Natural disasters and human failures
In 1955, the Hunter Valley (NSW, Australia) and regions to the west were devastated by unprecedented floods. Twenty-five lives were lost, hundreds of homes were destroyed. Then, as now, human failures lurked behind the ‘natural disaster’.
Ron Tullipan. March into morning. Sydney: Australasian Book Society, 1962.
The dustjacket of the first edition of March into morning shows a moment when the working people of the Hunter drag themselves out of the flood zone. Its red hues represent the dawn of a new day, symbolic of the dawn of a new socialism. The optimism was naïve and misplaced. Looking at the cover today (ie, January 2020), its red hues seem prescient of the awful fiery gloom that has enveloped much of Australia’s east coast during the current bushfire crisis.
Red gloom surrounding Australian bushfires: see many more online.
I am writing in Sydney, where there are no fires, but where the sky has been clouded with smoke for weeks now from fires to the north, south and west. Millions of hectares of bush have been burned, hundreds of millions of animals killed, about two thousand homes destroyed, and carbon equivalent to more than half Australia’s usual annual emissions has been released into the atmosphere. The chaos is far from over: most of the usual ‘bushfire season’ is still ahead of us, a drought that has lasted for months is still continuing, and the time of year that is usually hottest is still one month away (but on 4 January temperatures approached 50ºC [122ºF] on the western edge of Sydney).
Reputable scientific predictions that climate change would lead to more severe weather events, including firestorms, have now been on record for more than twenty years.
Although extreme temperatures in Australia have now surpassed all historical records and annual average temperatures are now more than 1ºC above the average a century ago, ,, politicians and media voices who deny climate change are still loud in our public debate, and some who have been forced by facts to acknowledge the reality of climate change are still denying that human activity has anything to do with it, or that human action could do anything to influence the future course of the climate. Meanwhile, reasonable people are distressed that the extreme weather events resulting from climate change that have been predicted for many years are now coming to pass. They look at an Australian government that remains in denial and wonder what will happen. They wonder what they can do.
Climate change is a global phenomenon and reducing anthropogenic carbon emissions requires the entire world to act. But there are several strong reasons why Australia should be leading action on this problem:
- Australia is one of the biggest carbon emitters per capita in the world. We are doing more than our share of the damage.
- Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. We can afford to do more to fix the damage.
- Australia is a very large country, with unusually large resources of renewable energy, so we are well equipped to reduce carbon emissions.
- Australia is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. We have more capability than most countries to work on the damage.
- Australia is one of the hottest and driest countries in the world. We are especially at risk of destruction by climate change.
Although it is true that without action by nations such as the USA, China and India, climate change will be unstoppable and horrific, how can we Australians ask for action unless we show our willingness to act?
- Download your climate action toolkit. Climate Council of Australia. https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/actions/download-your-climate-action-toolkit/
- How to Act on Climate Change: A user’s guide for 2020 and beyond. Earth Day https://www.earthday.org/campaign/act-on-climate-change/ [This is an American list, but quite adaptable to an Australian or other context.]
- Top 10 things you can do about climate change. David Suzuki Foundation. https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/top-10-ways-can-stop-climate-change/ [This is a Canadian list, but quite also adaptable to other contexts.]
There’s a lot we can do. Please hold that thought while I make a purposeful digression.
In the early 1980s, after discovering that my local branch of the Labor Party was hopelessly, corruptly, stacked by the right wing, I went further left and joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). The party cadre who reviewed my application to join did his best to discourage me, knowing full well the absurdity of recruiting a middle-class youth into a worker’s party that was on the verge of expiring from lack of interest and what could be called ideological exhaustion. I worked hard to convince him of my genuine enthusiasm. Eventually, he shrugged and gave in. I was placed within a small group of like-minded people — students, teachers, academics, journalists — who met semi-regularly to hold earnest but ineffective debates about the best means of having a progressive influence in a world dominated by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, big hair, big sport and the ‘Greed is Good’ ethos. As I recall, the progressive movement which then seemed to have the most potential for raising mass support was the campaign for nuclear disarmament, so we lent ourselves to that cause. We were very much the tail being wagged by that dog. Far from the conservative paranoia about ‘communist influence’, there were more church people in the campaign than communists. And look where that went, anyway: the nuclear weapons are still here, but the progressives have moved on to other issues that apparently provoke more anxiety.
As far as I could see during my years in the party, the CPA was flat out organising a cup of tea, and had the revolutionary potential of a plate of biscuits. But perhaps I was never let into the engine room of revolution (😊). I spent many dreary hours standing at the gateway to Central Station spruiking the party’s paper, Tribune (each time I was lucky to sell a single copy; eventually I rebelled and refused to do it anymore). For some months I worked in the party bookshop, Resistance, in Newtown. It was quite a good bookshop. Its collections of femininst and anticolonial literature were particularly broad, and there were customers, but not so many as to unduly interrupt my own reading.
