A Philosophical Paradox to Mull Over in the New Year

As you would now know from my essays, I tend to read a lot. I don’t read much fiction however. It’s not that I don’t like fiction – I do. Fictional tales can be exciting, moving and very entertaining in many and various ways. Some, using allegorical devices, can also be quite meaningful and didactic.


It’s just that I have this abiding need to know more. Consequently my bookshelves are crammed with non-fiction books about spirituality, psychology, history and human behaviour. But it’s not that I believe that the knowledge that is essential to me can always be directly learnt. Indeed I believe the opposite. The most important truths seem only to be able to be approached indirectly. Hence myths, allegories and metaphors inform my understanding at least as much as facts do.


It is quite evident to me that gnosis and intuition can sometimes provide a more reliable pathway to spiritual understanding than resorting to scriptures and dogma. The molecular biologist and author Darryl Reaney, called this “another way of knowing”. One of Reaney’s strongest beliefs was that consciousness survives the physical death of the body.


My own cosmological viewpoint, which I have shared with my readers on many previous occasions, is that the essential “stuff” of the universe, is not matter as the materialists would have us believe, but consciousness. We each in some form or other share some of that “collective consciousness” which in itself (unlike our bodies) is indestructible and eternal. But more of that anon.


Time seems to me to be a mechanism that distorts our notion of consciousness or perhaps constrains our notion of consciousness to meet the limits of our sensory perception and inevitably raises the spectre of death.


Buddhism showed us the way, more than two and a half millennia ago on how to deal with time. It exhorted us not to dwell on the past or the future but to live in the “eternal now”. It thus encouraged us to heighten our awareness to enhance the experience of “living in the present”.


European philosophers took a long time to catch up with the Eastern Masters.


The Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein eventually wrote in the early twentieth century:


Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way our visual field has no limits.


As you might imagine from the above quote, Wittgenstein deconstructed the concept of time. After the notion of consciousness, time is the most puzzling phenomenon that humans must confront. And no doubt they are both inextricably linked. (But that might need to be the subject of another essay.)


[However the notion of time is not easily dismissed. I was surprised recently to read a very good journalist with deep religious convictions suggest that time only exists because God ventured out of eternity to create an historical event resulting in the coming of Jesus!]


Now these are weighty matters for consideration, but philosophers also have their lighter moments.


It is probably cruel of me at this time of year to mention it, but the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once enigmatically wrote:


There is no God and Mary is his mother.


Wittgenstein (quoted above) once said that:


A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.


You might start such a work with some of the quotes from the legendary American baseball player and coach, Yogi Berra who seemed to specialise in enigmatic quotes. For example in talking about a St Louis restaurant he reputedly said:


Nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded.


But even serious philosophers are interested in paradox. Bertrand Russell for example created the Barber Paradox.


In a town where the sole barber, a man, shaves all the male citizens of the town who do not shave themselves, does the barber shave himself?


But if you are truly interested in philosophy, the paradox that will test you most is not Russell’s Barber Paradox, but the intensely human paradox of altruism.


At first sight, signing on to Darwin’s theory of evolution relating to the survival of the fittest might have us believe that selfishness, not altruism, should be the dominant motive of our lives. But religious history contradicted this.


The Heidelberg philosopher, Karl Jaspers, was something of a polymath making significant contributions not only in philosophy but also in psychiatry and theology. According to Jaspers, a broad revolution in Mankind’s spiritual development occurred over a wide geographical spread including China, India, Persia, Judea and Greece over the period 800-200BC. He called this period the Axial Age. (This revolution is illuminated with her usual scholarship in Karen Armstrong’s fine book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions.) During this period the foundations were laid for Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. A common thread that arose out of all these spiritual traditions was the Rule of Reciprocity which we perhaps know more commonly as the “Golden Rule”.


However differently the Sages of the Axial Age (Confucius, Mahavira, the Buddha, Socrates and the authors of the Mosaic commandments) justified their teachings, they came to similar beliefs about what constitutes religion. There was a great shift from their more primitive ancestors, who largely believed that religion was about appeasing the gods by making sacrifices or performing other rituals, to a belief that religion concerned our human relationships and responsibilities to one another.


As the famous Jewish Rabbi Hillel responded when asked to explain Judaism:


What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the total Torah, while the rest is mere commentary.


So there you are, an explanation of one of the world’s great religions with no mention of otherworldliness, transcendence or even God!


But the Rule of Reciprocity implies that we should have empathy for others. But at first glance at Darwin’s theory many would jump to the conclusion that the notion of the “survival of the fittest” would best be pursued by asserting our self-interest.


