Social cohesion in a time of isolation

Social cohesion in a time of isolation

A few years ago now a serious bushfire passed just to the north of our house. It destroyed over a hundred homes and our back fence. We are still hyper-vigilant in spring when the hot westerlies push hard across eastern Australia and yet what I remember most from that tense experience is the sense of community that appeared spontaneously during the crisis.

Neighbours helping neighbours and everyone helping the firemen and rural fire service volunteers tackling the blaze. People variously wielded rakes, took turns on the garden hoses, made tea or simply offered nervous encouragement. It felt like a group effort.

David Shearman talks of something similar that happened in Britain during WW2 where people came together through far more severe and prolonged trauma.

“Britain was a united and cohesive community. Young and old worked daily in small ways for the common cause. But most importantly, in the free world, two countries — Britain and the US — had leaders in Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt who could explain the need for duty and sacrifice.”

David Shearman

Our bushfire experience of cooperation was certainly coordinated. The RFS Commissioner was constantly in the media providing information and advice. On the ground, the fire crews listened to their seniors and whoever was on the other end of the radio. Civilians readily followed their lead.

Firebreaks were raked, back burns set and helicopters dumped water judiciously to slow the fire enough for the hoses to protect houses. It was planned and calmly executed with everyone chipping in with what they could.

Most of the people in the street had seen bushfire before. It comes with the flammable treed territory we chose to live in. Recognition of the threat was ingrained through experience, so there was little need for Churchillian scale motivation.

This is probably true whenever something frightening becomes real and dangerous. Humans clearly have the cooperation gene even if it may only express itself in extremis. Even so, some leadership is required. There has to be some sense of need or a clear explanation of it.

Danger felt by everyone is the core ingredient for cohesion. Honest cooperation is contagious enough when a threat is real. Fear can bring people together.

Not all the neighbours were in on the group effort. At least one family were too frightened to leave their home. We actually thought they were out or had left, until at the height of the crisis with a fireman hosing down their wooden deck as some protection from embers, there was movement inside the house. Perhaps they needed the ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech.

Despite this, I easily recollect the cohesion that created much more than the sum of the parts. What I also recall is how fast it dissipated.

It took a day for the fire to burn most of the fuel in the bush around our homes. That night there was still eery red glows from scattered tree stumps. A day later and it was just char and ash. The threat had passed.

Heroic rural firefighter doing a great job in our backyard

Then we began to realise that this wildfire was a devastating event for the community. Everyone knew someone who had lost their home. A collection point for food and clothing was soon overflowing with gifts and volunteers. The fire was the topic of conversation wherever people met purging themselves of their fearful experiences. It was a human emergency for several months and then it wasn’t.

A great purveyor of entropy cut a swath through us and people responded to defy it. They rallied and returned things to our sense of normal with great speed.

Then we all forgot about it.

At least that is what it feels like. Every now and then memory is triggered or a newcomer is told the stories of the fateful day but mostly it is history. Some regulations have changed, fire preparedness is reinforced and we all look up at the sound of a helicopter. But the cohesion has gone.

I imagine that it will come back when the next fire comes along. It will because bushland in this part of Australia burns regularly, every decade or so on average in these parts. So in a short while cohesion will be called and I have no doubt that the residents will respond as spontaneously as they did in 2013.


Sure enough 2019-20 bushfire season was horrific.

Our little community escaped the worst but we had two monster fires, one to the north that burned within a few kilometres of our suburb and one to the south that threatened to do the same for the best part of a month.

People were cohesive. They helped each other out and were endlessly grateful to the fire services and the volunteers that provided assistance to the hundreds of people who lost homes, livestock, infrastructure and in a some tragic cases their lives.

No political leaders emerged during this crisis. The prime minister went on holiday to Hawaii and had to rush back with his tail between his legs. The state leadership did their best but really did not know what to do.

Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, stood up and showed everyone how it should be done. He was truthful, blunt and yet caring all at the same time. His leadership got the collective through.

Locally, it was the mayors that stood up. Ours, Mark Greenhill, Mayor of Blue Mountains City Council, took to FB to give daily updates of the operations in our district. He was tirelessly present with the firefighters and the support staff and went above and beyond to provide the cohesion people needed.

People really do rally around individuals or each other when the heat is on but then readily dissipate into their own worlds when the crisis passes.

The drought crisis that turned into a bushfire crisis that has turned into a pandemic crisis means we have been overdone with cohesion of late.

The question is will vacuum return. Will leadership that is only present in extremis fade away when the calm returns as it surely will.

This is a rare opportunity for it to stick around.


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Activism might actually work this time

Activism might actually work this time

Whenever something frightening is real and present, people tend to cooperate. This is remarkable.

All that needs to happen for cohesion to overtake personal gain is danger felt by everyone… within the same tribe.

Cohesion through connection with others when the going is tough appears to be a hard-wired behaviour that probably saved the species more than once over a tortuous evolution.

I have experienced the feeling when a bushfire, whipped into house felling ferocity by a windstorm, passed close by our home and then, turning back on itself, came into our neighbourhood. People were scared. Everyone feared for their lives and their possessions, even as they helped each neighbour, in turn, protect theirs.

Honest cooperation is contagious enough when a threat is real and you look similar enough to the folk needing or giving help.

This behaviour is exploited by activists the world over. The threat of this, the fight against that, dangerous climate change, the death of the oceans.

Wait. That last one isn’t dangerous to me, surely.

The idea being that if enough danger is realised by each individual then emotions are triggered and we all get together to fight the good fight.

