Biodiversity publications archive

Country in flames

Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia - Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3
Deborah Bird Rose (editor)
Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995


HC Coombs

The symposium on biodiversity, of which Country in Flames is a report, is evidence not merely of the growing importance now being given to that concept in both scientific and policy contexts but is part of a process of growing awareness of the complexity and interdependence of the elements which compose that diversity.

In her introduction, Dr Rose emphasises that every day more is known among scientists in various disciplines, but the lack of effective communication between the specialist groups which compose those disciplines and others whose knowledge overlaps with theirs continues to inhibit the growth of public awareness and of policy necessary to protect biodiversity. That communication failure affects particularly the understanding of the complex inter-relationships between the many species and non-biological elements which make up the total diversity.

This symposium directed attention to the dramatic impact of fire on biodiversity in lands like Australia where fire is a natural occurrence and where it must be taken into account in the social policies of environmental management.

Current controversy about initiatives by the Commonwealth and State Governments to change the emphasis and direction of savanna and forest management adds to the evidence the symposium provides that humankind, as a dominant part of nature, largely determines whether savannas and forests can continue as habitats for a wide range of species (upon which humankind may depend in unexpected ways). In these and other regions on which the economic system makes powerful and continuous demands, it is vital that human behaviour control the impact of those demands and associated pollution: not merely to monitor but to set and enforce effective limits. Growth without limit is as impossible a target as perpetual motion.

Humankind must take note that there are other species which also have had periods of exponential growth in their populations. These populations do not continue to grow: rather in due course they approach a maximum where the population does not just flatten out to stability or decline gently to safer levels but collapses, in some instances into extinction. About two hundred years ago Malthus predicted that if we did not learn to control our population, it would be controlled by famine, pestilence and war. Despite the horrifying evidence of mass starvation in some third world countries and gross poverty in the ‘under classes’ of the great cities of the world, of the threat of AIDS, and of wars of every kind in almost all continents, we continue to think, plan and act as if we can ignore this evidence and leave these problems for the next generation.

This collection of papers urges that we must accept fire as an integral part of the Australian habitat; that we learn from Aborigines, from local experience and from the knowledge that science can provide – to live with fire and to use it wisely as a tool in environmental management. These are sound words and the book should be essential reading for policy and decision makers at all levels.

More generally this book emphasises the need to fill the communication gaps among the specialist groups of scientists who hold ‘large domains of information’ of which policy and decision makers have need, and between the holders and potential users of that information. To achieve this object enormous change is required in the institutions of our society. At present many of those institutions have purposes and agendas which are incompatible with such sharing and thus are inimical to the preservation of the earth as a viable habitat for living things, including humanity itself. Furthermore, those who make decisions for the majority of public and private institutions are committed to these incompatible purposes and agendas and believe themselves to be accountable only within their limited purposes.

The reform of these institutions must, I believe, begin with the members of the institutions themselves, especially those concerned with the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom derived from experience. These institutions constitute the domain of the intelligentsia – independent, responsible and triply accountable: to its own professional standards, to the society within which it functions and to the living systems of which it
is a part.