The notion of altruism providing an evolutionary benefit was taken up by Robert Trivers. In 1973 he published a paper titled The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. In the paper’s abstract he wrote that “friendship, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness, aspects of guilt and some forms of dishonesty and hypocrisy can be explained as important adaptations to regulate the altruistic system.” In recent decades there has been growing evidence that altruism is an evolutionary advantage.


But Darwin (and Trivers for that matter) misunderstood the true nature of altruism. They both had in mind “reciprocal altruism” where a person’s main motive for being concerned for others was that they would in turn derive a benefit from them in return. Recent work by evolutionary psychologists indicates that altruism is not consciously concerned for what we might get in return.


Many would probably echo the thoughts of the American Psychologist and Philosopher, Joshua Greene, who wrote:


Our moral heartstrings were designed to be tugged, but not from very far away. But it’s not because it’s morally good for us to be that way. It’s because caring about ourselves and our little tribal group helped us survive, and caring about the other groups – the competition – didn’t help us survive. If anything we should have negative attitudes towards them. We’re competing with them for resources.


Then along came Richard Dawkins and his book, The Selfish Gene. In this book Dawkins posited that it wasn’t the survival of the individual that powered evolution but the survival of his genes. We have all seen documentaries of male animals competing for access to females where the males often risk death to do so.  Hence the individual is prepared to risk his life in the attempt to propagate his genes. Moreover the individual would be predisposed to put his own life at risk to preserve the lives of others who shared his genes, and the more genes they shared the more likely he would be to make that sacrifice.


As the evolutionary scientist and genetic biologist, J B S Haldane dryly put it:


I would lay down my life for two brothers …….or eight cousins!


But we know of many instances where people have risked their lives to try to save perfect strangers. There is no hint of reciprocal altruism there.


There are many philanthropists who donate money for causes from which they will get no material benefits. There are many too who give anonymously with no thought of recognition for their selfless acts. And this is not restricted to wealthy families. Many ordinary people contribute to such causes as World Vision or the Smith Family helping people who are worse off than they are even if they don’t have much to spare themselves. The beneficiaries of their altruism are people they do not know and are unlikely to meet. Such people display an empathetic concern for their fellow humans and their altruism is not inspired by any thought of reciprocity. If I sponsor a child in Vietnam I surely have no expectation that I will get anything back.


Altruism is a double-edged sword. As the Dalai Lama has said:


If you want others to be happy, be altruistic; if you want to be happy, be altruistic!


In both my personal and professional life I have had to deal with people suffering depression. Now one of the reasons that people suffer from depression is that they are self-obsessed. Not in a narcissistic way, of course, but they can’t stop thinking about their supposed deficiencies and their debilitating worries.


But if you ask people (including those with depression) to talk about their happiest times, they never instance times when their thoughts were dominated by their problems but when their attention was on something else, and more often than not on someone else.


[It is worth reminding you of the good Dr Phil’s recipe for psychological maturity:


Know yourself; accept yourself; and then forget yourself.


(Perhaps the meaning becomes clearer if you in fact interpret yourself as your self.)]


The cynics, however, will argue that I indulge in altruism because it makes me feel good! Thus there is an element of self-gratification in my altruistic act as indeed the Dalai Lama implied above.


Whenever this argument is proposed I remember a presentation from Matthieu Ricard I attended. Ricard is a French geneticist that left his scientific vocation and retreated to the Himalayas to study Buddhism. He has worked for the Dalai Lama as his French translator and also wrote several books, one of which was titled Altruism.


A member of the audience posed a question to him that went something like this:


Can I believe I am truly altruistic if being kind to others gives me personal satisfaction?


Ricard replied something to this effect:


Suppose you are a farmer and you decide to plant wheat. When the wheat matures and you harvest it you also get chaff which you can use to feed your stock. What is wrong with that? The wheat is still of high quality even though you have a secondary product of usefulness. Your intention was to grow your wheat, which you did, why should you resile from taking a secondary benefit as well?


If you can help another being and take joy from it then things are as they should be.


I think the evolutionary drivers are best understood by looking at the tension that exists between the survival of the individual and the survival of the group.


As the evolutionary psychologists point out, selfishness promotes the survival chances of the individual, but altruism promotes the survival chances of the group.


Stefan Klein, writing in his book The Survival of the Nicest, proposes:


Humans’ ability to be selfless developed in direct proportion to their increasing dependence on one another. From the communal concern for progeny and food in the early Stone Age to the admonition to love one’s fellow humans that emerged in the world’s religions about 500 BCE, the history of humankind has been a history of stronger and stronger altruistic norms.


