As record fires rage, the country’s leaders seem intent on sending it to its doom.
Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious
- Great Barrier Reef is dying, its
- world-heritage rain forests are burning, its
- giant kelp forests have largely vanished,
- numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the
- vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.
The images of the fires are a cross between “Mad Max” and “On the Beach”: thousands driven onto beaches in a dull orange haze, crowded tableaux of people and animals almost medieval in their strange muteness — half-Bruegel, half-Bosch, ringed by fire, survivors’ faces hidden behind masks and swimming goggles. Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno. Flames leaping 200 feet into the air. Fire tornadoes. Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames, refugees in their own country.
The fires have already burned about 14.5 million acres — an area almost as large as West Virginia, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia. Canberra’s air on New Year’s Day was the most polluted in the world partly because of a plume of fire smoke as wide as Europe.
Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed and fear that some species of animals and plants may have been wiped out completely. Surviving animals are abandoning their young in what is described as mass “starvation events.” At least 18 people are dead and grave fears are held about many more.
All this, and peak fire season is only just beginning.
As I write, a state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales and a state of disaster in Victoria, mass evacuations are taking place, a humanitarian catastrophe is feared, and towns up and down the east coast are surrounded by fires, all transport and most communication links cut, their fate unknown.
An email that the retired engineer Ian Mitchell sent to friends on New Year’s Day from the small northern Victoria community of Gipsy Point speaks for countless Australians at this moment of catastrophe:
we and most of Gipsy Point houses still here as of now. We have 16 people in Gipsy pt.
No power, no phone no chance of anyone arriving for 4 days as all roads blocked. Only satellite email is working We have 2 bigger boats and might be able to get supplies ‘esp fuel at Coota.
We need more able people to defend the town as we are in for bad heat from Friday again. Tucks area will be a problem from today, but trees down on all tracks, and no one to fight it.
We are tired, but ok.
But we are here in 2020!
The bookstore in the fire-ravaged village of Cobargo, New South Wales, has a new sign outside: “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs.”
And yet, incredibly, the response of Australia’s leaders to this unprecedented national crisis has been not to defend their country but to defend the coal industry, a big donor to both major parties — as if they were willing the country to its doom. While the fires were exploding in mid-December, the leader of the opposition Labor Party went on a tour of coal mines expressing his unequivocal support for coal exports. The prime minister, the conservative Scott Morrison, went on vacation to Hawaii.
Since 1996 successive conservative Australian governments have successfully fought to subvert international agreements on climate change in defense of the country’s fossil fuel industries. Today, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of both coal and gas. It recently was ranked 57th out of 57 countries on climate-change action.
In no small part Mr. Morrison owes his narrow election victory last year to the coal-mining oligarch Clive Palmer, who formed a puppet party to keep the Labor Party — which had been committed to limited but real climate-change action — out of government. Mr. Palmer’s advertising budget for the campaign was more than double that of the two major parties combined. Mr. Palmer subsequently announced plans to build the biggest coal mine in Australia.
Since Mr. Morrison, an ex-marketing man, was forced to return from his vacation and publicly apologize, he has chosen to spend his time creating feel-good images of himself, posing with cricketers or his family. He is seen far less often at the fires’ front lines, visiting ravaged communities or with survivors. Mr. Morrison has tried to present the fires as catastrophe-as-usual, nothing out of the ordinary.
This posture seems to be a chilling political calculation: With no effective opposition from a Labor Party reeling from its election loss and with media dominated by Rupert Murdoch — 58 percent of daily newspaper circulation — firmly behind his climate denialism, Mr. Morrison appears to hope that he will prevail as long as he doesn’t acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster engulfing Australia.
Mr. Morrison made his name as immigration minister, perfecting the cruelty of a policy that interns refugees in hellish Pacific-island camps, and seems indifferent to human suffering. Now his government has taken a disturbing authoritarian turn, cracking down on unions, civic organizations and journalists. Under legislation pending in Tasmania, and expected to be copied across Australia, environmental protesters now face up to 21 years in jail for demonstrating.
“Australia is a burning nation led by cowards,” wrote the leading broadcaster Hugh Riminton, speaking for many. To which he might have added “idiots,” after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack blamed the fires on exploding horse manure.
Such are those who would open the gates of hell and lead a nation to commit climate suicide.
