On Fires and Fairness

“We could close down every power generation facility in the country and those reductions would be taken up by China in about nine days.”


  • Scott Morrison, ABC News, 12 January 2020


“We love footy and sport, but that’s not all. We’re interested in the arts, music, film, TV, politics, history, wine and all the other good stuff.”


  • The Tigers Almanac 2020, pg 248



21 January 2020


There’s blue sky in Canberra this morning. It’s clearer than we’ve seen it since November, I think. Those of us who defend our fair town against its many detractors often talk about how blue our sky is. Sure, our average maximum in July is 11 degrees, but that usually entails a foggy morning clearing into a beautifully cloudless day that feels warm because you’re able to bask in the town’s glorious winter sun.


I can’t really describe what the smoke was like in Canberra during these past couple of months. At one stage, in mid-December, I left the school at which I teach and drove a couple of kms to the Year 12 Graduation ceremony. As I turned onto a main road, a wall of smoke that looked as if it had been CGI’d into the scene in which I was driving advanced towards me. Had an animator placed this smoke into a film, however, the director would have said that it was far too unrealistic and should be pared back. No-one who hadn’t seen such a phenomenon in real life would believe it.


After coping well enough with the smoke for a month or so, our 8 year-old’s asthmatic lungs finally couldn’t take it anymore. We were due to go to Melbourne and Geelong for a holiday, so we left early to get him out of the worst of the air. Once down in Victoria, he still struggled for a while. There were occasional tears when he realised that he just didn’t have the oxygen and energy to do things he’d usually love. “It’s so unfair” was the oft-repeated and quite reasonable refrain from the kid, especially on days when he was watching his asthmatic little sister have no problems with her health at all. “Yes, it is,” was the reply from his parents. “Just like it’s so unfair that we have only had to deal with smoke while others have lost houses, pets, or family members in the fires.” It didn’t make him feel better, but the kid understood.


Back in 2003, on the 18th of January, I was a week away from leaving home when Mum, Dad and I suddenly found our suburban Canberran home being approached by fire on two sides. It was the scariest moment of our lives – nothing else comes remotely close. Every memory from that day is imprinted with an extraordinary vividness, including the haunting sky that became the fire that became the howling, tornado-esque wind in seemingly no time at all. To steal the words of my son from almost 20 years later, it wasn’t fair that we were so terrified on that day while others but suburbs away were completely untouched. But of course, it also wasn’t fair that as luck would have it, the next day all I had to do was climb up onto our roof to clean up our mess of a solar heating panel while others around the corner were organising meetings with insurers or funeral directors.


The above quote from Scott Morrison has haunted me in the past nine days. His implication that our whole country is but a drop in the ocean of this problem of global warming – and thus that any efforts Australians make towards trying to solve the problem would be nothing more than tokenistic – both disappointed and fascinated me.


There’s nothing like a natural disaster close to home to provoke existential thought.


For Morrison’s response relates to so many other questions that have been and still are being asked by all of us individual drops in the ocean in the wake of this disaster. Questions, dare we use the word, of fairness.


Nick Kyrgios opened his wallet for the cause, and yet on Offsiders Gideon Haigh pointed out that a tennis player with that much prizemoney and endorsements was actually only donating what for him was a drop in his ocean. Haigh’s right, of course. Not that we know what Haigh earns or what he has donated to this or any other cause. Meanwhile, last year Time magazine named Greta Thunberg as their Person of the Year, and yet numerous people then criticised Time for promoting the cause of climate change when the publication and circulation of magazines has a carbon footprint. Is such criticism reasonable? Should books and magazines now not exist? How does the danger posed by their contribution to global warming compare in importance to research that says that hard-copy publications are of incredible value to the literacy and education of the next generation?


