The prime minister recently referred to the Northern Rivers’ floods as a ‘natural disaster’ that was a ‘one-in-500-year… event’.
Similar language has been used by political leaders in describing the covid pandemic as a ‘one- in-a-hundred-year event’.
Politicians like to use this sort of rhetoric to re-assure citizens that these ‘disasters’ are both ‘natural’ and unusual – largely because nature itself is chaotic. The role of government is to impose order over this pernicious and unruly phenomena.
Having worked for many years in disaster research and recovery, we’ve long-since concluded that there is actually no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster. Disasters only occur when human interactions with natural processes (ecosystems) become disjunctive.
That is, a disaster happens when human social and economic systems breach the ecological bonds that sustain us.
The Northern Rivers floods are a pure example of this sort of breach. Yes, it’s quite normal for the rivers and lowlands of this region to flood during the wet season. Some years are worse than others. At the tail of the current La Niña weather oscillation we might have expected higher than average rainfall and the corollary of significant flooding.
As Indigenous knowledge and geological records have demonstrated, such flood events have been occurring across the region for many millennia.
But the Indigenous groups who occupied the region before the English invasion never settled permanently on the lowlands. Their understanding of natural systems ensured their safety from flood.
The European invaders, however, cleared forests and wetlands for agriculture and urban-commercial settlement. Because their settlements required so much water, Europeans clustered around river flats, using their own technologies to tempt and evade disaster.
Moreover, because European societies were organised around militarizsed hierarchy, less affluent people were usually marshalled into flatlands that were at greater risk of flooding. The more affluent and politically powerful groups occupied the higher ground which was less vulnerable to inundation.
This pattern of social division and military invasion is not unique to Australia, of course. It is really a template in the history of what we call ‘civilisation’.
Beginning with the adoption of agriculture and permanent settlement, human groups around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers re-oriented humans’ relationship with one another and with nature. Military power, territorial expansion, social division and super-humanoid gods appear – along with the idea of the flood as an organising political metaphor.
Like blight, floods were used by military and religious élites of the time to justify and impose their power. The flood and other ‘natural disasters’ were deployed in a rhetoric of ‘divine justice’.
For example, the Great Flood appears in the religious narratives of The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Old Testament (Jewish Bible) and the Qu’ran (Sutra 11 and 71). Each of these texts explains the natural phenomena of flooding as divine reckoning.
Miscreants who disobey the dictums of the regal or omnipotent ruler will get what they deserve.
Unfortunately, miscreants were usually the slaves, poor workers and farmers who were forced to live in the lowlands, while the wealthy militarists lived on higher ground in fortified palaces.
Capitalist economics has clearly inherited and amplified this principle of ‘just deserts’ and ‘divine justice’. We only need to glance at the delta dwellers of Bangladesh, the Mekong or Congo River to see how this pattern has survived into the present as an organising social (global) system.
The principle of ‘just deserts’ is also evident in Australia. The people who have suffered most from this one-in-five-hundred-year Northern Rivers flood event are those who were living on the flatlands of Lismore and elsewhere.
The general pattern of social division has been further exacerbated in the Northern Rivers as a result of the region’s housing crisis. As developers colonise real estate for short-term holiday accommodation, many community members are being forced to marginal accommodation in flood prone areas, including caravan parks.
The issue of flooding and disaster, however, reaches beyond human social divisions. It’s quite obvious that some areas of the Northern Rivers that have been cleared and settled should never have been developed at all. Forests, coastal woodlands, intermittent lakes and wetland ecosystems all hold water and filter it for a gradual release into the sea. They provide a buffering reservoir effect that modulates the destructive impacts of extreme rainfall events.
The destruction of forests and wetlands for human settlement disrupts this beautifully complex eco-balance, leading to more frequent and more damaging flood events.
Add to this the radical effects of climate change and we have a cataclysm of prophetic proportions. This isn’t ‘divine justice’ so much as a human-engineered disaster, which threatens the life systems upon which all species depend.
A devout Christian, the prime minister is clearly hostile to nature and natural systems. In the vision of a divinely directed civilisation, nature must submit to human needs and a capitalist economy that is predicated on ceaseless growth and divisive domination.
In placing humans over nature and planetary life forms, people like the PM are dedicating themselves to the exponential expansion of disaster.
Even if we forgive such people for this unknowing devotion to capitalist economy and its ideology of ‘divine economic justice’ – there is still the glaring failure of our political classes to address climate change. Australia, specifically, remains gripped by political ineptitude and indolence.
Our policies and actions of mitigation and adaptation are appallingly inadequate.
Yes, there will be an enquiry into the floods. We will examine the failings of the emergency response, of inexcusably inadequate levee systems and drainage. We might even realise that some urban settlements and coastal development should never have been approved. Developments like West Byron.
By then the developer has long since fled the scene with their millions stashed for more destruction.
These developers and their political supporters have no interest in community or our natural ecosystems. They have raised themselves above the flood. You’ll see them living on a high plateau, well beyond the reach of divine justice.