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We can’t beat the planet into submission. We can retreat

In Australia, the pandemic has killed 189. The Christmas bushfires, if you include the 445 smoke-related deaths, killed more than twice that, plus 11 million hectares of bush and, it is now estimated, almost three billion animals. Both events, like the recent storms, were intensified by a presumption of dominion reminiscent of Tony Abbott’s 2017 climate policy speech which cited our biblical task of “subduing the earth and all its creatures”.

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So when the residents of Narrabeen or Wamberal insist on being allowed to build seawalls and revetments to protect their houses against huge surging waves, the question is, should they? When bush communities are determined to rebuild after cataclysmic fire, when the NSW government allows development in the notorious floodplains of the Hawkesbury – envisaging a doubling of that population by 2050 – then proposes to mitigate this flood risk by raising the level of the Warragamba Dam by 12 metres, the same question applies: should they?

The kneejerk response is understandable. We all want to protect ourselves from nature. We all want to protect our property. And we all want to do it, if possible, by changing nature, not ourselves. But is it, on the evidence, wise? Or is it time we all, as a species, pulled our heads in?

The standard terminology puts this as a choice between “armouring” the shore or “planned retreat,” as if our relationship with the oceans were some kind of high-risk military campaign. And perhaps it is but, if so, who do we expect to win? Cnut?

These risks – storm erosion, bushfire and flood – are voluntary at two levels. One, we don’t have to live there. Two, living there may feel as though it’s about loving nature – the sea view, the bush, the river. In fact, though, it can only exacerbate both the power imbalance between us and nature, and the destructive impact on, first, her, then us.

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You live in the bush, you end up felling trees to reduce fire danger. You live on a floodplain, you end up building massive dams which, like the Warragamba project, will cost $700 million and threaten indigenous heritage, threatened species and 65 kilometres of wild river. You live on a coastal cliff, you end up wanting to armour the coastline with seawalls and revetments that change local currents, diminish biodiversity and merely shift the erosion to either end of the new wall.

One answer is just to keep building, create a wall without end, armour the entire inhabited coast. But even if that made sense – in a nutty way like Trump’s wall – it doesn’t deal with the fact that just living in such places exacerbates the problem.

When you live close to nature you’re necessarily remote. Not Tibooburra-type remote. Remote as in spread out, incapable of public transit, eternally car-dependent and wasteful of other resources such as roads, sewers and reticulated services. This all hastens climate change, increasing the likelihood, frequency, duration and intensity of fire, flood and storm. It can only get worse.

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My purpose here is not to apportion individual blame. Admittedly, I’ve long regarded the Australian coastline as a repository for its ugliest buildings and greediest culture and look with some nostalgia upon New Zealand’s habit (since 1892) of reserving the 20-metre “Queen’s chain” for public health and access.

But this does seem an opportune moment to dwell less on individual rights and more on collective responsibilities. We need to select the greater good for the greater number, and governments prepared to deploy carrot and stick in that direction. Because if we really love nature the best we can do for her is stay right away.

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