Community resilience depends on cultural shift
Understanding the Australian landscape and a sharper focus on values will be essential in managing the increase in extreme events caused by climate change.
This was one of the topics at the University of Melbourne webinar on 29 September that discussed ‘Disaster resilience and the future of sustainability’.
Hosted by the University of Melbourne the event brought together diverse perspectives, including Indigenous practices, psychological approaches, policy frameworks and data sharing.
Speakers agreed that a significant shift in Australia’s relationship with its landscape is required to improve community resilience.
This year was highlighted as a pivotal time to rethink values, and reshape preparedness and responses strategies. Catastrophic bushfires in 2019–2020 and the coronavirus pandemic have already created fractures in entrenched practices.
Adapting to the landscape
Senior adviser to KPMG and former head of National Resilience Taskforce Mark Crosweller says the community needs to learn to accommodate bushfires, arguing that they are natural events, expressions of nature, rather than ‘disasters’ to be battled and resisted.
Changing the way we manage the land, the way we shape our values, the way we build our societies
If we take a long-term view, we can take the most intense aspects of these events off our radar by changing the way we manage the land, the way we shape our values, the way we build our societies. We can absorb, adapt, transform and cope with these effects as they turn up, he said.
This echoes the perspective of Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Assistant Dean at the Faculty of Science, who is a descendent of the Wiradjuri people and advocate of Indigenous land management.
He said the concept of people as separate from nature, the ‘us and them’ approach contributes to problems including biodiversity loss and catastrophic bushfires.
We need to take a long, hard look at the way that we position ourselves in the world around us.
We’re seeing an increase in catastrophic fires because we’re not managing a landscape; we’re not fulfilling our responsibility, our obligations in the landscape. We need to take a long, hard look at the way that we position ourselves in the world around us.
Associate Professor Flecher explained that an Indigenous perspective is considerate and reflective rather than combative. It involves more people on the ground, sensing what’s happening in the landscape as they walk around. He warned that Indigenous land management cannot be made to fit into current processes as a band-aid measure, it needs to be part of the Australian cultural norm rather than an
exotic indigenous way of doing things.
In Victoria, where almost 70 per cent of land is held by private owners, it is essential the landscape is managed collectively across boundaries and across catchments. This kind of approach should be adopted nationally, Associate Professor Fletcher recommended.
Access to information
Mr Crosweller added that inquiries following events such as bushfires usually reveal institutional lapses and gaps, an absence of consideration and a deficiency of knowledge.
It’s actually nothing to do with the fire. It’s to do with institutional life and the built environment in society. The fire just shows us where the vulnerability already is, he said
Systems fail when they are not capable of delivering accurate information in real time during a disaster.
Developing widely accessible digital information systems to support better decisions and management is the domain of Professor Abbas Rajabifard, Director of Sustainability for Melbourne School of Engineering.
Systems fail when they are not capable of delivering accurate information in real time during a disaster, he said, noting that the pandemic and bushfire crises have highlighted this issue.
Reliable administration systems and authoritative information about people and their relationships with land and livelihoods can help those displaced by the event to return to their homes, and recover more quickly.
These information systems will also help to strengthen integrated planning and decision-making.
We need to look at redesigning our cities and also our societies in a way that we can better manage [responses]. We are dealing with complex systems. It is not just one lens we need. We need a multi-faceted, holistic approach, Professor Rajabifard said.
Victorian Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Dr Gillian Sparkes highlighted a reconnection with nature, and an intrinsic shifting of values as one outcome of travel restrictions during the pandemic, particularly in Victoria.
Leaders are being rewarded for making evidence-based decision making.
She is optimistic this will lead to greater community engagement on issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change, with a balance between top-level policy and practical ‘boots on the ground’ action.
Leaders are being rewarded for making evidence-based decision making
My view is the community will drive the politics, and through the politics, the policy, Dr Sparkes said.
Mark Crosweller agreed, suggesting that along with adaptation and mitigation strategies, Australian society will need to re-assess its values.
What we’ve experienced is just the start of [climate change] trajectory that is pretty steep. We are going to lose things. So, what is it we’re prepared to lose, or not prepared to lose?
Community will drive the politics, and through the politics, the policy