The argument has been made that in hunter/gatherer societies acceptance of a broad moral code is not so important. In such societies people lived in small groups where the aberrant behaviour of others is readily observed so that remedial action can be taken.


In the Axial Age hunter/gatherer groups were being superseded by people coming together in larger towns and cities. This was facilitated by improvements in technology which in turn was leading to the specialisation of labour and increases in wealth which enabled some citizens more leisure time which also enabled the further development of philosophy.


In large communities bad behaviour was more difficult to isolate than had been the case in the camps of their hunter/gatherer predecessors and therefore the development of moral codes assumed greater importance.


When you live in a small group whilst your selfishness might pay off as a survival strategy, it is obvious to the group and probably can only be sustained by physical dominance.


When you live in a larger group, group cohesion and survival is aided by altruism. When the group is faced with a calamity like drought, famine or sustained conflict with competitors, altruism aids group survival.


There now exists a tension about how do I protect my self-interest when my self-interest is, at least in part, dependant on the welfare of the group to which I belong? Under these circumstances a degree of altruism begins to be a survival strategy. In such circumstances Rousseau’s “noble savage” evolved to be the “noble citizen”!


As I wrote in my essay Another Look at Altruism:


It could then be argued that the genetic fitness of a human being must therefore be a consequence of both individual selection and group selection. The likelihood of survival and therefore the passing on of an individual’s genes was dependent on both the fitness of the group to which the individual belonged as well as to their individual fitness. The preferred position, with respect to evolution, would have been to be a fit member of a competent group. This theory has been called by biologists ‘eusocial evolution’.


Now, as we saw above, because we‘re dealing with larger groups, it is far more difficult to monitor individual behaviour. Consequently society benefits by the adoption of moral standards against which an individual can be generally more easily assessed. Under these circumstances it does not seem surprising that the Golden Rule became ubiquitous in more settled societies, with denser populations and myriads of interdependencies.


Now all these arguments supporting altruism might make good sense, but they unfortunately ignore a most salient point. Altruism is the natural empathetic response of one human being to another when we put aside our separateness. This is an expression of “love” in its highest form. So to my mind the only question is how broadly are we prepared to demonstrate this love? In essence this is dependent on how extensively we can perceive our “Oneness”. Joshua Greene, whom I quoted above, seemed to believe that we can only extend our love to those who were either genetically close to us or were socially close to us.


But we know some of us are far better than that! They are prepared to risk their lives for strangers. We have seen, for example, in recent years members of the public being prepared to confront terrorist attackers or come to the aid of the victims of such attacks, with little concern for their own welfare. This is a far more noble response than the evolutionary biologists would have us believe. This cannot in any way be labelled as reciprocal altruism. It comes from an innate understanding that the more enlightened of us have that we are all “as One”.


One of the tragedies of modern Western society is the fact that instead of reinforcing our “Oneness”, identity politics is magnifying our separateness. The tribes that were once ubiquitous in the hunter/gatherer societies of our ancestors are now being replaced by tribes based on race, gender, nationality and politics.


The fabulous Alan Watts understood the dilemma involved in ego and separation. He wrote:

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.


So in the end altruism is not a paradox. It is not a perverse action of someone acting at the expense of their own self-interest. It is a natural action for anyone who has awakened to the realisation of the shared consciousness they experience with all others which is in itself eternal and from which the physical universe has emanated.


7 Replies to “A Philosophical Paradox to Mull Over in the New Year”

  1. Hi Ted, I have contemplated this one for a a while (which of course does not make me an expert). Generally, I don’t agree with the thrust of your view on this topic. I’m not a scientist, nor a philosopher, however I have formed the view that evidence based science is the best humans can do in regards to truth and facts (which are arguable definitions). As far as I have read, evolution is a fact as much as gravity is a fact. You mention about “signing on” to evolution which suggests to me you may see merit in alternative science (or ideas) debunking it.
    Karen Armstrong and your other references research a time where, from an evidenced based scientific knowledge view, relatively nothing is known about the universe. Dalia Lama – I don’t know much about that person/role, but I’d be interested to know if the posting understands physics, chemistry, biology and is a master of mathematics. As much as I understand it to be, these topics are what is the truth and fact of human existence as much as humans have been able to reach in our shared reality. Spirituality and idealism is not an agreed or evidence based premise and is very personal and can be whatever you want it to be in your own consciousness. This does not help in making it true, real, or factual.
    My points above just address your premise. In regards to altruism, there are many hypotheses explaining what appears to be altruistic action, that aligns, and in no way undermines evolution or Richard Dawkins Selfish Gene. The premise is the unit of selection. That is the starting point that you (Ted) must not accept. As far as I can tell, the counter arguments want it both ways i.e. they want to use almost all the science, but then reach their own personal conclusions.

