Glenn Albrecht on Australian Floods



In Brazil floods and mudslides resulting from heavy rains have claimed the lives of over 500 people, according to the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times.  It is the country’s worst natural disaster. In Brisbane, Australia news sources here, here, and  here report on the disastrous consequences of flood waters that peaked yesterday. Thens of thousands of people have lost their homes and businesses.  After the jump please find a guest post from colleague Glenn Albrecht, Professor of Sustainability at Murdoch University in Western Australia, and author of the term “solastalgia” – psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.  

From Glenn Albrecht:

My response to the flooding in Queensland is on two levels.

One is of deep empathy for those people who have experienced a sudden
and disastrous change to the state of their home environment. For
example, those who experienced and survived the “inland tsunami” that
sent a wall of flood water raging through their properties and environs
will be in desperate need of community and professional support to help
them cope with grief at the loss of loved ones, their non-human
companions as well as their houses, goods and chattels.  In addition, I
am in complete admiration for the ‘soliphilia’ shown by the survivors
and their friends and neighbours as they support one another in the
clean-up and rebuilding that has already commenced. Helping one’s
‘mates’ is traditionally part of Australian culture and has its origins
in isolated outback environments and in the solidarity needed between
people (especially soldiers) during war. The culture of ‘mateship’ seems
very fragile in the context of globalised, high technology early C21
Australia, but it flowers again during adverse events such as fire and
flood. It is interesting to note that it is often in times of adversity
during natural or anthropogenic disasters that the collaborative nature
of human beings shines.

The second level response happens when I step back from the immediacy of
the desolation to people and property and think about the environmental,
cultural and historical context within which it is all happening. As is
well known, Australia is a continent of extremes … “a land of drought
and flooding rains”. The people of S.E. Queensland have experienced
extreme flooding before with the last major flood event in Brisbane
occurring in 1974. However, despite this knowledge, we continue to build
and re-build towns and parts of cities on floodplains and, in the case
of Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, in higher density than ever
before. Despite flood maps, planning guidelines, insurance difficulties,
collective memory and scientific warnings about the likely increase in
the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as has
occurred this month, people continue to ignore biophysical reality and
the constraints it places on human activity.

We attempt to insulate ourselves from the four elements (earth, wind,
fire and water) with materials, design and technology but due to our
voluntary intrusion into risky places (flood plains, earthquake and
coastal zones), and the ramping up of risk due to the Enhanced
Greenhouse Effect, we are making ourselves vulnerable to material
disaster and the solastalgia of the psyche when our home environment is
desolated. Building higher levees at a time of escalating risk is a
guarantee of failure and disaster sometime in the near future.

Now that we must anticipate more severe weather with record rainfall
events (globally, 2010 was the equal hottest year and also the wettest
year on record), our past is no longer a reliable predictor of the
future. We thought we could control one of the four elements, water, but
it is proving to be too slippery.  More heat means more energy into the
global climate system and this energy is manifest in increased
precipitation in the form of rain and snow. The record rainfall in
Queensland and the record snowfall in the USA are interconnected in that
they are expressions of a climate going out of control. The only way to
counter such a direction is to put more energy into our thinking and to
put these complex systems back into predictable regimes.

If we cannot adequately respond to well known environmental risks then
what hope do we have to successfully adapt to the projected risks
associated with global warming? It seems that in the face of known
threats we paper-over the threat and pretend that it will never happen
(again). Then, after a decade or so, naivety (the young) and collective
amnesia (the elders) set in and the conditions become ripe for the next
disaster. A challenge for ecopsychology is to understand why humans
perpetuate the failure to safely adapt to known threats and to suggest
ways that our collective energy and creativity can be harnessed to
implement upstream interventions that mitigate threats and render us
less vulnerable to desolation. We need to provide examples of ‘cognitive
assonance’ to help promote soliphilia in times beyond the short-lived,
collective response to disaster and the help we spontaneously give to
our fellow human and other beings.

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