A Lucky Country – and a fatal lack of imagination

PM Scott Morrison hams it up with holidaymakers in Hawaii. Photo: Ben Downie/Twitter

Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.

Donald Horne, 1964, The Lucky Country

Everyone always forgets that the nickname The Lucky Country was never meant to be a compliment to Australia. It was always a criticism – a criticism of our leadership.

With regard to the leadership, or lack thereof, being shown by our national government throughout this bushfire crisis, what we are witnessing is above all a lack of curiosity about the deeper reality of the world and the way that reality can radically change over time. It is a failure of imagination.

Put simply: a significant segment of our leadership, whether political, economic or media, cannot respond effectively to this crisis because they cannot conceive of the reality of this happening.

They know, deep in their bones, that the bedrock reality of our lives is never really threatened – disasters occur, but then stay within the bounds of historical memory.

For anyone with such a deeply unimaginative understanding of the world it is only ever a matter of time before the narrative returns to the familiar: the rain will come, the fires will go out, and we can return to normal. Such a worldview knows we have always had fires, but fires are something we understand and know how to deal with. The underlying realities of our lives are set.

Fires are part of life, right?

She’ll be right.

Change in systems

But our lives are entwined in, and sustained by, a web of complex systems, whether technological, logistical or ecological. Changes in one system can cause effects in others, and large scale and significant changes can come quickly as effects ‘cascade’ and the ripples spread quickly.

Things don’t always change gradually – they reach tipping points. This is when changes build up (heat, drought, lack of humidity) and the consequences are of a magnitude that we have never seen before.

When such tipping points occur, they can throw systems into new states, or ‘new normals’. What these mean, most frighteningly of all, is that you can’t always go back to that previous state… This is what ‘the new normal’ means.

For example, if it is true that half a billion animals have been killed in these fires then we may be close to species extinctions or a near collapse of the ecological systems in these areas. When the rains do come, the eucalypts will grow back, but for how long will that bush be silent?

A juvenile kangaroo was caught in a fence trying to escape. Picture: Brad Fleet Source:News Corp Australia

A lack of curiosity or imagination

But it takes some amount of curiosity or imagination to really understand our world as constantly changing and uncertain, especially if this goes against the worldview you already hold.

Experts, in the form of a group of retired fire commissioners, warned the Federal government months ago that this was coming, but you can only accept such advice if you have the imagination to understand the possibility of something that might be ‘out of the ordinary’.

If you cannot imagine a systemic social or ecological collapse ever occurring, even when the experts tell you repeatedly this is coming, then you will not be the right person to address it.

If you can’t understand that a changing climate causes cascading changes throughout all our systems, then you will never have been able to fully grasp what has been happening.

Indeed, you might go on holiday because that is the normal thing to do. Fires happen every summer, after all.

You might host a visiting cricket team at the Lodge because you know that cricket in front of the TV is what summer in Australia is all about. Fires are just part of that reality.

Indeed, you might release a marketing video at the height of the crisis because you see the problem as one of messaging, rather than a systemic collapse in the everyday reality of hundreds of thousands of Australians.

You will misread the nature of the crisis because you only have the frame of what has happened before. You view the world through precedence – but the most common description of these fires might be ‘unprecedented‘.

Systems collapse

So right now, we are witnessing a systems collapse across great swathes of Victoria and NSW, in part caused by the intrinsic fragility of our systems in the face of the fires’ disruptions.

Our access to energy (whether fuel or electricity) is being disrupted across the firegrounds around this country – and therefore many of our other systems (food, water, communications) have been disrupted as well. The longer they stay down, the further the disruptions may spread into others systems – and this crisis may still have months to run.

What is needed now is exactly what the incredible volunteer fire fighters, and a professional and competent emergency services leadership, have been doing for many months already. They have done an amazing job in the face of the overwhelming scale and ferocity of these fires.

But how different could have things been if our government had had the curiosity to listen to the experts, and the imagination to envisage the worst possibilities?

Leadership with a hose in hand?

I will finish with one of the few insightful things our PM has said over the course of this ongoing crisis:

I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room

Scott Morrison, 20 Dec 2019, Hawaii

He is absolutely right, but then Napoleon was never one of the greatest generals in history because he picked up a rifle and fought alongside his men. He was revered by his troops because he led. He wasn’t on the front line – but he was always present, and was seen to be so.

And he had imagination. He could imagine what could go wrong, and could adapt his plans when it did.

