The Viridian Design Movement

From: Bruce Sterling []
Sent: Sunday, January 26, 2003 2:17 PM

Subject: Viridian Note 00359: Canberra Flames Subside

Key concepts:
Viridian commentary, massive wildfires,
climate change, capital of Australia, Khaki Green, Kyoto Treaty, John Howard
Attention Conservation Notice:
Various interested Viridian parties weigh in on the subject of the recent fires around the capital of Australia. Over 2,700 words. The earlier note was painful, ugly and scary, but this one is worse. Large numbers of dense, brain- clogging links.


I asked Viridians for pictures of that molten observatory, and I got 'em. And much more.

The gutted Mount Stromlo observatory. Photo: AFP/Torsten Blackwood,3600,231203,00.jpg

"What a small tactical nuke might look like:"

The molten Observatory's rare pink-tailed legless lizard:

The Australian, global-warming, giant squid peril:

The Great Barrier Grief:

From: Joseph Hope <joseph.hope*>
Date: Sun Jan 19, 2003  11:34:21 PM US/Central
To: Bruce Sterling <>
Subject: Re: Viridian Note 00358:  Canberra in Flames

"Dear Bruce,

"Long time Viridian reader, first time commenter.

"I'm a resident in Canberra, and was on alert to defend my house yesterday, as my suburb is on the edge on Canberra between the two main parts that are burning. It was still standing as of this morning, and I'm having a day off due to a favourable wind direction.

(((Congratulations on surviving, Dr. Hope, we are glad to have you with us.)))

"I admire a ruthless dedication to the cause of highlighting global warming, and Viridian notes have provided many good links to evidence that has found its way into my first year university physics lectures, whether it strictly belongs there or not. However, the fires around Canberra can't honestly be called a Greenhouse event.

(((Oh yes indeed they can! Watch me.)))


"The Australian bush, particularly in this area, is supposed to have a devastating fire every few decades. It's how the trees germinate, which is why they're so fire resistant, and produce so much flammable forest litter which can be started by lightning strike. I'd call this a very natural event.

(((That is true. And it used to be very natural. Greenhouse events are weather events. But they are startlingly huge, historically unprecedented events that overwhelm conventional disaster-relief infrastructures. That is how one knows them. It's not like the Australian sky suddenly rains Dr. Seuss oobleck.)))


"What's so funny is that so many people were wandering around saying 'I didn't think this could ever happen.' 'It feels so surreal'. The same sorts of things people say whenever there's a very predictable natural or political disaster.

(((I rather doubt I find that any more genuinely funny than you do. Yes, people do make banal remarks like that sometimes. They probably breed lame cliches during the collapse of their civilization, maybe, for that too is also all too predictable. It's right there in the historical records, what's left of 'em.))) Link: 250/00249_cultures_killed_by_climate.html

"The big climate related topic here in Australia is the drought. It's old news, but it just keeps growing. (((I see. Well, Australia is mostly desert, so if Australia becomes 100 percent desert, that's likely a trifling statistic that wouldn't necessarily suggest a climate problem to a scientifically objective observer.)))

"It's not treatable by throwing a little money at it, or even a lot of money at it. Over-irrigation is leading to land-busting salination, which is much worse than desert. Australia has always been largely water-poor, and our entire agricultural industry could really die over the next decade. As could most of our inland towns. (((You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. Deserts cover the Australian ruins.)))


"The drought may be partially responsible for the severity of the bushfire, but it's a growing crisis that may ultimately blow such piddling problems as a few burning houses out of the, uh, sand. (((And what's responsible for that drought? "El Nino." And what's responsible for El Nino? It's "natural," but happens more and more often with more and more severity.)))

"Invading Iraq, an ex-trade partner on the other side of the world, to secure some oil for some other country, may become even less appealing to the Australian public. The two sound bites from the Prime Minister on TV last night were (this is as close to verbatim as I can manage, but from memory):

  • These fires are the worst I have seen.
  • It's as though Canberra is being ATTACKED from the TERROR of the bushfire.

"He's desperately trying to create emotional links between this and a desperate need to fight back against the nasty weather. With guns. In, presumably, Iraq." (((War is the health of the state, unless the capital is on fire, in which case Khaki Green emergency relief is the health of the state.)))

