Climate Rally Speech
Tony Dickson 20/09/14
I’m holding in my hand my CFS pager, a singularly odious device that I regard with anxiety and anger in equal measure.
Anxiety, because I dread fighting fires: they terrify me.
Anger, because it represents the wilful ignorance, short sighted self interest and callous indifference to exploitation that is increasingly defining our society.
It was suggested that I regale you all with horrifying tales of my experiences in a long career as a fire fighter and how climate change will inevitably increase the threat of wild fire. But what is the point? I can certainly tell you about catastrophic fires where the radiant heat will kill you at several hundred metres and fireballs roll across the land leaving the very soil burning in their wake. I can stand here and tell you about it because fortunately, I haven’t had to witness it myself. The training videos graphically tell us about the dead man zone.
I could also tell you that CSIRO projections are that the combined frequency of days with very high and extreme Fire intensity ratings may increase by as much as 25% by 2020 and 70% by 2050. It is estimated that Australia will require twice as many fire fighters by 2030.
But what is the point. What would it change? How would your awareness of these facts affect our ability to cope with the reality of the dramatically increasing threat from fire?
What I am about say however, may well inspire some of you to change your perspective and priorities.
In recent years, despite the ever growing need, the number of CFS volunteers in this State has actually declined by about a third and the current rate of decline amounts to hundreds of people per year.
There are a variety of reasons for this decline; ranging from increasing bureaucratic demands to what I call mission creep: whereby volunteers are increasingly called from their beds or work, to clear debris from roads, assist at accidents, or help ambos’ lift stretchers, in order save money for state and local government. For this we must pay for the privilege, in the form the Emergency Services Levy. There is a long list of people who are partly forgiven this impost, but the people who risk their lives every summer are not among them.
In Victor Harbor we have an MFS station manned by part time personnel, who respond to callouts just as we do. Indeed, we often attend the same incidents. The only difference is that they get paid for time they spend training or on deployment and for the inconvenience of being on call 24/7. Many CFS volunteers feel their goodwill is being exploited.
However, the main reason for the loss of volunteers is far more systemic. For obvious reasons the vast majority of CFS personnel are drawn from rural areas. Unfortunately, RURAL AUSTRALIA IS DYING and the vast majority of Australians neither know, nor do they seem to care; and they certainly don’t understand the implications of such a reality.
Some more statistics:
• Farmers make up about two percent of the population.
• The average age of the farming community is over 57.
• Agriculture contributes, with value adding, about 12% of GDP
• The multiplier effect is of far more significance than for mining.
• In real terms, spending on food has increased 13 per cent over the past 20 years, while incomes have risen 36 per cent.
o The reason that spending on food has increased by 13% does not mean that farmers are being paid more, merely that people buy more processed food and eat out more often, because they can. As a consequence of this, farmers are actually paid less.
• Over 50% of all farming enterprises and 70% of family farms are dependent on outside income for survival.
In reality this often means wives going out to work in addition to working on the farm.
So, the food we all eat is in part produced by families typically working seven day weeks, for less than the cost of production. That is akin to a slave, paying for the privilege. Then we ask her (half our brigade are women) to get up at two in the morning, to clear a branch off the main road, that the motorist who reported it, could have simply moved himself.
Bigger farms borrow more money to absorb their neighbours as farmers go broke or retire or, increasingly, kill themselves; and rural communities also die, when the bank closes and the general store and the mechanic and the pub; and the football club can’t field a team and neither can the fire truck.
Imagine what the situation will be like after the next drought.
This country spends billions of dollars every year defending itself against hypothetical enemies. Of the nine wars (as distinct from peace-keeping deployments) that we have become embroiled in since Federation, only one can legally be considered as self defence; the rest might best be described as politically strategic adventurism. The total time Australia’s children have spent fighting and dying in other people’s conflicts amounts to 57 years out of the last 114. By contrast, combating the most acute threat to the security of Australia, is left to a rapidly ageing and dwindling army of amateurs.
Almost certainly, we have left it too late to prevent significant climate change. However, it is still in our power to stop the depopulation of the frontline of our struggle with its consequences.
For many reasons, Australia’s survival depends on that of rural Australia.
The take home message is simple: it’s easy being green, if someone else is footing the bill. Paying farmers and fire fighters what they are worth will be expensive, but at least it won’t cost the earth.