PYROCENE / According to Bronwyn Lay, the catastrophic fires in Australia can be an opportunity to learn from Aboriginal interactions with nature.


(Kenguru Flinders Chase. Photo: Ranveig Eckhoff) "Natural and unnatural disasters are increasingly difficult to separate," Australian environmental lawyer, theorist and activist Bronwyn Lay writes in her Material Rights (2016). I contact her to get a first-hand report of the natural disaster in Australia – which is also contingent on human culture. It seems obvious, except perhaps for Australia's prime minister Scott Morrison, that the extreme fire season is due to global warming, with temperatures as high as 49 degrees in some areas.

"The fires that rage are far greater and out of control than anyone is used to," she can confirm. Basically, the flora is in Australia custom fire: The many species of eucalyptus trees have spread across the continent in a rhythm of fires, as ecological historian Stephen Pyne describes in his great work Burning Bush – A Fire History of Australia > (1991). He devotes a great deal of space to the controlled burning of forests, grasses and bushes that have been practiced for millennia by Aborigines – and which contributed to natural regeneration. Now the situation is out of balance, Pyne states: Forest fires and the greenhouse effect from fossil fuels work together and tilt the weather and climate into a new catastrophic state, pyrocene – the fires era. An Australian ecologist, David Bowman, has even founded a new discipline, pyro geography, says Lay. The goal is to study landscapes on fire, in all dimensions: human, historical, anthropological and ecological.

Bronwyn Lay
Bronwyn Lay

Dangerous protection

Are the fires natural or unnatural? Some critics in Australia have pointed out that the forests are "overprotected": The ideology of protecting the wilderness from fire has led to the build-up of disastrous amounts of combustible material. Therefore, when the fires first occur, they get out of control.

"Here in Australia, the Greens have been blamed for this problem, completely unjustly, since they have not been in any influential political position," says Lay. "It is partly true that there has been a lack of controlled burning, but the authorities have used this problem to cover up climate change as a cause." The reasons are complex: Due to a warmer climate, for example, the hatch in the winter months where it is cold enough to carry out controlled fires becomes smaller and smaller. The confusion is probably also amplified by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, says Lay. Through Murdoch's newspapers and television stations, he defends an Australia based on the interests of the oil and coal sector – an environmentally conservative status quo.

Burnt out landscape

"People in the local community want to go back to what they knew before, but shouldn't we seize the opportunity to build something new and better?" Lay asks. At the same time that a new culture needs to be built up, she is worried that the conviction that we can always rebuild things, even nature, can end up as a pretext for destruction and mutilation. “When a human being is killed, it is once and for all,” she points out, “but nature we think of as damaged, but never dead. Now we see huge fires making their own weather systems, pyroculmuli. Some landscapes are so burned out that ecologists say they will never recover, at least not for thousands of years. This gives us a new outlook on nature: nature can also be killed once and for all. ”

In Bronwyn Lay's theoretical work, vulnerability and violence form the basis of law, of people, yes, of the Earth and of the landscape itself. Among other things, she builds on the French philosopher Michel Serres, as in his book Le Contrat natural (1990) called for a new agreement with nature. For Bronwyn Lay, the cultural and controlled burning of the landscape that we find in the Aborigines is such a form of law practice – it springs from a thought of a mutual relationship between landscape and people. The modern burning is not aimed at what is good for the landscape, but rather an attempt to control nature in order to protect people and the infrastructure.


When nature is on fire, it is not a direct violation of nature, but as in criminal law, you should be convicted of negligence, lack of protection and caution, Lay points out. We see a shift in mentality where there is an increasing willingness to describe nature destruction as criminal, and here there is a great potential for the environmental movement. At the same time, we must also look out for dangerous simplifications: "In our little Anglo-Saxon pioneer brains," she says, "we need someone to blame, a criminal." The hope must be to avoid such simple mechanisms and rather to have a deeper discussion of climate change and environmental damage.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is an urgent need for reconciliation with nature and a political turnaround in Australia.

