History, Politics, Aboriginal Burns and Climate Change

The response to my last blog on asking whether, and where, there were Aboriginal burns in Gippsland has been overwhelming. Normally I get between 20 to 80 readers per blog and average about 1000 readers a month, but in this instance the readership for the last 24 hours has approached 800 (see above). I suspect that most of this readership has come through my normal promotion of the blog through the social media.

This has been especially the response on various facebook (fb) pages to which I am unable to respond to, and thank all those positive comments and likes. As usual there were critics as well, a number of whom I don’t think bothered to read the blog and others who complained that it was ‘political’. Of course the blog is ‘political’ but not in a ‘party’ sense – hopefully influencing the acceptance of climate science by the Gippsland public, persuading them of the urgency for action and offering a range of solutions including the end of logging and burning.

It is ‘political’ because the issue has been politicised by powerful interest groups and reinforced by the status quo. The current approach by our governments to use best science in the Coronavirus epidemic when compared with their inaction on the best science on climate clearly illustrates the problem.

In case you haven’t read the blog (see below) it questioned the current dominant theme – that Aboriginal burning in Gippsland in the pre European era is substantiated and therefore the large-scale controlled burns carried out by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning are historically justified. It then briefly examined the conclusions of Alfred Howitt and called for more research. As a number of fb ‘friends’ have pointed out Aboriginal burns elsewhere in Australia have been generally small, and fit a geographically ‘mosaic’ pattern over time.

Of the first three European parties in Gippsland in 1840 – McMillan, Strzelecki and Brodribb – all have made small contributions to the burning question. Both the latter observed large, treeless plains in central Gippsland and, in Brodribb’s case attributed this phenomenon to Aboriginal burning, although he did not witness any such activity. Further, all parties at some stage experienced large tracts of scrubby, impassable country, which obviously had not been burned for many years – between Ensay and Bruthen for McMillan and in west and south Gippsland for the others. However, only McMillan actually saw the Kurnai set fire to the bush when they used it as a form of defence – creating smoke and confusion as the people in a camp fled the invaders.

There is a tendency for history, and much less politics, to adhere to the status quo. But it is to the science and the evidence that we should be looking. John Timmer, an American journalist, recently wrote “Science isn’t a body of facts that should be treated as the final word; it’s a collection of conclusions in which we have varying degrees of confidence.” History is the same.