Robin Boyd's Bad Dream in a Time of Climate Change
By Philip Drew. Posted 21/04/20
Boyd at his witty best could have imagined the great Australian tragedy, an international Climate Change pariah.
Words speak over and beyond time, and Boyd saw Australia as corrupted utterly by colonials and arboraphobes. The Great Dream culminates in two devastating scenarios that apotheosize Australian shallowness: an American safari hunt in north Queensland in which the targets are families of aborigines (pregnant women are excluded), a shoot in which the game is human; and a new tourist hotel atop Mt Kosciusko. Boyd’s imagination fell well short of reality, the great sell-off of Australia under the opportunist flag of globalism and neo-con economics. Look where it has landed us—Australia, our house, is on fire, a billion native fauna incinerated, ten million hectares of bushland turned to ash, more than a thousand houses destroyed and what is offered is yet another royal commission after 56 inquiries have achieved little of substance. We live in a mentally incapacitated nation, incapable of learning or improving on its ways for the better.
There is no excuse for such paralysis, there is no conspiracy or obvious attempt to conceal the truth, it is plain to see we are being sucked into the vortex of fire, knowledge on what we need to do is readily available. I refer you to the excellent AIA acumen website prepared by Nigel Bell from the blue Mountains, and the recommendations of the Royal Commission Report on the Black Saturday bushfires of 7 February 2009, which resulted in the highest ever loss of human life from a bushfire with 173 fatalities. A tragedy that has been repeated just a decade later.
The time has arrived when we need to rethink completely how we engage with the land, how we manage land use and deal with the new environmental challenges we confront that are the result of human intervention driving Climate Change. Besides the foxes, rabbits, deer, prickly pear, and other introduced feral animals and plants, we need to consider our own impact as by far the most destructive invasive species of all to arrive here. Our impact, compared to the first Australians, has been massive. In little more than 230 years, we have permanently altered beyond recognition and devastated the environment as a God given right. Aborigines lived here in harmony with nature for more than 60,000 years with only the loss of megafauna, a feat Maoris accomplished in a hundred.
The hardest thing of all is to change the fundamental direction and habits of our culture and rethink how we ought to relate to nature, how we see ourselves in the natural environment. Nature does not lie. What we are now seeing and experiencing as a result of the new bushfire regime will not vanish by magic and is symptomatic of a profound malaise directing our actions and economic behavior of which the politics of denialism is but an outward sign.
Pep Canadell, a chief research scientist of CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, recently wrote: ‘The fires during the past few months have been unique in the modern fire history of Australia because of their location, extent and rich carbon reservoirs. The latest estimates are of 10 million hectares of burnt area (and counting) in the south and southeast, making this year’s fire season the largest in the regions since records began.’[i] Sixty years before this, Robin Boyd offered this analysis, ‘The failure of Australia to come to terms with herself—worse: her failure to have the least desire to come to terms with herself—can largely be explained in a phrase: the cult of pioneering. The early period of discovery, exploration and taming of the country coloured the national outlook till long after the frontier had been pushed back out of sight..’.[ii] Besides pioneers, Boyd identified aborophobes as runners up in hatred of the native: ‘Measured against a fresh green European ideal, the Australian bush represents a slovenly scene…’ and thought its poor habits, in combination with its failure to conform to the European image, accounted for the refusal of suburbanites to come to terms with the Australian bush. Boyd missed one crucial fact about the gum, it is the most carbon dense forest in the world, many accumulating hundreds of tons of carbon per hectare.[iii]
The thing about denialism is that it is not new and was present since Europeans first stepped ashore and declared Australia ‘terra nullius’. It was a mindset, blindness knows not itself. There are things we can do in the face of Climate Change remembering this is the first tranche for 1 degree increase in the average global temperature, which if we continue, will rise a further 2.5 degrees by 2100. History supplies plenty of examples in the past where humans have failed to respond creatively to critical existential challenges resulting in collapse.[iv] Such modest changes to building practices as mentioned will prove inadequate in dealing with the intensified expanded future bushfire threat. Individuals still insist on locating at remote isolated sites in the bush thereby increasing the difficulty and cost of defending their property which is much greater than if they joined in a community for mutual defence in otherwise compact settlements.
Looking back a few centuries to troubled times of civil disorder, we discover that instead of standing alone and dying alone, people pooled their limited resources to maximise their powers of defence through the creation of settlements defended by walls in Europe and the Mediterranean. Many such redoubt villages survive as popular tourist resorts: Carcassonne, Dubrovnik, Mykonos, San Gimignano spring to mind because of their picturesque fortification walls, maize of narrow confused lanes and towers. I was intrigued by the solution worked out by farmers along the coast of Catalonia who retreated inland from the sea shore in the face of recurring attacks by Corsair pirates from North Africa. They moved their village inland behind the first line of hills, across a hot dusty plain and rebuilt on the second line of hills delaying the attackers arrival, exhausting them, and creating an early warning system from the dust kicked up by the attacking force as it crossed the plain, giving the defenders additional time to prepare their defence. It is common sense of the kind that is missing from our response to bushfires. Much the same principles of defence apply to fire, though the specific means adopted are not the same.
The town of Chora on the Greek island of Patmos. The narrow streets clustered on a high point round the fortified Monastery of Saint John date from the 12th Century and are arranged in a defensive pattern. Pirate raids were common in the region, especially on the island of Chios. Image by H Robertson.
If followed, settlements in bushfire prone environments would be surrounded by perimeter berms to deflect ember attacks upwards, and by a continuous water curtain with houses in non-combustible similarly tightly grouped formations behind it, with a central fire detection lookout and water reservoir, combined with community shelter, medical facilities and helipad for emergency evacuation. We need to rethink the design and form of fire survival dwellings in the bush. Improvements that do not go beyond gutter protection and the elimination of entry points may not be enough. Once upon a time we had a national laboratory, the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station which fire rated materials and construction, which was sold. We need its modern equivalent to develop and improve the design and construction of dwellings against bushfires.
President Emmanuel Macron recently ordered new public buildings financed by the French state must contain 50 per cent wood by 2022 under an ambitious government plan for a greener urban life, and Paris mayor Ms Hidalgo has announced a tree planting scheme to create an “urban forest” with four “island of freshness” to counter the heat generated in the most densely populated districts. Meanwhile, in Australia, no such action, just the exact reverse.[v] Christophe Ouhayoun, an architect of the Olympic village, called wood a “magic material” for housing since it is carbon free.
Much more could be written, but after 56 enquiries including the Royal Commission following Black Saturday bushfires by Justice Bernard Teague, yet more are unlikely to add anything more than we already know on the subject. More than forty-years ago, in the 1970s and 1980s, architects such as Glenn Murcutt, designed houses that responded to the bushfire threat. The public should demand research and action. Enquiries simply delay action. Architects can contribute in significant ways through suggesting creative innovating answers that improve the quality of dwelling design and plans for rebuilding settlements. To rebuild what existed risks repeating the same tragedy over and over again.
Philip Drew is an independent Sydney architectural historian and critic.
[i] Pep Canadell, ‘Fire weather worsening, more heat, less rainfall’, The Weekend Australian, 17,198, Feb 1-2, 2020, p. 18 INQUIRER.
[ii] Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, Penguin Books, Mitcham, Vic., 1960, p. 89.
[iii] Canadell, ibid.
[iv] Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin Group (Australia), Camberwell, Vic., 2005.
[v] Charles Bremmer, ‘Macron acts on concrete jungles’, The Australian, 17,201, Friday 7 February, 2020, p. 8.
© Philip Drew 2020