    1. Good to hear from you again, Matt. I trust things are well with you.
      As for my essay and your welcome critique, I’d like to try to explain a couple of things to you better.
      Firstly, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I don’t largely agree with Darwin’s Theory – it gives us a good understanding of the processes that caused biological organisms to develop and modify over the millennia. But I don’t agree that it can completely explain altruism. It is easy to see that reciprocal altruism could have evolved through evolutionary processes. As humans aggregated in numbers it aided group survival. But I don’t see how it can explain the heroic altruism that causes people to risk their lives for complete strangers.
      And of course, as you implied, the philosophers and sages of the Axial Age did not have the same understanding of the physical universe that we have today. But that is not to say they didn’t have some useful insights about the human condition. Many of these insights are included in the myths that underpin their spiritual traditions.
      The problem our rational, secular society faces is that we analyse those myths for their historical validity and they are often found wanting. But often if we look harder, and use our intuition a little more, the myths contain human and spiritual truths. In common parlance we use the word “myth” in a disparaging way. For example we might say, “That is just a myth!” implying untruth. But there are noble and insightful myths that can aid us and I would be reluctant to discard them.
      Now I am in no way “anti-science” because science has provided huge benefits to Mankind. But science also has its limitations. The two major limitations of science in my mind seem to be:
      • The limited capacity of human understanding.
      The universe is complex. It is impossible to imagine that a human being, as part of the universe could ever have the capacity to understand the whole. And similarly, and probably just another manifestation of this truth,
      • The limits of language.
      As the scientist Bernardo Kastrup writes:
      Underlying our contemporary attitude towards religious myths is the hidden but far-reaching assumption that all relevant truths about reality can be directly captured by the intellect in the form of language constructs. In other words we take it for granted that if something is true then it can be said.
      But our language, even if we include mathematics and all other symbols and signs we use to express ourselves are necessarily limited, and it is not hard to imagine a reality that lies outside our ability to describe it directly.
      Furthermore at its extremes, science requires just as much faith as religion does. If we look, for example, at the creation of the universe, belief in the Big Bang Theory seems to me to require no less faith than believing the creation myth of the Old Testament. (See, for example, Cosmology on Trial by Pierre St Clair.)

  2. Happy New Year Ted! Nice but long debunk of evolution…. Similar to the graduation speech I gave at Mt Eliza in the 80’s….. Interesting that in your long dissertation on love you left out the most enduring and popular advocate of love, the man who was the foundation of Christianity – Western culture is the biggest and most enduring and most popular of any culture in the history of humanity, and it’s primary tenet is to love your neighbour. And forgive those who hate you. And love your enemy. A whole book full of quotations available to you but apparently not part of your lexicon despite the assertion that you are a great reader. And those books are full of parables, which you always say you admire. And paradoxes too, another of your loves. There you are Ted,back to school for you…. May you find peace this year…. Yours Jack

    1. Happy New Year to you as well, Jack.
      It surprises me that you think that I want to debunk Darwin’s Theory, because I don’t. (Please see my response to Matt, below.) All I am saying is that I don’t think that evolutionary theory can explain altruism when it is afforded to perfect strangers. Your Christian ethic should agree with that. (Mind you that there are some that have suggested that St Paul believed that the “Golden Rule” only applied to fellow believers.)
      And whilst I am pleased that you can take comfort from the “whole book of quotations” that you promote as the New Testament, I must admit it is a tome that I can find inspiration from as well. But I would suggest that if you open your eyes there are many such other sources of inspiration. And of course I like the parables and paradoxes that your particular belief system has enunciated. But again you would be wrong to believe this is a unique feature of Christianity.
      It is a gross injustice of Christians to believe that they have a monopoly on altruism. Other faiths have promoted altruism just as strongly as Christians.
      But as I have said many times before Jack, I am happy that you can find solace and peace from pursuing your particular religious beliefs. But I am surprised that you seem to think this is the only way to do so.
      As for me, it was kind of you to hope that I find peace this year. But really Jack, my soul has been living in peace for longer than I can remember.
      Go well! I always enjoy your commentary.

