April 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Read after burning

By Alex Tighe
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Do the great philosophers offer guidance for disaster recovery?

How should we make sense of the Black Summer bushfires? What lessons can we find amid the destruction?

These were the questions that drew people – a lot of people – to the Muniment Room at the University of Sydney one recent afternoon. So many people that other questions soon arose, like how to fit 80 into a room made for half that number. “Is this structurally sound?” one student asked, pointing to a wide windowsill. Soon a dozen were seated on it. The event had been organised by the philosophy department in response to “the devastating events of this summer”, and the crowd was gathered to see what guidance, if any, philosophers could give.

Associate Professor Kristie Miller, a metaphysics expert, spoke first. Her dog, Freddie, was by her side throughout the presentation – he had a scar on his belly from where he’d been gored by a panicked kangaroo escaping the fires. Miller had evacuated three times over the summer; it was thanks only to flukes of the weather and the efforts of volunteer firefighters that her house in the Southern Highlands wasn’t destroyed. Some time before the workshop, Scott Morrison had announced that volunteer firefighters from New South Wales could claim $300 per day away from their jobs, to a maximum of $6000. At least that’s something, Miller thought ­initially. “And then you do the maths,” she said, “and you realise that, well, at $300 a day that means you can claim up to 20 days of wages.” On average each firefighter worked roughly a hundred days, Miller said, which means they worked 80 for free. “You might think that it’s the federal government’s job to protect its citizens from threats like fire. Clearly it doesn’t share your view, right?”

Miller spoke quickly, sweating in the heat. It was 30 degrees outside; inside, without air-conditioning, the single fan in the corner was mostly symbolic against the human humidity.

The curious thing, to Miller, was why the federal government didn’t do more about the bushfire crisis. After all, it was possible to recognise the fires were causing extreme destruction without having to acknowledge climate change as a cause. Suppose there’s a sinking boat, Miller said. The government has life rafts they could send to save the passengers, but there are competing hypotheses over what caused the boat to sink. Most people think it hit an iceberg, but some think the boat was built badly and others that it was attacked by a militant octopus who hates boats. So the government decides not to send the rafts, out of a concern it will vindicate the idea that icebergs exist. “To which I say,” Miller concluded, “that is the worst piece of argumentation I’ve ever heard.”

Sound logic or not, throughout the summer certain members of the government had become focused on the “competing hypotheses” of what caused the catastrophic bushfire season. Some floated an (unexplained) uptake of arson, while one senator posed the more sinister theory that climate activists had deliberately lit the fires. Conspiracy theories were the topic of the next speakers, Dr Hannah Tierney and Professor Mark Colyvan.

One thing responsible for the persistence of these conspiracies, Tierney said, was motivated reasoning, which is “when we form or maintain a belief, at least in part, because we want that belief to be true”. For example, the “arson emergency” explanation – there were chuckles at the mention – made it possible for some to hold onto their belief that climate change had nothing to do with the catastrophic bushfires. Therefore those people were motivated to seek out reasons to believe in widespread arson and to reject any evidence against it. Arguing against a motivated reasoner is a frustrating experience, and a particularly fruitless one, Tierney suggested. “So rather, what we need to do,” she said, “is start thinking about why it is that people would want to believe that global warming isn’t occurring.”

By this point the room was so full that the presenters were playing a kind of musical chairs: when each presenter finished they would take the only available seat, which was the one the new presenter had just vacated. Professor Paul Griffiths, a philosopher of science, abandoned his seat next, to make the case that in the current circumstances it’s less important that people grasp the minutiae of the science; the main thing that matters is that people have the information that conduces them to act in the right way.

He then took the seat of Associate Professor Anik Waldow, who argued that the prime minister’s “resilience and adaptation” response to the bushfires – the “practical measures” we keep hearing about – is dehumanising in a subtle but significant way. To only ever be responding to events “reduces us to something that is similar to the Cartesian animal-machine,” Waldow said, referring to Descartes’ famous argument that animals have no minds. Sure, in the moment of a bushfire bearing down on your home, to think you are in control is an illusion. But outside of those times of acute crisis, if we aim only to respond to the next bushfire, then “we give away the privilege to act … you do not make use of the capacities that you have as a human being”.

The final speaker was Professor Rick Benitez, with a talk titled “Hope and Hopelessness”. “I fear that I’m going to disappoint you,” he began. He then enumerated all the reasons for despair. His “favourite” was the inductive argument: Benitez has been a climate activist for 40 years, and in that time very little has changed, so why would things change now? “The demon is always at the door, I am going to die, you are going to die, we’re all going to die, the Earth is going to vanish,” he said, and there was laughter at this point, a little manic. “It is inevitable. Things are hopeless!”

And yet, Benitez said, as a person rather than a philosopher, he wasn’t ready to give up. He had a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald projected behind him, and he read it out: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

The talks ended. The room exhaled the bodies into the heat and the glare. Outside, the university grounds were emptier than usual, the result of thousands of international students repelled by the bushfires or coronavirus travel bans. A group of students hovered to talk through what they’d heard, unsure whether it was dispiriting or galvanising, depressing or clarifying. The philosophers? They went to the pub.

Alex Tighe

Alex Tighe is a journalist and audio producer at the ABC, and was the  inaugural recipient of the Mark Colvin Scholarship.

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