The current bushfires present us with a significant opportunity to improve planning, design and construction in bushfire prone areas as we rebuild communities and rebuild lives one house at a time. A silver lining in a dreadful, blackened time.
Catastrophes always bring out the best and the worst. The best are the professional and volunteer firefighters who have worked tirelessly to attack the bushfires, and they will vital in understanding the best way forward in designing for the future.
But the worst, mostly politicians and media, will be the opposite. They have fouled the public arena with fake news and false flags in an effort to deny climate change, maintain the status quo and support fossil fuels. They frustrate good policy and stand in the way of progressive design. They are the enemies of the future.
Who are these interlocutors in the public debate? How do they operate? And most importantly, how do we defy them to reach better design solutions?
One of the easiest ways to identify them is to see who they hate, blame and criticise. Greenies in general, and Greens in particular. They use the Greens, with their progressive social and environmental policies, as a signifier punching bag in the public debate. Never mind that the Greens have no power anywhere and, even if they did, they support many of the contentious issues such as hazard reduction and bush clearing.
So, let’s call our haters the CRIMSONS.
Crimson is the opposite to green on a colour wheel, is representative of their unalloyed anger, is a badge of their intemperate nature in public debate and is the facial coloration of some of their leaders as they babel away. And they are mostly male, but not the progeny of criminals.
Unlike those fighting the fires, and the retired heads of emergency services who advocated on their behalf, Crimsons are very well paid. Current and former politicians, they deny climate change (Mike Kelly), they insult scientists as cultists (Tony Abbott), they believe arsonists started the fires (George Christianson), that greenies make them worse (Peter Dutton) and the best they can muster is useless platitudes (Littleproud and his PM).
News Limited press is no better, egging the haters on with coverage so one sided and fake that a senior executive is calling them out. David Leyonhelm advocates that the way to bring balance to the ABC is to have a representative of every thought bubble: a false equivalence between those who believe and those who know or emotionalists vs scientists.
Where do the Crimsons sit in the political spectrum, and how to combat them? We need a new paradigm to describe politics in the 21st century, the old left-right continuum won't cut it.
A 3D matrix representing the ‘triple bottom line’, with arms representing the economy (the old trope), equity (for social issues), and the environment could serve us better as a way of identifying where politicians and protagonists sit in this complex world. You can place individuals or parties in relation to the economy from left (say Thomas Picketty) to the right (say Milton Friedman); in society from social democrats to conservatives; and in the environment from National Parks, renewables and zero carbon to business as usual with fossil fuels.
If we plot the position of the Greens and Crimsons, they are polar opposites in all 3 ways. As you would expect. But our matrix can highlight some interesting ironies, for instance politicians like LNP semi-moderates (e.g. Tim Wilson) and Labor hardliners (e.g. Joel Fitzgibbon) are normally seen as poles apart but may in fact share swapped positions on social and environmental matters.
Crimsons are impossible to reason with because they are so certain of their positions. Their opinions reject scientific questioning in favour of emotional certainty. Good science, vital in framing policies or plans, always contains some doubt in the testing hypotheses, but not for Crimsons, who are absolutists. They exploit that very uncertainty principle that makes science so trustworthy.
As absolutists, Crimsons do not believe that climate is an issue with these bushfires. Nor, it must be said, is it the ONLY issue, as it is for extremist Greens, but that is for a different column. Rather, the Crimsons have sought to place blame elsewhere: lack of hazard reduction, poor fire trails, insufficient logging (in National Parks no less – thank you CFMMEU), arsonists start it, state Labor governments blocking reduction and clearing – the list goes on.
Crimsons try to convince themselves that climate change is a cult and plays no part in the increased frequency and intensity of bushfires, so they can readily go forward in their belief that none of this matters in the future, and addressing climate change won't change anything, but wrecks the economy.
Crimsons are trying to emphasise ways in which future bushfires may be lessened and controlled, rather than looking to how we might adapt to the increased heat, dryness and drought that comes with climate change, and hence the fiercer bushfires.
And the more the idea of future management of the bush is touted as the focus, the more the real issues of managing the recovery of people and buildings recedes. If you focus only on the bush, and how to lessen or control fires, you will fail to address the all-important adaptation to more severe bushfires and the amelioration of their effects on our people, towns and villages.
The Crimsons may be loudest in the shouting match, but they are losing the public vote. The tide is turning as the public see how ‘debates’ on climate change are soaking up oxygen that should be spent on working out the shape of the future under these increasingly more frequent and severe bushfires. We need for a way forward in recovery, and there are three ways to address design for bushfire in the future.
Firstly, all new buildings must be built using better designs, materials and techniques to address the Bushfire Attack Levels (BAL) outlined in the Building Code of Australia (BCA).
Secondly, all buildings subject to bushfire should be protected by external sprinklers in accordance with Australian Standard 5414-2012. (see last week's Tone on Tuesday)
Thirdly, bushfire shelters (sometimes called bunkers or refuges) should be built to accommodate the population in all communities and remote locations, in the event that they are overwhelmed in trying to defend their buildings with sprinklers and they need to seek refuge.
We cannot continue to force huge populations to be dislocated when the bushfires come. We must help them to safely stay and defend their properties.
We cannot continue to rely on volunteer firefighters forever. We must supplement them or replace them with more professionals. Just as beach lifeguards fill out the times when volunteer lifesavers can't.
The role of those professional bushfire fighters will include off-season activities ensuring that best practice is implemented in sprinklers, in bushfire shelters and in clearing around buildings and, if necessary and possible, hazard reduction.
We cannot get bogged down by arguments raised by Crimsons that somehow these bushfires are a new normal that climate change has nothing to do with. We cannot get drawn into arguments on the causes of the bushfires and not their effects. We cannot let the Crimsons continue to obfuscate the public discussion. We must not let Crimsons avoid or delay the need to adapt and improve our designs for bushfires in the future.
We need to have a progressive approach to what the future will look like.
Tone Wheeler is an architect and part time teacher and president of the AAA. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, AAA or UNSW.