  3. Dear Ted,

    I am at a loss as to know where to start on your “And Another Thing”. I will just deal with issues in the order in which you raised them:
    (I apologise if you find that some of my criticism of your statements is a little ‘forceful’.)

    1. Australia’s production of CO2 is so miniscule to have no perceptible impact on global climate.

    Ted, I wonder why you vote in elections. The average Federal electorate has 90,000 voters, Your vote is 0.0011%. That is miniscule and yet we all do it. State electorates have 30,000 voters, Your vote is 0.0033% That is still miniscule and yet we all do it. Why do you ever bother giving a donation to charity when, unless you are as rich as Dick Smith, you can give only a tiny fraction of what the charity really needs, and yet we all bother to do so. Australia’s production of CO2 is about 2% of world production but a lot more if you include Scope 3 emissions. That is NOT miniscule. Australia’s production of CO2 per capita is one of the highest in the world. That is NOT miniscule. Apart from USA and China, the CO2 emissions of most other countries in the world fall within that 2% to 5% band. If all these countries claim your “miniscule” status, where would we be? Your claim that this “miniscule” rating allows us to do nothing is just perpetuating the worst demonstration of “The Tragedy of the Commons” that you often discuss so eloquently in your essays. It is the promotion of national selfishness that I find shameful.

    2. The ferocity of these bushfires is not so much a factor of climate but a reflection of the high fuel loads in many of our ill-managed forests. This emerged as an issue from the 2009 Royal Commission into Victorian bushfires.

    This is INCORRECT. What evidence do you have for saying this apart from what is printed in The Australian newspaper, (the greatest source of blatant climate change denialism ever known)? The ferocity of these bushfires is FAR Greater than anything that any of the fire fighters, fire chiefs, and landholders have ever seen. In addition, the fire season has started months earlier than it ever has before and is continuing for a lot longer than it ever has before. The possibility of high fuel loads may well have been a significant factor in 2009, but it has demonstrated to be largely insignificant when compared with this predominant factor of the horrendous weather conditions of strong winds, very high temperatures, low humidity and after a long drought. This is proved by the fact that some of the fires near Bega are burning through areas that had burnt in 2018, less than two years ago. There are many other examples where the extreme weather conditions on the day of a fire have caused areas to burn again even where there had been so-called “hazard reduction” burns within the last year or so. 2019 has been the hottest year for Australia on record. This spring and summer has come on top of a prolonged drought which has kept soil moisture at extremely low levels. Soil moisture is a critical contributor to the severity of fires.

    3. The historical record of our early explorers pictured a country where grasslands prevailed in lightly wooded areas and those venturing to uncover the secrets of this land, new to Europeans, could ride a horse relatively unencumbered by undergrowth and fallen branches. This was not an accidental outcome. It emanated from the propensity of Australia’s original inhabitants to use the traditional “firestick”. Under this regime many areas that the nomadic tribes frequented were regularly burnt to encourage new green growth that attracted the prey that their existence depended upon. But now, little controlled burning is undertaken.

    This is a gross generalisation and only applies to those grasslands and woodlands but not to forests. There is a huge area of forest of a great variety of densities and vegetation types. The reason that “little controlled burning is undertaken” is because the vast majority of the grassland and woodland has now been appropriated to grazing, farming, or even residential land. However don’t make the mistake of transposing that fire regime into forest country. Aboriginals had very little control of fires in forest country and the scientific evidence is that the great majority of forest fires in Australia were started by lightning and continued unchecked until put out by rain. Also the majority of fires were hot fires in summer. Australian eucalypt dominated forests have evolved as a result of hot summer fires, not cool burns. The aborigines may have preferred those so called “cool burns in winter” but their main aim was to get rid of rank dry grass and encourage green pick that would feed the returning kangaroos and wallabies, as you have noted. Also the natural fire interval in most forest country is several decades, not the 2 to 5 years suggested by some as a means of “hazard reduction”. An example is the Jarrah Forest of WA, where the natural fire frequency is about 80 years. Now, because of misguided political pressure, they are being burnt at about 5 year intervals and these forests are being destroyed. The whole ecosystem is changing and it is encouraging the growth of species that like to be burnt at these shorter intervals. Eminent botanist and fire ecologist Professor Kingsley Dixon of Curtin Uni has recently quoted colleagues who have described this current fire regime as “Ecocide”. We observed these areas of over-burned Jarrah forests first hand when walking the Bibbulmun Track in October 2018, and were appalled by the look of it then, a year before we heard Kingsley Dixon’s statement.
    4. Government regulation of the land has either been neglected or largely influenced by the Green movement which has minimised the use of fires and clearing the forest understorey. It has often prevented the clearing of trees close to housing or the provision of adequate fire breaks. Landholders have been prevented from taking appropriate measures to secure the safety of their buildings. People have been prevented from harvesting fallen timber for firewood. All of this has seen the build-up of the fuel load in our forests and increased the threat to buildings and other infrastructure.