More than one-third of Australians are estimated to be affected by the fires. By a significant and increasing majority, Australians want action on climate change, and they are now asking questions about the growing gap between the Morrison government’s ideological fantasies and the reality of a dried-out, rapidly heating, burning Australia.
The situation is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the ruling apparatchiks were all-powerful but losing the fundamental, moral legitimacy to govern. In Australia today, a political establishment, grown sclerotic and demented on its own fantasies, is facing a monstrous reality which it has neither the ability nor the will to confront.
Mr. Morrison may have a massive propaganda machine in the Murdoch press and no opposition, but his moral authority is bleeding away by the hour. On Thursday, after walking away from a pregnant woman asking for help, he was forced to flee the angry, heckling residents of a burned-out town. A local conservative politician described his own leader’s humiliation as “the welcome he probably deserved.”
As Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, once observed, the collapse of the Soviet Union began with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. In the wake of that catastrophe, “the system as we knew it became untenable,” he wrote in 2006. Could it be that the immense, still-unfolding tragedy of the Australian fires may yet prove to be the Chernobyl of climate crisis?
There’s nothing like a shock election result to force media sophisticates to eat their words. The triumph of the center-right Liberal-National Coalition government in Australia has caused plenty of verbal indigestion.
A few days ago, polls and betting markets pointed to a Labor victory. Journalists and intellectuals insisted that ordinary Aussies wanted government to fight climate change and soak the rich. Prime Minister Scott Morrison couldn’t possibly win. The 51-year-old evangelical coal-cuddler was the wrong man for his times.
But on Saturday the government, which has had three leaders in six years, tightened its hold on Parliament while a humiliated Labor Party lost crucial marginal seats in the eastern states of Queensland, Tasmania and New South Wales. The election will go down as the most dramatic failure of discernment in the history of Australian punditry. Sound familiar?
In 2016 U.S. pollsters had to deal with the “shy Trump” factor. People feared admitting they’d vote for the Republican nominee because he was socially unacceptable. The same dynamic was at work in Britain during the 2016 referendum on whether to leave the European Union. Polls pointed to a Remain victory, but millions of shy Brexiteers crept into the polling booths and voted Leave. By depicting its opponents as backward and deplorable, the left intimidated them into going underground, making it impossible to gauge their strength before an election.
Shy voters now shape Australian politics. During the past three years, television and social-media outlets created a climate of opinion in which it was politically incorrect to oppose identity politics, high taxes, wealth redistribution and costly climate-mitigation policies. In the privacy of the voting booth, “quiet Australians,” as Mr. Morrison calls them, decided that their interests lay in a low-tax and resource-rich market economy.
Mr. Morrison’s path to victory was about as narrow as Donald Trump’s road to the White House. But he was helped by his opponents’ lurch to the left. The Labor Party, which did much to deregulate the Australian economy in the 1980s, was now pledging high taxes on property investors, self-funded retirees and high-earning wealth creators.
In the name of reducing inequality, Labor wanted to raise government obstacles to the kind of risk-taking and hard work that allowed many Australians to climb the income ladder so rapidly. Since the mid-1980s, Australia has pursued market reforms that improve incentives to work and save. The result has been nearly three decades of sustainable economic growth—a record for longest uninterrupted economic expansion in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. On Saturday Labor learned that class warfare no longer appeals to the middle class, who aspire to become rich and who understand the perverse incentives of high taxes.
Much of the Evangelical Industrial Complex has been created to make Christianity relevant, acceptable, and attractive to our consumer culture. Author and missional expert, Michael Frost, says this is a mistake. Instead, we should be emphasizing our faith’s weirdness and call more Christians to be eccentric—literally “off center.” Also this week: Phil and Skye take on “The Good Place,” a TV show about heaven without God or religion, the UK’s Supreme Court rules in favor of a Christian baker, and (fake) butt news from a Hawaiian seal hospital.
President Trump so alarmed his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, during a discussion last January of the nuclear standoff with North Korea that an exasperated Mr. Mattis told colleagues “the president acted like — and had the understanding of — a ‘fifth or sixth grader.’”
At another moment, Mr. Trump’s aides became so worried about his judgment that Gary D. Cohn, then the chief economic adviser, took a letter from the president’s Oval Office desk authorizing the withdrawal of the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Mr. Trump, who had planned to sign the letter, never realized it was missing.
