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The Royal Smoke Screen

By Mark Christensen - posted Monday, 19 April 2010


The Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian bushfires, which is due in July, believes, as a matter of principle, "the safest option" when confronted with a bushfire "is always to leave early rather than to stay and fight".

I wonder what the ANZACs would have thought of the Commission's nothing statement?

It's akin to proposing a 40 kph restriction on all motor vehicles as a way of reducing road fatalities. There is a hypothetical truth to such claims, yet their profound weakness somehow renders them miserable failures if and when we attempt to convert the theory into reality.

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The impracticalities arise because the outlook denies the glories of human possibility. What if the diggers had stayed in the trenches convinced it was their safest bet?

While much of modern society, particularly at times of acute distress, clamour for personal security, and politicians are content to promise them such, there is more to life than life itself. If not, existence would be intolerable, at least for those of us aware of our own mortality.

The truth is: our most vital concern is how we live it. The spirit of ANZAC.

The difficulty, the one the Commission is struggling with, is that this is a transcendental experience, beyond the grasp of the mind. What it means to be human must be lived, which is why we participate in ceremonies and lose money playing two-up on April 25..

Of course this is not to suggest that what we can understand is worthless. Science has reduced uncertainty. We are better able to deal with bushfires today than at any other time in history. We live longer and know more about the physical universe.

While all this is fabulous, and I'm personally glad to not live in medieval or pre-historic times, the fact is our cleverness has not - and will not - put an end to uncertainty, or our mortality.

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This is not something our rationalism, spurred on by its material successes, finds easy to accept. We've put a man on the moon, cured numerous diseases and invented the internet. Surely, upon surely, there must be a science capable of putting an end to bushfire tragedy.

The laconic, owed-nothing quality that built this nation is slowly but surely giving way to an over-civilised belief that we are entitled to safeguard ourselves against all injury and calamity, including, ironically, that caused by the natural environment that sustains us. And anyone who disagrees is a heartless bastard or an idiot. 

The Royal Commission is shaping as a missed opportunity to address this growing cultural malaise. Instead of re-affirming it, the Commission is equivocating over a bushfire policy that recognises that spirit is more important than mere existence.

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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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