Among other oddities, the bookshop had inordinate amounts of stock from The Australasian Book Society.
The Australasian Book Society was a cooperative publishing society which funded the publication of Australian authors through members’ subscriptions. Founded in Melbourne at a meeting convened by George Seelaf, the society initially had Communist Party and trade union associations, and published largely left wing and democratic novels. It provided members with up to four books each year for their subscription. The first editor was Ian Turner; when the society moved to Sydney around 1959 Jack Beasley took over as editor. Of the eighty-three books published by the society, seventy were from original manuscripts, and the balance were acquired from commercial publishers.
When the Communist Party of Australia voted to dissolve itself, in 1991, it held a closing-down sale, and I bought several Australasian Book Society publications at a bargain price. They were very nicely bound, and I thought they would be interesting historical artefacts.
March into morning is a fairly typical Australasian Book Society book. It is written in a realist style that I find quite dull, but at regular intervals the realism is interrupted when a character delivers a political homily, such as:
“There’s only one thing that can fix up a mess like this, sport, and that’s socialism. Change your government every three years and what do you get? The same types wearing different coats. All members of one big capitalist party, paying lip service to different sections of the community. Nationalise the lot, I say. Get rid of your absentee mine owners and give socialism a go.”
Actually, maybe the politic speeches are not so unrealistic. In 1955 (the year this speech is set in), some miners in the Hunter Valley may have talked this way. It was a year before Khrushchev had denounced Stalin, so good communists still talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat without shivering. Even today, lots of people disdain mainstream politicians as ‘the same types wearing different coats’, although few now call for ‘socialism’, preferring a feckless ‘that’s why I don’t vote’ as the fullstop to political conversation. But working people in the ’50s may have taken their politics more seriously. They were far more likely to belong to a union, and the union was far more likely to be led by people who did believe in socialism (whether the brand was Laborite, anarcho-syndicalist, social-democratic, christian-democratic, trotskyite or communist).
March into morning tells the story of a common man, Arthur Chapman, known as Chappie. He is an orphan (child of the state), and he grows up suspicious and self-reliant. The story proceeds in three main parts: Chappie’s time on the land as an exploited farm worker during the Great Depression, his time in the army during World War Two and his experiences after the war, culminating in the great flood of 1955. As the book blurb explains:
March into morning reaches a climax of almost unbearable poignancy in the flooded Hunter Valley where Chappie has spread unhappiness like a malady but finally learns that there can be no love or happiness, no fulfilment for one man alone.
That is, Chappie cannot be happy until becomes politically conscious and realises that his problems arise from the exploitative class system and cannot be solved without finding solidarity with his fellow workers. The people, united, can never be defeated, as the slogan goes. The workers hold the keys to prosperity, and if they trust each other, they can cast off the bosses and live happily ever after.
Obviously there is something corny or even repellent about this message. We are all individuals now, and don’t like to think of ourselves as workers, or as having too much in common with other people. We identify with other groups more than with class. We are a gender, or not a gender, or a culture, a sexuality, or a professional something, and forming common cause with other people is only something we do on a selective, arms-length basis.
What a pity it is that we face enormous global problems that require us to act with unity and solidarity, almost as if there will be no future happiness for one human alone.
March into morning wrestles with a question that bedevilled communists and other radicals: how do you build the unity of the people that might be strong enough to overcome divisive self-interest? Because, if the people cannot put aside their differences for a common cause, they will be defeated by the self-interested coalition of the powerful.
The Hunter Valley floods of 1955 were unprecedented, the result of a years’ worth of rain falling in just a few weeks. A ‘natural disaster’, and nothing to do with climate change. Nonetheless, March into morning plausibly identifies the human causes. Before white settlement, the Hunter Valley was thickly forested. By 1955, the forests were largely gone. Deforestation, farming and mining increased soil erosion and decreased the ability of the land to absorb flood water. Increased soil erosion led to the silting up of rivers, restricting their ability to carry off a flood.
A trend towards greater flooding in the Hunter Valley was a problem with known causes, but governments had not invested in solutions. The disaster of 1955 was an accident waiting to happen. When it came, the government response was inadequate to the task, but the local people — working people, farmers and miners — banded together to help themselves.
It is a story not unlike the story of the 2019-2020 bushfires. But, just like the novel that tried to immortalise this tale, it is a natural disaster that is rapidly disappearing into the forgetfulness that is the Australian way of history.
