Friday, March 4, 2011

Clive James on Dorothea Mackellar's "sunburnt country" and understanding that for Australia, extreme is normal

Strange times we live in when one of our most accomplished men of letters can see the blindingly obvious that professional scientific alarmists can't (or wont).

James may not be a scientist, but he is one of the smartest men ever to be produced by this country, and it shows.

Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen. Usually it doesn't, but sometimes a poem gets quoted in a national argument because everybody knows it, or at least part of it, and for the occasion a few lines of familiar poetry suddenly seem the best way of summing up a viewpoint. Just such an occasion has occurred recently in Australia.  By the time the heavy rains first hit Queensland early this year, the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW, to borrow the unlovely acronym) was ceasing to exercise unquestioned thrall in the minds of Australia's progressive voters. But spokespersons for the Green party clung on to it, encouraged by the fact that the theory, in its Climate Change form, was readily applicable to any circumstances.  

Before the floods, proponents of the CAGW view had argued that there would never be enough rain again, because of Climate Change. When it became clear that there might be more than enough rain, the view was adapted: the floods, too, were the result of Climate Change. In other words, they were something unprecedented. Those opposing this view — those who believed that in Australia nothing could be less unprecedented than a flood unless it was a drought — took to quoting Dorothea Mackellar's poem "My Country", which until recently every Australian youngster was obliged to hear recited in school. In my day we sometimes had to recite it ourselves, and weren't allowed to go home until we had given evidence that we could remember at least the first four lines of the second stanza, which runs like this. 

I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

I love her far horizons,

I love her jewel-sea,

Her beauty and her terror —

The wide brown land for me.

The first four lines of the stanza are the bit that everybody knows, partly because they are so addictively crafted, and partly because they fit the national experience of what Australia's geography and climate are actually like.

Do yourself a favour and read it all.

And to labour a point, because the idea that the recent rains in Queensland and elsewhere were somehow "unprecedented" is still being peddled by the ignorant, it's worth remembering that so-called one-in-a-hundred-year floods like the one that hit Brisbane last month occurred six times between 1840 and 1900.

Two of these happened within just a fortnight of each other, while three were bigger than the most recent one.

Similarly, for all the hand-wringing about the drought being the worst in a thousand years (as the premier of South Australia so foolishly claimed), it is still arguable as to whether or not it was worse that the Federation Drought of the 1890s.


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