    What evidence do you have for making these claims, or was it just copied from The Australian or other media? I contend that this paragraph is totally INCORRECT. Over the last 2 decades, government regulation of land has belatedly being trying to address the major issue of broadscale tree-clearing. This may have been triggered by the ‘green movement’ but has only been legislated after proper scientific study of the various ecosystems involved. Some of the later regulations were to close loopholes where landholders were blatantly clearing broadscale areas using the excuse that they are ‘wide’ boundary firebreaks. Land management legislation (in Qld at least) does NOT prevent “the clearing of trees close to housing”. It does NOT prevent “the provision of adequate firebreaks.” The Act allows exemption for firebreaks of sufficient width taking account of the forest type. This is all spelt out on the State Govt website and you could have researched this information yourself.

    Specifically, in the Cobraball fires west of Yeppoon, where about 18 houses and other structures were lost in November, there was a full range of different land management regimes evident. Many houses were adequately protected with safe areas around houses and sheds, and most of these survived. Many other properties were what I would describe as badly managed, with long grass far too close to structures, car bodies, old tyres, polytanks, etc. These properties invariably suffered loss of buildings from the fire. In addition there were the few very unlucky ones where a house was adequately prepared but suffered ember attack due to the extremely hot and windy conditions, and nobody being there to patrol the situation. However, with only one exception, there was NO RESTRICTION from either Federal, State or Local government legislation preventing the residents of Cobraball from managing their properties for proper fire prevention. These are all freehold blocks where landholders are able to manage their land as they choose. As long as they obtained proper fire permits from their local Rural Fire Brigade to conduct planned burns, there is NO “Government regulation . . . which has minimised the use of fires and clearing the forest understorey.” This is a complete myth. The one exception that we are aware of is an environmentally sensitive area which only affects a single property. In spite of all this the local media was full of statements almost identical to yours, and including allocating blame to those dreadful ‘overgrown National Parks’, even though there are no National Parks anywhere within cooee of Cobraball.

    5. So now instead of frequent burning which reduced the fuel load, fires are less frequent but hugely more intense when they do occur.

    This is a complete generalisation and cannot be applied to Australia as a whole. See my comments at number 3 above. Also I totally disagree with this statement if applying it to our country in that our experience has shown that, rather than reducing the fuel load, frequent burning actually increases the fuel load. Frequent burning only encourages those species and ecosystems which like frequent burning. This is a positive feedback loop of which, as an engineer, you should understand the consequences.

    6. If we are to reduce the hazard of catastrophic bushfire, governments need to ensure that land areas under their control (such as National Parks) are managed properly to reduce the accumulating fuel load and that property owners are given more freedom to put in place mitigating strategies to protect their properties from the risk of fire.

    National Parks and State Forests in Qld are managed by Qld Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS). Over the last 2 or more decades QPWS has been conducting a huge program of planned burns in order to try an implement the kind of measures you are proposing. They are under enormous political pressure to implement this program and regularly announce how many hundreds of thousands of hectares have be burnt each year. It is a great pity that you did not ascertain the correct information first before repeating incorrect and irrelevant history on land management.

    There is a big myth being perpetuated here in that (a) “Controlled burns” are all that is required to prevent these massive wildfires, and that (b) “Controlled burns” are even feasible.

    (a) Firstly: Are they effective? There is no single answer here that can be applied to the whole of Australia given the wide variety of ecosystems and climatic conditions. If we are dealing with predominantly eucalypt forest with a grassy understory, several factors need to be considered. Australia now has a plethora of introduced grasses that often burn hotter than the native grasses. Regular burning on a 2 to 5 year cycle will change the forest ecosystem to favour those species that enjoy such conditions, even though the natural regime, (with or without ‘firestick’ management) may have been much longer fire intervals. Regular controlled burns are only moderately effective in reducing the ‘fuel load’ in most cases, and in many areas they actually make the situation worse. Our experience in forest country with a grassy understory, showed that the regrowth of grasses reached a maximum in the 2 to 4 years after a fire. From about 5 years onwards, grasses senesce and growth becomes suppressed. Much of the old grass either rots down or is eaten by termites. In our country it is the grasses that contribute to the thermal energy of the fire front. There may be a build up of heavy branches, logs, and large timber but these items, while adding to the tally of “fuel load” in terms of kg/sqm, do not contribute to the severity of the initial fire front. Their effect is to prolong the fire days, weeks or months.

