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Conversations with the devil

by | Feb 11, 2020 | 4 comments

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Polarisation and tribalism are short circuiting society’s capacity to reason, trust and recover

By David Salt

So I was sitting there having a chat over coffee with some colleagues and the conversation turned to bushfires, as it often does these days. This chat, however, turned unexpectedly fiery.

As it happens, one of my coffee colleagues is a leading researcher on the value of hazard-reduction burning and property protection. He’s carried out multiple analyses on what variables are important in the risk houses face when a catastrophic fire hits. His results have been peer reviewed and consistently point out the same thing.

The research has found that the four most important variables critical to house loss when big bush fires strike are (in order of importance): the weather, the amount of woody vegetation close to houses, proximity to large blocks of native vegetation and, last and of least importance, hazard-reduction burning close to houses (with hazard burning undertaken further away not having any significant influence). This is consistent with a growing body of evidence that hazard burning is a tool of limited value when it comes to protecting people and property.

So far, so good. We often disagree with each other but we’re usually in concord about the ‘facts’ (and open to hearing each other’s points of view).


Then this older gentleman sitting a few seats away from us butts in saying what’s really needed to beat these fires is just getting in there with big machinery and clearing away the native vegetation, opening up fire trails and getting the fire fighters into the forests before the fire gets away. That’s what they’ve done in the United States, he said, and that’s what we should have been done here in Australia! It’s outrageous, he exclaimed, how we’ve allowed this situation to get so out of hand.

We were a bit taken aback by this guy’s uninvited interjection. We asked him where he was getting his information. The United States, we pointed out, was experiencing its own wildfire catastrophes; the evidence clearly shows hazard reduction has limited value; and when a fire starts in the middle of a forest (often by lightning strike) there’s no way fire fighters can get in and contain it before it gets out of control. To even try would be putting their lives at danger.

Well, contesting his ideas did not please this man at all. He said we were talking rubbish prompting one of us to walk off commenting “”I cannot stand such ignorance.”

The interjector then threw down his newspaper (The Australian) and accused us of getting all our information from The Guardian, and that we didn’t know what we were talking about – and then he stalked off as well.

What a buzzkill. We were all left feeling quite flat.

Your tribe wrong

From our perspective, the man was a nosy fool taking his information from the Murdoch press and accepting the denialist cant that the fires are simply a management problem that could be fixed with greater resolve. It’s a line echoing government rhetoric as they grapple with the unravelling implications of climate change.

From his perspective, I expect he thought we were a pack of big talking, know-nothing latte sippers (for the record, none of us were sipping lattes but we do like a good coffee).

Our conversation angered him, he threw his beliefs at us, we acted angrily, challenged his ‘facts’, and he stormed off. Nothing changed, no-one questioned their own tribe’s truth; if anything both parties probably hardened their position.

The thing is this minor, relatively inconsequential altercation is reflective of the broader debate currently infecting our society. Fuelled by fake news, hyper connectivity, prejudice and powerful vested interests, reasoned debate is impossible, polarisation and tribalism rule. We don’t trust anyone outside of our own tribe and we begin with an assumption that the other side is wrong.

I fervently believe the ‘other side’ in this little example was wrong, that the evidence supports my world view; but I did nothing to bring the tribes together, to explore the basis of the beliefs on both sides.

Not only did I think he was wrong, I also didn’t believe talking to him was going to change his opinion (or that his ‘facts’ would change mine).

A world on fire

It seems insane to me after the fire season we have endured that we’re even having the political debates we’re witnessing: that we can’t discuss climate change while the fires burn; it’s the greens fault; it’s all because we don’t do enough hazard reduction burning; these fires are not unprecedented; and the nation needs cheap reliable coal-powered generation; all entwined in the overarching lie – we are doing our bit when it comes to emission targets.

But the consequences of this tribal insanity are dire. First and foremost is the withering of trust. We don’t trust the other tribe or the information it’s producing, and the other tribe doesn’t trust us.

And we don’t trust our leaders because all too often they appear to be speaking from the other tribe, and completely disavowing my tribe.

Our Prime Minister speaks of the importance of building adaptation and resilience, but I don’t trust him. Adaptation is important but mitigation and moving to a carbon-free economy has to happen at the same time, but that would involve them taking on the denialist tribes which he doesn’t seem able to do.

Resilience is equally pointless when the government won’t even spell out what they mean. The bedrock of resilient communities is trust and other forms of social capital. It’s all about bringing people and communities together. The government seems more intent on dividing us and throws fuel on the fires of our hyper-partisanship.

Devil may care

When the devil whispers to us he plays on our prejudice and tells us the other side can’t be trusted. We will not follow our leaders because we do not trust them, and we will not listen to anyone but our own tribe. And then, when we are tested, our strength is divided and our resolve weak.

And then the devil wins.

The fires have served as a wakeup call for some and yet there have also been reports of political focus groups finding that many ordinary Australians are responding to the fires by entrenching their positions. There’s research backing this up showing fires and extreme weather do not change climate skeptics into believers. But drawing back into our tribes is not helping the situation.

There’s a real challenge here. How do we stop the compounding of a natural disaster with a human disaster of more polarisation? How do we nurture a more civil and productive discourse in our democracy?

A good start might involve a chat with our neighbours about how the fires affected them and what they think we should do? Or inviting that interjector into your coffee conversation and engaging with how he or she sees things. It’s only by understanding another person’s frame of reference that we can possibly hope to influence them.

Image: South Coast fire ground (Photo by David Salt)


  1. atulloch

    Great post David!

    Ayesha Tulloch (she/her)
    ARC DECRA Fellow | University of Sydney
    Adjunct Fellow | University of Queensland
    I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which my office is built, and pay my respects to their Elders – past, present and emerging.
    I work part time: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

  2. Heather

    Thanks David. It seems to be a world phenomenon. We are no longer having conversation and listening – it’s more like people talking at each other. It reminds me that when someone with a different language cannot understand you, yelling does not help.

  3. Peter Salt

    Actually your mum is one of those people who blame the greens….



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