Dr. Joseph Hope
Dept. of Physics, Faculty of Science,
Australian National University,
Canberra, ACT 0200, AUSTRALIA

From: Scott McPhee <scot*>
Date: Sun Jan 19, 2003  10:15:31 PM US/Central
To: Bruce Sterling <bruces*>
Subject: Re: Viridian Note 00358:  Canberra in Flames

"I must take issue with your wholesale description of this as a 'Greenhouse event'.

(((Quite a few Australian Viridians took surprising issue with this description. Not one person from any other country did, though. And no Australians protested about any Greenhouse unlikeliness when I cataloged giant monsoons in Houston and ferocious tempests in Paris. Everybody worldwide knows that the Greenhouse Effect is hurting other people. You know, them.)))

"Regardless of Prime Minister Howard's culpability in failing to approve even the fig-leaf of Kyoto treaty, the fires are not caused by Greenhouse. They are perfectly natural events that are turned into human tragedy because of where we place our cities."

(((Look, cities are supposed to be placed where the vegetation grows. Those are the places on Earth where humans can survive. It won't be very practical to place new Australian cities on those climate-dead Great Barrier coral reefs where the flames can't reach them.)))

"The Australian bush has had fires ever since human settlement tens of thousands of years ago, at least. Many native plant species cannot reproduce without fire. Eucalyptus burns especially well; it has evolved to do that. The same thing applies to the El Nino drought that we are having. Evidence suggests this has been going on for thousands of years. (((Yes indeed it has. But it's getting worse. More trees burn much faster and hotter.)))

"Recent human agricultural activity (NB pine forests are not natural in Australia, plantation is a more accurate term) has exacerbated the drought, but did not cause the drought. The drought is a natural cycle. (((No it isn't. It is a formerly natural cycle being driven to killer extremes.)))

"Far closer to home than the Greenhouse effect, are the inappropriate farming and land management techniques which are only now changing, and slowly at that. (((There is nothing "closer to home" than the Greenhouse effect. Everyone and everything on the planet is breathing it, everywhere, all the time.)))

"While these techniques certainly contribute to Greenhouse, they directly cause the severe land salination and environmental degradation that comes with the drought. Next year there will be massive floods. No change from 1000 years ago; except that by clearing forest, the floods are worse than they would be.

(((Australians want to reform their local land practices. They are used to that, because it's practical, patriotic and politically feasible. When it comes to stopping the global Greenhouse though, Australians aren't helping much, least of all helping themselves. Australia's national government is worse than useless here.)))

"The same with the fires. Much more prescient to look at Australians' love of building big, sprawling suburban cities which extend right into the bush."

(((Well, as I remarked in the inaugural Viridian speech back in 1998, the longer it takes you to catch on to this, the more prescient I get.)))

"Then we go and re-plant as much of the bush as possible into our suburbs. While Canberra was designed that way, most of our other cities have been extensively 'greened' over the past three decades and have ended up that way by default.

(((So what's the practical alternative to "greened" cities? Browner and blacker cities? Those are on the way, presumably.)))

"On the fringes of the city, you'll find many houses with backyard fences right up against national park or nature reserves. Put into context with the natural cyclical drought, a forest environment that has evolved to be dependant on fire, the removal indigenous 'firestick farming' practices which kept fires numerous and small instead of infrequent and huge, and you get the picture of Australian summer bushfires which occur, to some extent, every year.

"In terms of stupid human behaviour, I'd like to know why in Sydney we still get building approvals on ridge- tops in steep hilly forested areas with eucalyptus forest in the valley below. A few years later the places get burnt and people want to blame the National Parks service, instead of the town planners, or themselves. "Regards scot mcphee.

(((These are penetrating remarks and of obvious relevance to the fire crisis, but they are local solutions to local problems with global origins. "Fail to think globally, have to act locally.")))

From: Peter Miller (peter*

"Australia is having  a major weather freakout at the moment. One of the worst droughts in recorded history, duststorms that rage from the west over into Sydney on the east coast (all the topsoil from farms that have practised decades of poor land management and have no natural vegetation to hold the soil together any more) and yes, bushfires. The only reason that you're not reading about bushfires around Sydney (Australia's other national capital) is that it all got burnt out last September.

"Here's a flavour of how the Man on the Land sees the drought:
(read it with appropriate Australian drawl where indicated)

"Never mind the fact that this country was never suitable for grazing cattle. And the biggest concern? How much it will effect the economy...

"(Aside: as a result of the drought, insect numbers are way down. This is held to be a Good Thing by farmers and politicians but for some reason the words 'Food Chain' keep popping into my head).

