Disaster Amnesia

Heavy rain is falling again in the already saturated catchment of the Yimmang. Warnings from the BOM that the rain will persist for days!

We have tried to engineer resilience into our waterside settlements by using sea walls and levees. As human-enhanced unnatural disasters become more frequent and cause more devastation, these ‘old’ protective measures are becoming increasingly dangerous for our future security.

Even ‘reminders’ of how we risk catastrophe such as historic flood markers in public places are not enough to stop the collective amnesia. Governments and real estate agents want us to forget the disasters of the past. Too expensive to fix, too profitable to stop developing “paradise waters”. Everyone wants waterside views … until they don’t.

We want to forget and re-build our damaged homes, businesses and psyches. In the past, such disaster amnesia was a sign of the indomitable human spirit. It is now a sign of deep cognitive dissonance in the face of a mountain of scientific evidence that future disasters will be worse than past disasters. Repeating the mistakes of the past will destroy that indomitable spirit. Tierratrauma beckons.

The IPCC (2022) have warned us that “Hard limits to adaptation have been reached in some ecosystems (high confidence). With increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits (high confidence)” (C3). You cannot adapt to an escalating risk … how high do we raise the levee?

In Eastern Australia it seems we have already reached the limits of adaptation in two domains, fire and flood. With respect to non-coastal flooding, if we ignore those limits and continue to build under the river levee, sooner or later, “we will all be rooned” (said Hanrahan). It only takes one break in a levee designed to stop past flood limits for a future flood to overwhelm everything on a floodplain. Levees ‘future-fail’ communities, they only future-proof foolishness. It is pathological to ‘adapt’ to irregular failure.

As I wrote in Earth Emotions (2019) ” the change that changes everything will be profound” and humans are now totally within such a global change event that has profound local consequences. We have one certainty now, do not do what we have done in the past. So, what do we do that is innovative and more likely to succeed? I focus only on flooding for the moment.

At the global level we must stop the burning of fossil fuels (all types) into order to stop the situation from getting worse than it is. Cessation of burning fossil fuels is urgent public policy. We have eight years ahead of us to achieve this outcome assuming we start in earnest, yesterday.

At the local level, some older practices are useful, live on the high ground, farm on the floodplain. We can live with the occasional flood ruining crops, but the ruination of whole towns and their infrastructure is not some thing we can live with. Floods on floodplain are useful as they replenish the fertility of the soils. Levees stop the flow of nutrients and the possibility of long-term replenishment of alluvial soil. Levees are a form of soil and psychic impoverishment.

Rather than re-engineering streams, rivers and floods, we should ‘re-engineer’ ourselves. Re-locate and re-build according to human needs and scale and overcome the pathology of automobile dependence and the gigantism it entails.

The sumbiovillage respects topography, demonstrates walkable places, commons, community gardens, markets in the town centre, community facilities such as health and disaster centres and well-funded emergency services. It also respects the possibility of fire.

Town housing should emphasise medium density to enable maximum use of precious, safe places. Private dwellings should fit into an overall town plan that supports the matrix of common needs. The aesthetics of place should also reflect the biophysical attributes of place and past culture remembered and respected.

Energy provision will be critical and locally owned energy generation a top priority. Wind and solar with battery storage will be the energy modality of the future with non-renewables used only in emergency contexts. Power, in all respects, must be decentralised.

The solution to disaster amnesia is to re-discover the ‘assets’ of distinctive places. So much damage has been done, especially to Indigenous people and their places, that this reparation will be an act of creation.

Being ‘resilient’ means that we might be tempted to protect the unsustainable past. ‘Adaptation’ to a constantly deteriorating home environment is ultimately … impossible. We cannot stay in place and we cannot move without changing the way we live. Living in the Symbiocene will not be easy, but at least it is possible, maybe even desirable, perhaps beautiful.