    There are countless examples of where country that had been subject to a controlled burn to reduce the fire load were able to burn all over again within 2 years (or even 6 months) when faced with extreme or catastrophic weather conditions on the day.

    Let us look at “fuel loads” The attributes of fuel that need to be considered are not just the “load” meaning the mass of burnable material. There is also the size, arrangement and moisture content. Size varies from small, such as grass and leaves, to large, such as big thick logs. So 1 kg/sqm of grass (10 tonnes per hectare) will be far more dangerous in contributing to the initial fire front than a huge load of railway sleepers. Arrangement is generally whether the fuel is separated, standing vertically, with plenty of access to air, or compact and flattened. e.g. A paddock of standing long grass will present a very high fire risk, whereas the same grass slashed and lying on the ground, with the same kg/sqm of mass, will be far less of a fire risk. Moisture content is highly critical, and particularly soil moisture content. It is known that some aboriginal groups using ‘firestick’ methods would actual refrain from burning a particular area when the soil moisture was too low. They judged that a certain level of soil moisture was required to allow regrowth of ‘green pick’ soon afterwards to encourage the macropods.

    (b) Secondly, can they be managed? The proposal to have a widescale policy of high frequency controlled burns would require a large army of fire-fighters. And they would spend a large amount of time just sitting and waiting for suitable weather conditions in order to conduct these burns. The times when controlled burns can be conducted are surprisingly limited. This is even before we consider the shortening of the safe times due to climate change.

    One example is that in 2013 we had put a lot of effort into preparing about a 90ha area that was circumscribed by fire control lines (4wd tacks) on three sides and a deep dry-rainforest creek on the forth. Half of it was on our land and the other half on a reserve managed by QPWS. On the planned day in July we spent all day with QPWS staff trying to get the fire to take, but the greenness and moisture content of the grass and soil meant that wherever we went with a drip-lighter it would go for a few metres before going out. The next time that QPWS staff were available and weather conditions were suitable was only three (3) later and on that day we had trouble containing it. Fortunately we succeeded but that was with two crews from QPWS and two of us working all day to patrol our very well prepared wide dirt firebreaks. My mopping up patrols of the edges continued for another 7 days. All that for just 90ha.

    7. If we are serious in returning the Australian landscape to something that resembled that which the first European settlers encountered, fire has to be used sensibly and frequently as a tool to reduce the possibility of the infrequent, but catastrophic fires we are currently encountering.

    There is no way at all of “returning the Australian landscape to something that resembled that which the first European settlers encountered”

    As stated above, the vast majority of the grasslands and woodlands have been turned into farming and grazing country. How do you propose to return this landscape to what was there before? It seems the only option is to join the extreme indigenous groups who want to close down white settlement and send all us whitefellas back to England on the First Fleet ships. [joke]

    Also, there are a large number of introduced species growing in Australia now, particularly grasses such as Guinea Grass, Buffel Grass, Gamba Grass, etc. which love fire, and burn much hotter than native grasses such as Kangaroo Grass. Because of this alone, Australia has changed forever and there is no possibility of returning to the old practice of “Firestick” burning without ending up with a totally scorched earth.

    We had 24 years’ experience living on a 540 ha property on a fire-prone plateau at Struck Oil on the Dee Range east of Mount Morgan. During this time we had to contend with a about 23 fires, two of which were major wild fires. One of these (1994) burnt out the whole of our property and surrounding properties, and the other (2004) burnt about 67% of our property as were managed to stop it at 4 am on an internal firebreak. (Our houses and sheds were saved on both occasions.) All the other fires were in two categories:
    • either controlled burns of ours on mosaic areas within our property, non of which got away, or
    • wildfires from the wider district that we (and the RFS) managed to control mostly before they reached our place.

    We have closely observed fire behaviour and the nature of the vegetation regrowing after fires. One overriding conclusion that we came to then was that no-matter how much preparation we put in place, it was the CONDITIONS ON THE DAY that governed fire behaviour and controllability.

    We gave a presentation to a Rainforest Recovery Conference in Gladstone in 1998 and I was promoting the idea of mosaic burns and, in my naivety, spoke of doing “cool burns in winter”. This received criticism from CSIRO Scientist, Don Sands, who pointed out that such fires destroyed a variety of insects that make their homes in the grasses in winter. Such “cool burns in winter” would destroy these groups of insects. In fact the presence of these and other insects proves that Australia did NOT evolve as a country that predominantly had “cool burns in winter”. This is a myth that is now being promulgated by aboriginal groups because it fits in with their narrative of gently “caring” for their country. The science proves otherwise, and that most Australian forest fires prior to white settlement were started by lightning and that in general Australian ecosystems have evolved around hot fires in summer.