"Australia 'iffy about Kyoto,' you say? Sorry chaps, we're right up there with you Americans. This from Australia, the country that puts out more CO2 per capita than any nation on the planet (I'm afraid you can't be tops at everything):


"Meanwhile, the banks are putting a positive spin on the Canberra situation, this from the Sydney Morning Herald this morning:

"The Canberra bushfires would have a positive effect on the local ACT economy as homes are rebuilt and household goods replaced, according to ANZ chief economist Saul Eslake."


"You gotta love the caring sharing attitudes of the financial sector.

(((Absolutely. That's a great New Terror Economy pitch. Perhaps a massive San Francisco earthquake would redress the problems in California's drooping information sector.)))

"The enormity of damage around Canberra depends on your frame of reference. Sure it burnt more houses down, but it's peanuts compared to the amount of bushland that's been destroyed == the September NSW fires torched 1.9 million hectares of the (new) World Heritage Listed Blue Mountains, but only 109 houses got crisped there. Liberated carbon? Make mine a double!

"The firefighters, of course, are 'responsible' for whatever happens. Otherwise, who can you blame if your house burns down? And their response is to concrete-over the whole flammable area. The fire department guys spend all this time making fire breaks... But in last year's Sydney fires, the firestorms were jumping a kilometer and a half over the Hawkesbury River.

"Note that the flaming 'pine plantations' mentioned in reports are radiata pine. It's displacing all the eucalyptus forest all over Australia because it grows fast, grows anywhere, and logging companies can claim it as reforesting, while manufacturers can claim it as carbon remediation credits. (((Greenhouse remediation forest catches fire. Really nice Wexelblat angle here.)))

"More trees = more fires. Chop down the trees! That's the policy they have up in Queensland, where land clearing proceeds apace thanks to the excellent tax incentives and sky-rocketing real estate developments.

"We might be a tiny country, but you can't say we're not pulling our weight when it comes to booting the planet down the dusty lane to oblivion."

Signing out from Downunder

From: "Michael Jennings" <mjj12*>
Date: Mon Jan 20, 2003  07:05:05 AM US/Central
To: "Bruce Sterling" <bruces*>
Subject: Mt Stromlo Observatory photos (was Re: Viridian

Note 00358: Canberra in Flames)

"Mt Stromlo observatory was largely a training and historical site at this point. The lights of Canberra have in recent decades become too bright for much useful astronomy to occur there. Most of Australia's actively important astronomical telescopes are at Siding Spring, near the town of Coonabarabran about 600km North.

"Of course, that observatory is on the top of a hill in the middle of the forest also."

From: R Michael Harman <rmharman*>
Date: Sun Jan 19, 2003  11:33:33 PM US/Central
To: Bruce Sterling <>
Subject: Mt Stromlo Observatory

"The Observatory's website is down. Presumably their web-server has become a hunk of melted plastic, metal, and semiconductors. Now, just think of the great infospace Wexelblat disasters that could happen if a major node along a backbone were consumed by fires."

Auros, who had a bunch of stars and chevrons before the Viridian ranking system went away. Sigh.

R Michael Harman / Auros Symtheos
rmharman* ............

Linguist and Software Engineer, Lexicus, Motorola .........

New Media Reviews Editor, Strange Horizons Speculative Fiction Weekly ...

(((We concluded this extensive report with some extremely painful speculations from an interested climate expert.)))

From: "Patrick Mazza" <patrick*>


"As you indicate, this looks to be Australia's future. Proximate reason is that the Pacific will increasingly be in El Nino conditions, which brings drought to Australia. The fact Australia has been in the worst drought of a century during what is regarded as a moderate El Nino is one more piece of evidence that the global impacts of El Nino are being magnified by the effects of global warming.

"The floods earlier this year in Europe, the drastic swings from unusually dry to monsoon rains in California, are other pieces of this picture. The drum I think we all need to be banging loudly == Earth systems are inclined to disproportionate responses to small changes in temperature. So all this after just 1 deg. F rise...

"What does 2-3-5-10 degrees do? Global catastrophe from extreme climate change piling on top of a world of 10 billion people living on depleted resources and frayed natural systems, and all the wars and ugliness of which we humans are capable when we're hungry.

"On top of my regular Climate Solutions work, I've been funded by MacArthur Foundation to do a critical analysis of the hydrogen economy, to sort out the hype from the reality. Might turn into a book."

O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O

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