.. book by Bob Woodward that depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation — “crazytown,” in the words of the chief of staff, John F. Kelly — hostage to the whims of an impulsive, ill-informed and undisciplined president.
.. The White House, in a statement, dismissed “Fear” as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.”
.. Mr. Woodward portrays Mr. Mattis as frequently derisive of the commander in chief, rattled by his judgment, and willing to slow-walk orders from him that he viewed as reckless.
.. Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Mattis about why the United States keeps a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mr. Mattis responded, according to Mr. Woodward.
.. In April 2017, after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria launched a chemical attack on his own people, Mr. Trump called Mr. Mattis and told him that he wanted the United States to assassinate Mr. Assad. “Let’s go in,” the president said, adding a string of expletives.
The defense secretary hung up and told one of his aides: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” At his direction, the Pentagon prepared options for an airstrike on Syrian military positions, which Mr. Trump later ordered.
.. another layer to a recurring theme in the Trump White House: frustrated aides who sometimes resort to extraordinary measures to thwart the president’s decisions — a phenomenon the author describes as “an administrative coup d’état.” In addition to Mr. Mattis and Mr. Cohn, he recounts the tribulations of Mr. Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whose tensions with Mr. Trump have been reported elsewhere.
.. Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, told a colleague he had removed the letter about the Korea free trade agreement to protect national security. Later, when the president ordered a similar letter authorizing the departure of the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Cohn and other aides plotted how to prevent him from going ahead with a move they feared would be deeply destabilizing.
.. Last January, Mr. Woodward writes, Mr. Dowd staged a practice session in the White House residence to dramatize the pressures Mr. Trump would face in a session with Mr. Mueller. The president stumbled repeatedly, contradicting himself and lying, before he exploded in anger.
.. Mr. Woodward told Mr. Trump he interviewed many White House officials outside their offices, and gathered extensive documentation. “It’s a tough look at the world and the administration and you,” he told Mr. Trump.
“Right,” the president replied. “Well, I assume that means it’s going to be a negative book.”
Trump’s preoccupation with foreigners “taking advantage” of Americans could still usher in an Australian-style future.
.. Australia does not separate the children of “unauthorized arrivals” from their parents, but it does detain entire families in horrible conditions, sometimes for years.
.. The only way to deter people desperate enough to risk death on their journey to a new country is to threaten them with conditions worse than the ones they fled.
A United Nations report from 2017 cites isolation, overcrowding and limited access to basic services on Manus and Nauru, along with “allegations of sexual abuse by the service providers” and continuing reports of self-harm and suicide.
.. About 80 percent of the asylum seekers detained on Nauru and Manus are ultimately found to be refugees. But with no prospect of ever being allowed into Australia, hundreds decide to return to their countries of origin.
.. While a quarter of the population say policies are too tough, higher numbers usually say policies are too soft. Some Australians see refugees from predominantly Muslim war-torn countries as national security threats, and believe they must be dealt with as harshly as possible.
.. Politicians justify draconian measures with appeals to Australians’ sense of fairness and safety, and in turn they face an electorate that they fear would punish them if they did otherwise.
.. politicians warn that people smugglers are watching and waiting for a moment of weakness by Australia
.. Last month, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton warned that “the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion.”
.. If American public opinion turns toward accepting cruel deterrent measures, it will be political rhetoric that leads the way. Warnings by the Trump administration that criminals use children to exploit legal loopholes would sound familiar to Australians, whose government once claimed that asylum seekers threw children into the sea to force the navy to take them to Australia.
.. fictional dystopias to account for our asylum policies we often reach for Ursula Le Guin. Her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes a peaceful and idyllic city-state whose happiness depends on the cruel imprisonment of a child in a basement. Everyone knows the child is there.
.. “Le Guin intended her story as a cautionary tale. How did we end up with two political parties using it as an instruction manual?”
Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.
And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.
.. Extensive survey datashow that Republicans are much more right-leaning than they were twenty years ago, Democrats much more left-leaning, and both sides much more likely to see the other as a mortal threat to the nation’s welfare.
.. Fully 50 percent of Republicans would not want their child to marry a Democrat, and nearly a third of Democrats return the sentiment. Interparty marriage has taken the place of interracial marriage as a family taboo.