"Australia has an awful bad environmental law, and the reason lies in a deeply entrenched colonial attitude of domination and ownership," Lay points out. In legal environmental reform, New Zealand is far ahead; The Kiwis have recently declared the Whanganui River to be a legal entity. In Australia, similar negotiations are taking place, but it is a practice that is being crept in almost from the sidelines – and quite locally. If Australians were to really start thinking about the rights of nature, the entire legal system would be challenged and cracked in the joins, Lay says.

Fines and submissions

Some have suggested that Exxon will be responsible for planting new forests in Australia. Responsibility for rectifying injuries is an established part of the country's case law that is done through fines and submissions.

"We had toxic fires outside Melbourne because of waste that had been left behind by large chemical companies, ”says Lay. “But even if you manage to hold companies accountable, you haven't necessarily gone much further, for many companies are calculating such expenses: They already have a budget for environmental lawsuits and fines. It becomes a bit like the slave trade in the Middle Ages – you buy yourself out of responsibility and sin further. ”Still, Lay is very positive about the law as a means of change. She has worked with the recently deceased Polly Higgins, who made a tremendous effort to bring about genocide (ecocide) among the crimes against humanity – along with genocide. This movement began with Olof Palme's response in the 1970s and continued in the wake of Americans' use of the poison Agent Orange in Vietnam, as they sprayed from airplanes to kill the foliage of the trees so it would be harder for the guerrilla to hide. This was a clear example of a deliberate murder, but it is often more complicated. Lay says that the rain after the fires has flushed huge amounts of ash out into the rivers, causing the fish to suffocate. People have been desperately trying to pump oxygen into the water. Who is responsible for the fish? Who will take responsibility for the death of a billion animals in the fires?

Case law

For Lay, part of the problem lies in the fact that Australia is treating the environment based on an administrative law where there is little room to interpret and extend current practice. But there are exceptions: the judge Brian J. Preston the New South Wales Environmental Court has been working on organic law to provide a framework for reconciliation agreements: obligations to restore and repair damage to nature. His most important issues, Lay says, were about the destruction of places that were sacred to Aboriginal people – and thus applied Aboriginal law. There were small issues, but the unique thing about the law is that one case can change the whole system, as we saw, for example, with the abolition of slavery. “Such a turn in the relationship must happen sooner or later. My parents were hippies, and the respectful and harmonious relationship with nature they dreamed of seemed completely unrealistic at that time. Now they are talking about these things in the UN. Jussen is developing tremendously quickly in this area. ”The new contract with nature is becoming far more than an idea – it will become part of current case law.

The good of nature

In their work with vulnerable small communities in Australia has Bronwyn Lay and her colleagues developed concepts of ecological privileges and ecological benefits. The benefits of nature are unevenly distributed, and the unjust distribution of society also comes. They can either enhance or improve the ecological irregularities. The vulnerability must be minimized, but it must also be fairly distributed. Those who contribute to the destruction of nature must feel the ringing effects. It's about creating political circumstances that make it easy for people to be good, says Lay. You don't force people to act ecologically and take responsibility; you make it a natural and natural choice.

Regenerative agriculture and forestry have become an important movement in Australia. The idea is to work symbiotically with nature, and here Aborigines often work together with farmers for increased understanding – how conditions were before, how they can be recycled. The only way forward, according to Lay, is to rediscover Aboriginal thinking about commitments to nature, where we are a part of nature – also in its vulnerability – and where both parties win the cooperation. “White colonial thinking in Australia has always been about being tough, fighting against hostile environments; we have waged war against nature, ”says Lay. "The fires have shown us what a total war entails," she laughs. We see what's at stake. It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is an urgent need for reconciliation with nature and a political turnaround in Australia. The link between carbon policy and the fire disaster is too obvious not to be a political turning point.

Also read Ranveig Eckhoff's comment from Sydney: Australia burner

(c) Kangaroo photo by Ranveig Eckhoff

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