Ideas for a brighter future for all

Of what sense is the this?

“There is no sense in anything I do, if the house burns down,” writes Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. But it is exactly as the house is burning down that he urges us to carry on as always, with diligence, care, and precision, even as perhaps life as we know it will disappear from Earth, with no trace, no memory of what was done. He writes it is too late to change; there is no more time; but we must carry on as before.

I viscerally recall New Year’s Eve 2019, the wordless night of razing fires. Springing to life on a mountain far enough away in the unfamiliar terrain of a bordering shire, it spat-crackled its path toward ultimate perdition. It began for us with little to worry about. We were here, it was there.  

My experience of the once familiar became irrelative.  

On that incandescent night, primal language reached a guttural place of the felt of fear. The vast fire in its profound un-familiarity with its bewildering encirclement dissolved any notion of a borderline between once familiar elements. I sucked the ash into my body, blinked, rubbed ash from my eyes, and exhaled ash back out in-to the night. 

The years of fires, along with the years of floods all running over, the usually separated order now seemed all fire, all flood, all racking dis-ease, forcing me to discern the tension between my existence and the imperceptible traces I leave on things and other things leave on me and each other. In such a time, reduced to a creaturely life, these lived encounters in the always already now un-familiar must surely be the uncanny par excellence.  

How did the telos that gave me my identity and self-understanding become a felt impossibility on the night of the fire?  

The Australian firestorms of 2019-20 unprecedented in extent and intensity, completely outstripped projections for early 21st-century climate scenarios. More than 80% of the World Heritage listed Greater Blue Mountains Area and 54% of the New South Wales components of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage property were affected by fire. The extensive and long-lived fires appear to be the largest in scale in the modern record in New South Wales, burning 5.3 million hectares, 6.7% of the State. The total area burnt appears to be the largest in a single recorded fire season for eastern Australia. With an estimated more than 70% of its endangered plants, 800 million animals, and vulnerable habitats threatened due to the fires, one is surely pressed to ask, how did we get to this?

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on Banksia serrata cone following a bushfire

The western view of fire is one of destruction, fear, and uncertainty. Plutarch tells us in The Life of Crassus, that Crassus capitalized on the fear and uncertainty of fire by rapaciously acquiring homes that had burned (and their adjoining properties) at trifling prices. We act in response to this fear, often acting impulsively in the “now” of the felt moment.  

Whereas for many First Nations peoples, fire is valued both for its symbolism and use in the co-evolution of a living system where fire was a life study. The elemental and human intertwine in successive movements of renewal and enhancement. Fire is seen as part of an ecology of internal relations where no one event stands alone.  A practice of care to “look after fire” was a feature of making and caring for country where, for First Nation peoples, country will tell you when and where to burn.Indigenous Australians’ “cultural fire” are practices that renew and enhance the health of country: times for storm-burn country, times for curing knowledge, and “burn grass time” as “ancient as time itself”.

Studies in Indigenous philosophical ecology give rise to the notion that becoming human is a multi-species project extending the ontological turn to include other-than-human entities. In “reading the land” Indigenous Australians read the human, nonhuman and elemental, where fire wasn’t everything, but it had a cause, it had consequences, and it became a catalyst for other events.  

In the rich trope of Agamben’s burning house, Agamben further asks which house is burning, the country where you live or the whole world? After the fires in the country where I live, in the country of the Bundajalung people, through a deep commitment to change, First Nations people and local ecologists began to revive the ancient practice of cultural burning, telling stories, and reanimating past experiences. 

If we sit uneasily in the present as a future that has already arrived, how do we re-imagine the human relation to the nonhuman elements of the planet for which our very habitable existence depends, and for which humans are not central?  

Environmental change gives us pause to consider the immense cross-ontological alliances through which ecosystems co-create and where the human is constituted by and symbiotically related to things, place, and people – in an uncanny world. 

If as I suspect, we feel disoriented in our place, beginning with the feeling that things that were once connected and ought to be present are now missing, then how do I work with that feeling? What shape is it taking? Be-wilderment, ap-prehension, es-strangement; shapes of puzzlement, feelings of foreboding, a sense of alienation?

My thinking directs me outward and inward at the same time.

"Environmental change gives us pause to consider the immense cross-ontological alliances through which ecosystems co-create and where the human is constituted by and symbiotically related to things, place, and people – in an uncanny world."
Making fire

In my own way, I am a force that dominates other species and the landscape. Am I destined to do this, is it part of my nature? In essentialist terms, this view would be disturbing. However, informed debate suggests humanity “stumbled” into this epoch while enjoying and exploiting the fruits of development in all its guises. Even the idea that this is a “new” epoch is contentious for some. And yet.  

Stumbling or otherwise, here I am in a place that now exceeds my customary modes of understanding, causes me to discover gaps in my mental landscape, and causes me to question my reliance on the familiar.  

The known and unknown require I re-attend diligently, as Agamben extols, to the once given “abstract” insentient elements (earth, air, fire, water) begging urgent redress on scales previously un-imagined. I depend on the biosphere but it was not made with me in mind.   

If, as part of the humanscape, I shape geological and biological time, my future must without doubt remain uncertain in the large-scale temporal processes. Contra Agamben who writes “[f]or what’s going on around you / is no longer your concern” –  I must be concerned.  Nonetheless, Agamben points out, it is at the very moment when all seems finished that the thing and the place appear in splendour.  

To step back for a moment. If we view the reliable “natural” of the early Holocene as a stable period allowing humans to thrive and as a time when western humanity positioned itself to view nature in naïve luxury; to contemplate an idealized unchanging landscape, to regard ourselves as “masters of the earth” then the late Holocene, a period of dramatic disruption is Martin Heidegger’s age of Ge-stell.  

The flame has changed. 


Dr Anne Stuart

Dr Anne Stuart is Adjunct Research Fellow and Lecturer in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University.


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