Climate vs. Capitalism: A Firefighter’s Warning
First Published in PeaceWrites Journal for the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. (Issue No.02. October 2016):
The Peace Activists’ Journey was an invaluable panel session originated by Lindsay Mell at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (University of Sydney) in association with the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) recently. It enlivened us with the notion that: “our contemporary volatile universal Life Journey requires ever considerable demands on our activists to ensure proceedings keep rolling, and to keep the faith in mutual solidarity.”
With this in mind, I have deepened my sense of appreciation for our emergency workers on the front line, following a conversation I had recently with local senior firefighter, environmentalist, activist and founding director of the Australian Firefighters’ Climate Alliance (AFCA), Jim Casey, after he ran as a Greens candidate in the federal elections. In solidarity, I joined Jim’s campaign for a month in the lead up to polling day, soon after attending a full-house pre-election community forum in Sydney’s inner west, ‘Coal vs the Climate’. The forum underscored the urgent action and leadership required to collectively author new realities towards a just transition to renewables.
“the business of firefighting is getting harder and more dangerous.”
Lesser known about Jim, is that he led the first general strike of firefighters in half a century back in 2012 in response to the O’Farrell government’s regressive cuts to workers’ compensation legislation. For such a significant dispute, unusually, not many people are aware it ever happened. Planting it back into the public consciousness serves to underscore the interdependence between workers’ rights, dignity, justice and human security and importantly—humanizes the climate movement from the rare perspective of our first responders. As Jim stressed in The Guardian in early 2015 “the business of firefighting is getting harder and more dangerous.”
Climate inaction presents more serious dangers to firefighters globally today—but particularly in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on the planet. Since the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria back in 2009 (Australia’s all-time worst bushfire disasters) Jim has advocated strongly for a larger, more professional fire service and a change of attitude to keep up with climate change and more extreme fires, something the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (FBEU) has recommended for decades.
Following is a brief extract* from an in-depth interview I conducted recently at the FBEU in Surry Hills with Jim, where he currently serves as Vice President. The FBEU is the first known trade union of firefighters in the world. Jim shared both professional and personal insights on the climate emergency, workers’ rights and solidarity, Capitalism in crisis and growing inequality—some themes we anticipate Naomi Klein will amplify when she is presented with the Sydney Peace Prize here in November.
Karen: The UN stated recently that 2016 is set to be the hottest year on record. At the community forum Coal vs the Climate, you spoke about the black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 being your ‘road to Damascus moment’. Speaking about the changing behavior of bushfires, you warned of a trend of short drier winters, warmer springs and hotter summers. You’ve argued for a “single system of command and control” for effectively revolutionizing the way fires are fought in the future in order to meet the challenges presented by climate change. Is there any progress towards this?
Jim: There’s a clear argument. Extreme weather behaviour is going to make for more and more natural disasters—bushfires are the kind of, sexy one, the high profile one. But it’s not just that, it’s also flooding where we’ve never had flooding, it’s drought where we’ve never had drought, it’s storm and tempest behaviour — it’s all of those things. So given that, it makes sense to have your first responders organized as effectively as possible and the division we’ve got between the RFS and Fire Rescue NSW is just a waste of resources. There should be a single fire service in NSW, arguably a national fire service. But we’re not going to see it any time soon because of the bureaucratic empires that people build up and which they will defend and I think that’s a real pity.
Having said that, it’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem really is that the overall resourcing for the sector is not going to keep up with what’s required. The Climate Council estimates that we need to double the amount of professional firefighters by 2030. We’re basically holding constant. In NSW we’re kind of increasing at a rate not consistent with the growth of the population in the state, so the idea of doubling it … well we’re going to need to see more disasters I think before government comes on board with that.
Karen: Based on these estimates, what are you expecting to see this bushfire season?
Jim: Look, I never make this prediction. The only thing which you can say confidently, if it’s not this summer it will be one soon. The hotter summers and what that’s meant, particularly actually wetter winters too, your fuel load increases, the shorter space in winter makes it harder to actually get some of the hazard reductions done. So every year, we’re basically looking at conditions which get more and more potentially disastrous. Whether it’ll be this year, or whether it’ll be next, or the year after that, I can’t tell you. I do know that either way, people like me will be the ones going out to put out the fires and … we need action on climate change.
“The Climate Council estimates that we need to double the amount of
professional firefighters by 2030.”
Karen: The nexus between capitalism and the climate crisis will be in sharp focus when Naomi Klein comes to receive the 2016 Sydney Peace Prize in November. You’ve similarly underscored the interdependence of the global crises we are facing, pointing to Klein’s comments in your own article in the Guardian when you also stressed: “we must challenge the durability of capitalism in the face of three overriding realities: climate change, growing inequality and resource depletion.” What kind of impact do you think Klein’s visit will have when she will, inevitably, bring our lack of leadership on climate action in Australia into the spotlight?