As a school teacher, I often convince myself that my working life has a purpose. That as a person who works on “the front line” of an industry that is not for profit, I contribute to society in a fashion that hopefully makes the world a better place. And I subsequently tell myself that by working hard in such a role, I should then feel free to enjoy what The Footy Almanac refers to as “all the good things” for much of the remainder of my time. Am I right? Is that reasonable? Am I doing enough? Do wildfires close to home mean that I should be doing “more”? Do wildfires further away from home mean the same thing? How much of my income that I spend on my own kids should instead be devoted to the kids of other people who are worse off than mine? It’s been reported that some of the bushfire relief funding due to be provided by the Federal Government is going to take funds away from the NDIS. Does this mean I should be donating to disability services instead? Should I never enter Dymocks again because any purchase I make there is contributing to global warming?


How much should I be thinking about those affected by the fires? How much should I donate? As one incredibly privileged person out of 7.5 billion, when do I draw the line and say “I’ve done my bit” with the self-assuredness of Scott Morrison?


And when should “all the good things” be allowed to feel like the good things once again? When should this need that others have for support subside from my mind, following the well-trodden path of all of the humanitarian disasters that have come before it?


What would be fair?


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About Edward P. Olsen

EPO is equally passionate about sport and sports writing. While others toil away at the local indoor sports centre re-living their futile childhood dreams of being one of the best of all time, he types away at home re-living his futile childhood dream of being one of the world’s great columnists.


  1. John Butler says

    EPO, I think (would hope) that the events of this summer have all of us reflecting on a great many things.

    In regards to our Prime Minister’s quote – whilst it may or may not be factually correct, it is only barely relevant to the issues which confront us. It is also a curious statement from a man who professes to hold a strong christian faith. My personal view is that it sounds like the comment of a man who is avoiding the responsibilities he is meant to be confronting.

    Much of life is unfair, but that shouldn’t be used as a justification to entrench or exacerbate unfairness. In our current circumstance, the aspect of fairness that most exercises me is whether it is fair for the current generation which finds itself able to influence events to be predetermining (reducing) the options for future generations.

  2. Thanks EPO. Timely. I think you have captured the moment – we have all been thrust into thinking mode by confronting events and confronting responses to the events.

    And, so true, yes, it is a moment when we think about kids and their futures. Our own kids. You have made a powerful statement by describing your young bloke.

    And left us to ponder more questions: what are my responsibilities, what should I be doing, what is enough (and not enough)?

  3. Thanks EPO

    I would like to think that our conscience is the determining factor when we speak of what and how much we contribute (and not just $’s) to worthy causes – whether it be the current climate situation or the vast array of injustices that we read or hear about of on a daily basis.

    Just my thoughts!

  4. I think we all need to have individual Paris targets. One less trip here, and one less light turned on there, makes a difference. If our governments won’t act, the individual must.

  5. It is a terrible situation that we find ourselves in. And I am extremely concerned about the world in which my sons will live through in the years to come. What does the future hold?
    Re the generosity of the donations: with the amounts of money pouring in (to where?), I find myself becoming a little concerned that dollars will be misappropriated. Who decides who gets what amounts?

  6. Thoughtful EPO. While you and many others contemplate what should be donated and to where, clearly giving from self for others, it is revealing of the Feds that they would use money earmarked for the disabled (NDIS) to donate to fire relief rather than risk their budget surplus by spending ‘new’ money. It is interesting that the Netherlands public won a class action civil suit against their government for not doing enough to reduce their carbon footprint.

  7. My thanks as well.

    My take on the “we are too small to make a difference” line is that it is a poor argument as it assumes that other countries are of one mind. I find it more believable to think that other countries are divided on policy and may be influenced by the example of another country even if they are small. Tip the balance and the whole lot may go down a better path. Ireland and New Zealand have both helped a change in attitude on things like same-sex marriage and even how we should conduct themselves on the sporting field.

  8. Thanks EPO.
    I find this to be a time of many questions.
    Your article had me in mind of Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “citizen in a republic,” that he gave at the Sorbonne in Paris, France on April 23, 1910
    And Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
    So many questions.
    Who am I and what is my role?
    You have got me thinking.

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