What we have seen from our national government in both the lead up to this crisis, and throughout the crisis itself, has been a failure of imagination, in the deepest sense.

A localised systems collapse in real time

PHOTO: Holidaymakers face delays in coastal communities such as Ulladulla as the bushfire crisis continues. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)

The scenes of patient locals and holiday makers lining up for the basics of life on the South Coast and East Gippsland should be recognised for what they are.

We are witnessing a localised collapse, in real time. And that is a rude awakening to the essential fragility of all the complex systems which make our lives possible.

Make no mistake: Australia is a wealthy developed country, and the system will kick back into action quickly, depending on the fire behaviour, of course. Yet we should still look at what happened, and why.

Of course the answer to why is obvious – the bushfires.

But there are also less obvious systemic aspects to this collapse.

The fragility of our systems

Above all, it’s clear that the emergency services and CFA recognised the implications of the remoteness of both East Gippsland at the larger scale, and Mallacoota at the smaller scale . Here I don’t mean remoteness in terms of distance, but in terms of connections to the rest of the region, state or country.

The area is isolated in a systems sense, as there is only really one connection (the Princes Highway for East Gippsland as a whole, and the lone asphalt road into Mallacoota) to allow access to resources to enter and people to arrive or leave. It was obvious that these areas could be cut off extremely easily.

Looking at both scales as systems, it’s clear there is no redundancy at either scale (East Gippsland as a whole, or Mallacoota more locally), and this means fragility. Redundancy, as a formal term, means the existence of ‘excess capacity’, or back up systems, which allow for alternate pathways through a system should one fail.

No food and fuel, no functioning urban life… and it doesn’t need to be disrupted for long for everything to collapse.

When we think about systems, there are two types of redundancy:

The first is alternate systems connections, or more specifically (with regard to East Gippsland and Mallacoota) alternate roads throughout the two areas to enable transport if one is blocked.

The second was that there was no reserve of food or fuel ready and at hand when the fires had passed, and there are very specific reasons for that.

Above all, we have ‘just in time’ food and fuel distribution systems set up across our entire country, and they are fragile as they have no redundancy. There is no store of food, supplies or fuel at hand when the system is disrupted, even for a short time.

It is collapsing because:

  1. there has been an interruption to the flows of energy (whether fuel, food or electricity), water, and transport and communications systems which enable the boring, everyday, ‘This works so I don’t have to think about it‘ functioning of that system.
  2. there was no redundancy in the system to deal with the disruption caused once the fires hit the area, or when the immediate danger had passed.

The first is hard to address, but the second is not.

It just costs money.

The lesson of the Old Phone Booth

The old Telstra boxes in towns elsewhere along the South Coast in NSW provide an analogy for how redundancy works. They also provide a clear example of how such redundancy makes a system (in this case communications) more resilient in the face of a disaster.

PHOTO: Many don’t have access to mobile phone coverage, prompting queues at phone boxes. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)

Most people no longer have a landline, as we rely almost entirely on our mobile phones. All well and good, but when the mobile network goes down, the old overlooked Telstra boxes have been providing both a landline connection, and a functioning wifi hotspot.

They are the redundant technology that has been able to serve as a backup when the mobile system went down… and isn’t this a good enough reason to ensure their survival?

To extend the idea a little further, isolated regions like East Gippsland or towns like Mallacoota need reserves of food and water, some sort of generator capacity, and satellite communications during the (increasingly long) fire season.

Yes it costs money – Redundancy is pretty much the opposite of Efficiency, and such reserves are a ‘dead investment’, especially if they are never used.

They make no economic sense, for sure – but they make sense in terms of system resilience, particularly when we can see, playing out in real time, how our ‘just in time’ food distribution networks are dangerously fragile.

And how useful would some underground stores of water and non-perishable food supplies, generators with some fuel, and a few satellite phones be right now?

A final uncomfortable thought

To explore this idea of system collapse, we should shift our focus out to the national or even global scales…

Worryingly, we see the same dynamic at this wider scale – Australia is a relatively isolated country which imports 90% of its oil today, with that rising to 100% by 2030.

Our food distribution is critically dependent on a fuel source, whether diesel or petrol, which has little redundancy in terms of supply lines and of which we keep no reserves.

And Australia’s deal with Trump to access to US oil reserves if there is a disruption to our oil supply?

That’s like proudly announcing we have emergency fuel reserves for Mallacoota in the event of any future disruption – and they are safely stored in Melbourne.

In other words, no meaningful reserves at all.