Jim: It will be absolutely meaningless in terms of this government doing anything differently, but I’m hoping it will be extremely significant in terms of actually helping grow and mobilise the climate change movement, to make the government listen. Tying back to the capitalism thing, one of the things which I found quite surreal, [while campaigning] I kept being asked ‘do you hate capitalism?’ and ‘why do you want to smash capitalism’ and ‘are you going to destroy capitalism’. But the real thing which strikes me about all of that is, people like me, our feelings about capitalism are kind of irrelevant and our capacity to ‘smash capitalism’ … I mean, if capitalism gets transcended, it’s going to be on the back of millions of people moving, not handfuls of political activists. But the real problem, it’s actually the environment. Capitalism is going to smash itself at this rate.
“But the real problem, it’s actually the environment.
Capitalism is going to smash itself at this rate.”
Karen: Recently you cited Thomas Picketty in an article for The Guardian to help stimulate a constructive conversation on capitalism?
Jim: The point that I was making about Picketty is that it is significant when you see major economists like him—academic researchers really—advancing an argument that income inequality has become so entrenched and so systemic, the nature of the system itself is something which is going to cause enormous problems for everyone. Now really when people like him or Warren Buffet are making those arguments—and they’re not alone—it is a break from the neo-liberal consensus of the last thirty years.
So I think what’s interesting is that most informed opinion would say that the way we organise our society economically at the moment—late capitalism, for want of a better descriptor—is putting enormous stress upon the social fabric through a widening gap between those who have and those who don’t and enormous stress on the planet. Now that’s not me saying that as a wide-eyed firebrand, that’s me saying that as someone who can read a newspaper and someone who can read economics books and can see that’s a reasonable position to advance.
Karen: The recently published Inequality Report in 2016 estimates that inequality will cost the Australian economy $13.1 billion by 2019. In your campaign wrap speech you stressed that: “we need to go beyond ticking off the check box of social movements and address structural conditions of inequality.” What would you like to see emerge in a meaningful national conversation on our economic system In Australia?
Jim: One of the weaknesses I see sometimes with my political party is that, our policies are tremendous, they’re really sound, left, reformist plans to actually try to make Australia a better place and be a better neighbour for those around us. But we often, partially through the way we’ve been constructed, in terms of how we’re viewed, and that’s for a whole range of historical reasons, but also sometimes we continue to make this problem ourselves. We almost just present as the people that care a lot and there’s a checkbox of things to care about and off you go. I don’t think it’s enough. I don’t think it’s enough for us to grow and I don’t think it’s enough in terms of the project for social change. We need to be talking about the way the world’s organized, why so few have so much and so many are disenfranchised. We need to talk about why power is concentrated in particular ways and what it does then to the society as a whole.
So it’s interesting, the report that estimated how much structural inequality will cost … it’s a useful figure, but I also think it’s really important for us to remember that the people who are making that money don’t care, they really don’t and nor should they in a sense, they’re economic actors, they’re not ethical agents. So we need to become economic actors and force our interests onto the stage because no one’s going to do it for us. You can’t do it on the back of reasoned argument or the appeal to a higher power. You do it on the back of your own capacity to organize.
“We need to talk about why power is concentrated in particular ways and what it does then to the society as a whole.”
Karen: One of many to make this comparison during the election campaigning, Paddy Manning in The Monthly described your live pre-election interview with SBS The Feed in June: “in the finest tradition of Jack Mundey’s Green Ban Movement that saved Sydney’s historic sites.” Jack stressed recently that the coming period is one of the greatest challenges ever to the union movement. How do you feel about the comparisons to the union leader of the BLF who was at the vanguard of the Green Bans Movement in the 70s and 80s?
Jim: I have two responses when people say that: one is that I just feel ridiculously flattered, I mean Mundey was, is, a giant and achieved something. If I can achieve half of what Jack has, I’ll die happy. But the other thing I actually feel is really quite sad, because I just think what that really reflects is that there are so few people doing decent … [pauses] … I’m not a patch on Jack Mundey—and the reason why people will compare me to him is because there are so few people doing anything like that at the moment. So the bar is actually pretty low for me to jump over in that because in terms of explicitly socialist people committed to social change and direct action and empowerment of ordinary people to change the world who have got—or have had—leading union positions, who are still on the tools and so forth, there’s just not that many people like that around.
Karen: That says a lot about where we’re currently at doesn’t it?
Jim: Yes it does … and we desperately need to do something about that.
The Australian Firefighters Climate Alliance is a platform for Australian firefighters to come together and call for greater action on climate change. AFCA stands to help firefighters prepare and respond to the current and future impacts of the climate crisis, and advocate for the prevention of further damage to climate systems through strong policies and community education.
Fire & Rescue NSW provides fire and emergency services, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to approximately 7.6 million people throughout NSW. In 2014/15 FRNSW responded to 128,076 emergencies, an average of 351 per day. FRNSW employs around 7,000 firefighters. Of this number, around 3,500 are on-call firefighters.
Bigger Hotter, ‘Firestorms to become the New Normal’ in Australia
Feature photo: Smoke from the 2009 Victorian bushfires spreads over the Tasman Sea and New Zealand. The imagery was acquired by the Aqua satellite, and is at 500m resolution. The image was the MODIS picture of the day on 10 February 2009. Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC (Source: Wikimedia Commons).
*Long-form profile interview to be published soon. Stay tuned.