We can have little idea what level of ‘natural disasters’ used to prevail in the precolonial landscape of Australia, but it is safe to imagine that under Aboriginal management the conditions were quite different. The much-larger tree canopy over lands probably reduced the frequency of droughts, cultural burning of forests probably reduced the intensity of wildfire, and Aboriginal maintenance of waterways and wetlands may have reduced the intensity of flooding. Australian nature has long been an anthropogenically modified nature. There is no split between humanity and environment. There is only one system, which can be more or less supportive of human continuity. At the moment, we are mostly committed to pushing the system against longterm human continuity. It’s time we thought again.
I can’t really recommend March into morning as a novel to put on your reading list. It is dated and a little dull. The sexism of the time is evident throughout, and the leading female character is only shown in a narrow and dispiriting supporting role.
The socialist Australia that the author of March into morning was hoping to see never eventuated. The union movement that he praised as the strong arm of the people has faded away. Many, many wonderful things have come to us instead. Sexual liberation! Fifty different brands of beer! The Internet! Cheap airfares! On a day-to-day basis, we live in a much more interesting and open world than the one people lived in 60-odd years ago. Nevertheless, we are facing problems now that will require us to stand together for the common good, and not everything about the solution is going to be fun. Do we have it in us?
By the time the CPA dissolved itself in 1991, I had already drifted away. I was never a good communist. Most marxist literature is close to unreadable, in my experience. Also, I’m a democrat: I can’t shake the idea that people should be allowed to vote and allowed to disagree. Also, it’s my empirical observation that markets operate whether you like them or not, so it’s best to align political solutions with market operations wherever possible. You can read other things about my political views here, if you haven’t had enough already.
Like most people, I have spent most of my life full of political opinions that I am happy to share, but very short on political actions that might make a difference. The hardest action of all, in this time of anger and shouting, is to overlook little differences in order to embrace a common cause with others. But I think the climate change is the big one, the issue we can’t afford to ignore. Let’s go back to the list in the middle of this article, and all start doing the things that need to be done.
© 2020 Craig Bingham
 ‘Many, many billions’ of animals feared to have died in bushfires. Sydney Morning Herald reporting scientists estimates, 9 January 2020. https://www.smh.com.au/national/many-many-billions-of-animals-feared-to-have-died-in-bushfires-20200108-p53pvk.html.
 Bushfires Release Over Half Australia’s Annual Carbon Emissions. Time, reporting scientific data from two independent sources on 24 December. The worst fire activity has occurred since then. https://time.com/5754990/australia-carbon-emissions-fires/.
 ‘Hottest place on the planet’: Penrith in Sydney’s west approaches 50 degrees. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/hottest-place-on-the-planet-penrith-in-sydney-s-west-tops-48-degrees-20200104-p53osu.html.
 For example: IPCC Second Assessment Climate Change 1995. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ipcc-second-assessment-full-report/.
 The angriest summer. Climate Council of Australia, 2019. https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Climate-council-angriest-summer-report.pdf.
 Tracking Australia’s climate through 2019. Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology. http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/updates/articles/a036.shtml.
 Year of extremes as record heat, fire danger and dismal rainfall dominate. Sydney Morning Herald, summarising Bureau of Meteorology data, 9 January 2020. https://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/year-of-extremes-as-record-heat-fire-danger-and-dismal-rainfall-dominate-20200108-p53psq.html.
 Greenhouse gas emissions by Australia. Wikipedia, cited 9 January 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas_emissions_by_Australia The Wikipedia article uses data from https://www.climatewatchdata.org/.
 Australia is a top 20 country. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, July 2019. https://dfat.gov.au/trade/resources/Documents/australia-is-a-top-20-country.pdf This summary cites many sources indicating Australia’s high position on many international indicators.
 The Australian continent. Australian Government website, cited 9 January 2020. https://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/the-australian-continent.
 The CPA was founded in 1920. When it dissolved itself in 1991 (a response to the implosion of the USSR and the apparent ‘end of history’ that this implied), its remaining assets went to the SEARCH Foundation (https://www.search.org.au/). Nonetheless, we still have Australian communist parties! The Communist Party of Australia – Marxist Leninist split from the CPS in 1964. The Socialist Party of Australia split from the CPA in 1971 and reclaimed the name CPA in 1996. Both these parties continue a ghostly existence even today. There is even a new organisation founded in 2019 called the Australian Communist Party which claims to be the true heir to the glorious communist tradition.
 The woman is called Mavis, a farmer’s daughter. Chappie seduces her, but abandons her when she falls pregnant. Later he relents. He marries her, but is absent in the army when she miscarries. Reluctant to return to this abortive marriage, he stays away, but is on the point of relenting again when the floods come. Mavis is drowned before a reconciliation can be effected.