydney area. Further, while Collins' summary of the timelessness of the Dreaming is accurate, non-interference with nature does not follow from it. The Dreaming would bar innovative and advantage-seeking manipulation of the environment of the type that Euro-Australian miners, developers, etc propose. But traditional Aboriginal culture established a duty to use fire to actively maintain the environment established by the Dreaming ancestors, a practice quite consistent with the possibility that that environment is quite different from what would prevail if humans put down their fire-sticks.)

This is not to say that Collins gets everything wrong. Certainly burning on the scale and frequency advocated by some "localists" would be unfeasible, and destructive if we got close, so fire policy should focus on modifying the immediate surroundings of houses while allowing ecological values more sway farther out. He's right to point to the huge importance of weather in shaping fire disasters (though he emphasizes the importance of fuel conditions when it suits the "environmentalist" side, and he is curiously skeptical about the impacts of climate change). And he makes a consistent secondary point that the geographical pattern of settlement, resulting in long stretches of wildland-urban interface that are exceptionally hard to defend.

*Hence my use of quotes around "environmentalist."


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