    Following our 2004 fire, we were presented a paper to the Bushfire 2006 Conference in the Brisbane Convention Centre in August 2006. This was not a peer-reviewed scientific paper but just a documentation of our observations from our experience of fire management on our property. I was asked to repeat the presentation to a group of Fire Brigade managers in Rockhampton. After the devastating 2009 fire at Mt Archer in Rockhampton, we presented an abridged version to the Rockhampton Regional Council. One of the main themes was the value of patches of dry-rainforest (semi-evergreen vine thicket) in providing natural firebreaks in an area of forest. Another was the observation that frequent so-called hazard reduction burning was not the answer that many people think, and that in Central Qld. it is the grass load not total fuel load that is important. Following this last talk, RRC Mayor, Brad Carter, visited our property with several council managers to observe the vegetation communities that we were talking about.

    I am not trying to claim that we know it all, far from it. However, I am severely annoyed by the fact that many in the media who make claims similar to yours seem to know very little about fire, but have a pre-planned agenda to stick the boot into the green movement and National Parks, for purely political reasons.

    We are not qualified botanists or fire scientists, and do not have nearly as much knowledge as those who have studied this subject for a long time. However we do have sufficient knowledge and experience to know when someone is spreading information that I would describe as blatantly incorrect and misleading.


    Ian Herbert

  4. Thanks, Ted, belatedly, for this essay re paradox and altruism. I read it at the time I was re-reading an old novel which, while requiring some forgiveness for some of its old-fashioned mores at first sight, depicts without the slightest trace of self-righteousness (rather the opposite) the fineness of the human spirit that wills to work for the collective good. I recall my parents liking this book, ‘John Halifax Gentleman’, and indeed seeing the film of the same name in my Grandmother’s house in Brisbane as a child. While it’s a novel, it echoes a bygone era and the durability of issues of the human condition. As an aside, it implicitly posits a slim veil between lives current and past, in exercising / considering / developing ‘the real person’ within. The author seems to suggest that one’s consciousness reaches its ‘highest beauty’ when attuned to collective good, marked by love and care for one’s fellows. Of a character’s demise in the novel, the author writes, ‘ …life now ended or perhaps born in some new sphere to begin again its struggle after the highest beauty, the only perfect love. What are we that we should place limits to the infinite mercy of the Lord and Giver of life, unto whom all life returns?’ Of course this rendition on spirituality won’t suit all, by any means. However I agree, real altruism is the kind of giving that doesn’t have ‘strings attached’ in terms of ‘payback’ to the giver, and it stems from the finest in human disposition that honours ‘the collective’. For me, regardless of race, colour or creed, altruism is demonstrated most in God’s ‘putting on the form of a servant’, Jesus, in universal love, eg Psalm 36:7: ‘How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings’. However fueled, the more we imperfect creatures find ourselves moved to act out of love, including for those we don’t know, as seen in the current awful Australian bush-fires and ongoing drought, I dare say it is universally the most inspiring and uplifting gift, benefiting both ‘the hand that gives and the hand that takes’, regardless of race, colour, creed, and of station in the community – we are all the same, united at this point. Thanks for talking about paradox and altruism again, Ted, and sorry that my humble comment is late!

    1. As usual you make some good points Glenys.

      As I have noted in other essays, most of the important truths are relayed best by allegory. I am sure the book you reference is such an allegory.

      And indeed the important teachings of all religions (including your own Christianity) are conveyed this way as well.

      For anyone who might dispute this I suggest they might read More Than Allegory by Bernardo Kastrup or The Lost Art of Scripture by Karen Armstrong.

      Let me share with you a quote from the former book:

      If there is no external truth, then the transcendent truths pointed to by valid religious myths can only be internal. They are the truths of our own nature, not of an outside reality. And our own nature is clearly transcendent, for that which conjures up time and space through a trick of circular reasoning cannot be bound by time and space.

      I concede that might take a little thought to come to grips with! Religious myths aren’t about external (or historical) events, but about us as creative consciousness. The importance and validity of of religious myths has nothing to do with with an objective truth ‘out there’. That the contemporary anti-religious movement focuses on precisely combating the literal validity of religious myths is entirely missing the point.

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