Unfortunately with the environment, it fails every time.

The fight is only in the extreme and for many of the most serious environmental issues, such as running out of rock phosphorus — ah-ha not expecting that one, hey — there is no personal extreme.

This systemic rather than acute pain applies to climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, soil degradation and a host of other issues.

It is very hard to fight something that you cannot see.

So the activists latch onto the koala, the tiger or the manatee.

At least you can get a visual on these critters and imagine the loss of cuteness.

This need for personal danger or at least a visual that is relatable, is starting to happen in the climate change debate.

This is partly through the ‘climate emergency’ idea that is declared by an increasing number of jurisdictions and organisations. It is also, more tellingly, through the very real feeling among the youngsters that the current system is mortgaging their future. That their parents are letting the powers that be, political or otherwise, raid their legacy for profit under the notion that economic growth is a necessity.

It also helps that forests are burning into suburbs and whole cities are choked with toxic air from the smoke.

The logical and the morals of this premise are now in the frame as much as the nebulous and unrelatable 3 degrees of warming.

It means we can get real activism. The sort of thing that will bring people together and bring forth leaders with progressive thinking and a sense of urgency. Not through the current generation of stupid white men who have a disproportionate impact on the world, but the kids who will grow up to take their place.

For the first time in a long while, there is hope that leaders will not be predominantly white or men or stupid.


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Happy New Year

Happy New Year

What an end to 2019.

Where I live there is a drought that is deep and wide. It is the biggest drought on record in Australia, the place renown as a parched land.

In our neighbourhood, the rainfall for the past two calendar years was less than half the longterm average. This means the soil is bone dry, the trees are gasping for some moisture, and the leaves and twigs they have shed in profusion are like tinder.

No surprise then that we have been ringed by bushfire since the beginning of December. When we are not on alert for the flames we are trying not to breathe in the smoke.

At the time of writing some 5 million hectares of NSW has burned including a huge swath of forest, some 512,000 hectares, to our north and an active fire still heading our way from the south.

Across the country, the area burned in this one fire season is 10.7 million hectares, an area bigger than Portugal.

Alloporus has written about bushfire before — Bushfire in our backyard — after we experienced one in 2013.

This is something else altogether.

The fires this year have made headlines around the world, devasted local communities and changed forever the lives of the people in them. Over 20 people have died and some 1,823 homes have been destroyed and already some 8,985 insurance claims lodged.

And it is still going.

It could be the end of January or later before significant rain — the kind that puts fires out — is likely to fall across many parts of the country.

There is some good news. The community has rallied. People have helped each other and the, mostly volunteer, firefighters have gone above and beyond and beyond again to tirelessly protect lives and property.

These fine people are remarkable as are those who lead them. The fire chiefs and local coordinators have put the politicians to shame with their calm and steady leadership.

All of the emergency services personnel are legends.

Compared to these people the politicians, especially the prime minister, need to take a very hard look at themselves and then do the honourable thing and resign. But we’ll leave that conversation to twitter.

Here is a practical point.

There is an ecological reality from the extent of these fires.

A large proportion of many forested areas have burnt all at once. This is not what we understand happens. We think that forests burn in a mosaic leaving patches, even small ones, unburnt in most fires. These unburnt areas are refuges for animals and sources of seed and dispersal for plants. They also hold reservoirs of source populations for the other 99% of biodiversity that we don’t normally think about — microbes, fungi and invertebrates.

When the whole forest burns, all 500,000+ hectares of it near us, there are far fewer, if any, refugia. The source populations of many organisms are gone. The likelihood for local extinctions of many species is very high. Not the iconic koala of course, despite what you will read, but a host of far more useful organisms.

Then we see that these big forests are all burning at the same time. Here is the extent for southern NSW on the 7 January 2020, green areas are the larger patches of native vegetation and most of them are shaded as a fire scar.

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The forest patches left unburnt are mostly small or isolated or intermingled with human habitation. The large, wild areas needed by many sensitive species burned, often intensively.

This is an ecological step change.

The pattern of disturbance (fire) is now more widespread, intense and all at the same time.

This will have any number of effects on the ecology of Australia’s southeastern forests. The regeneration will happen as it always does. But the plants were stressed by extended drought before the fires, the burns were mostly intense and so we cannot expect the vegetation to recover to its former state even though many of the trees and shrubs will miraculously resprout with epicormic growth and the seed bank will flourish in the ash beds, if and when it rains.

If the recovery effort for the ecology that will be tasked once the people are back on their feet must accept that what was before is no more. The future forests will be different. For a start, they will need to be resilient to this kind of disturbance on a much more regular basis.

Of course, this sort of fire season will have happened before. Not in the memory of the western settlers perhaps but no doubt the ancestors of the first peoples witnessed something like it. But only rarely. The climate record suggests this type of event is possible. What will be interesting is if it happens again and again. That the ecology has not seen before.

So not so much of a Happy New Year here.

We have experienced a step-change though. One that does not happen very often when the scale of a disturbance to the natural world is so wide and so deep that it changes the ecology.

There is an opportunity in such a change.

We can get rid of old and unhelpful conservation paradigms like our desperate focus on the rare things and look to resilience for the goods and service we need from nature whilst helping it protect itself from its own powers of destruction.

That’s it for now but we’ll come back to our need for dominion again soon.

Hope you have a Happy New Year and all your resolutions hold.

It is not everyday that you can point your phone directly at the sun and get away with it — smoke haze in the Blue Mountains, NSW
December 2019

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