.. as Americans increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities. We no longer just have our own opinions. We also have our separate “facts,” often the result of what different media outlets consider newsworthy. In the last election, fully 40 percent of Trump voters named Fox News as their chief source of news.
Thanks a bunch for that one, Australia.
.. Allan Bloom .. published a learned polemic about the state of higher education in the United States. It was called “The Closing of the American Mind.”
.. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.
.. To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.
It’s what used to be called a liberal education.
.. The University of Chicago showed us something else: that every great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea.
Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.
.. Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.
In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.
.. 51 percent — think it is “acceptable” for a student group to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. An astonishing 20 percent also agree that it’s acceptable to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking.
.. Middlebury is one of the most prestigious liberal-arts colleges in the United States, with an acceptance rate of just 16 percent and tuition fees of nearly $50,000 a year. How does an elite institution become a factory for junior totalitarians, so full of their own certitudes that they could indulge their taste for bullying and violence?
.. I was raised on the old-fashioned view that sticks and stones could break my bones but words would never hurt me. But today there’s a belief that since words can cause stress, and stress can have physiological effects, stressful words are tantamount to a form of violence. This is the age of protected feelings purchased at the cost of permanent infantilization.
.. Then we get to college, where the dominant mode of politics is identity politics, and in which the primary test of an argument isn’t the quality of the thinking but the cultural, racial, or sexual standing of the person making it. As a woman of color I think X. As a gay man I think Y. As a person of privilege I apologize for Z. This is the baroque way Americans often speak these days. It is a way of replacing individual thought — with all the effort that actual thinking requires — with social identification
.. But it is a safe space of a uniquely pernicious kind — a safe space from thought, rather than a safe space for thought, to borrow a line I recently heard from Salman Rushdie.
.. it has made the distance between making an argument and causing offense terrifyingly short. Any argument that can be cast as insensitive or offensive to a given group of people isn’t treated as being merely wrong. Instead it is seen as immoral, and therefore unworthy of discussion or rebuttal.
.. For fear of causing offense, they forego the opportunity to be persuaded.
.. If you want to make a winning argument for same-sex marriage, particularly against conservative opponents, make it on a conservative foundation: As a matter of individual freedom, and as an avenue toward moral responsibility and social respectability. The No’s will have a hard time arguing with that. But if you call them morons and Neanderthals, all you’ll get in return is their middle finger or their clenched fist.
.. the so-called “alt-right” justifies its white-identity politics in terms that are coyly borrowed from the progressive left. One of the more dismaying features of last year’s election was the extent to which “white working class” became a catchall identity for people whose travails we were supposed to pity but whose habits or beliefs we were not supposed to criticize. The result was to give the Trump base a moral pass it did little to earn.
.. seem to think that free speech is a one-way right: Namely, their right to disinvite, shout down or abuse anyone they dislike, lest they run the risk of listening to that person — or even allowing someone else to listen.
.. Yes, we disagree constantly. But what makes our disagreements so toxic is that we refuse to make eye contact with our opponents, or try to see things as they might, or find some middle ground.
.. Fox News and other partisan networks have demonstrated that the quickest route to huge profitability is to serve up a steady diet of high-carb, low-protein populist pap. Reasoned disagreement of the kind that could serve democracy well fails the market test. Those of us who otherwise believe in the virtues of unfettered capitalism should bear that fact in mind.
.. no country can have good government, or a healthy public square, without high-quality journalism — journalism that can distinguish a fact from a belief and again from an opinion
.. that requires proprietors and publishers who understand that their role ought not to be to push a party line, or be a slave to Google hits and Facebook ads, or provide a titillating kind of news entertainment, or help out a president or prime minister who they favor or who’s in trouble.
.. Their role is to clarify the terms of debate by championing aggressive and objective news reporting, and improve the quality of debate with commentary that opens minds and challenges assumptions rather than merely confirming them.
.. This is journalism in defense of liberalism, not liberal in the left-wing American or right-wing Australian sense, but liberal in its belief that the individual is more than just an identity, and that free men and women do not need to be protected from discomfiting ideas and unpopular arguments. More than ever, they need to be exposed to them, so that we may revive the arts of disagreement that are the best foundation of intelligent democratic life.