Statement about the Australian Bushfire Tragedy

The Australian Academy of the Humanities offers its deepest condolences to all affected by the unprecedented bushfires which have created so much devastation since September last year.

While the cost in the loss of properties, businesses, community facilities and wildlife is still being assessed – and is expected to run into many billions of dollars – our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones and friends in these unprecedented fires which have torn through so much of our nation, and which continue to burn.

Right now, our nation faces a great deal of uncertainty about its future, in the wake of this unprecedented natural disaster. The colossal scale of this summer’s human and ecological tragedy requires, amongst other things, a humane approach, and we stand ready to play our part.

Today, the Academy has written to the Prime Minister, offering our full support, now and over the longer term, to assist with the rebuilding and recovery effort for bushfire-affected communities. Humanities, arts and cultural research, with its deep understanding of human experience and knowledge and its detailed attention to locality, ecology and history, can make a significant contribution to the way in which communities not only rebuild in the wake of  disaster but also in equipping Australians with the skills, knowledge and confidence they will need to deal with future crises, which are inevitable given the new challenges created by climate change.

In our 50-year history, the Academy has drawn upon the expertise of its Fellowship, across all humanities disciplines, to facilitate important – and often difficult – conversations. We recognise that at this time, given the loss, the shock and the pain being experienced by so many Australians, everyone is looking for answers, and how to avoid any repeat of our current tragic situation. The Academy can bring to the table many of our nation’s – and the world’s – best minds and researchers to assist in finding solutions.

Our researchers are drawn from a broad range of disciplines, dedicated to the study of humans and their environment, dating back many thousands of years. Those working in the field of environmental humanities bring a wealth of knowledge on human adaptations to environmental shifts, not unlike those confronting Australia and the world today. They significantly enhance our understanding of the social, political, cultural and economic forces which influence humans’ attitude to, interaction with, and impact on the environment. Our archaeologists study the responses of societies around the world to social and environmental changes, and the disasters that have arisen from them in the past. They are well placed to provide advice on how Australia might cope with the challenges ahead. Many of our researchers have a strong record in working with local communities and beyond in the Asia-Pacific region to manage disadvantages that result from large-scale disasters.

We must also recognise the deep history and experience of First Nations people on this continent and draw on the expertise of Indigenous researchers and knowledge custodians in understanding, framing and collaborating on the future management and preservation of the natural landscape, while also building community resilience and recovery. The participation and guidance of Indigenous people must be central to any reviews and inquiries into this bushfire crisis and in Australia’s future environmental management.

The unprecedented nature of this disaster demands that we fully mobilise all the expertise at our disposal in response. It is imperative that representatives from the Humanities, arts and cultural research sector be given the opportunity to contribute to advisory groups, committees and any other platforms established to address this crisis, and to help better position Australia for the long-term. As stated in our 8-Point-Plan to Humanise the Future (2019), we must resist a siloed approach to policy-making which separates the Humanities, arts and social sciences from science and technology and ensure that ethical, historical and cultural perspectives inform all discussions regarding Australia’s big future challenges. Problems that have often been seen as purely scientific, material or environmental, are now more readily understood as fundamentally social and cultural, and therefore we recommend utilising trusted humanities institutions and expertise to help identify and characterise the current crisis facing our nation, and to begin to work towards effective, sustainable solutions long-term.

We will also continue to collaborate with Australia’s other Learned Academies through the Australian Council of Learned Academies to ensure that all relevant expertise is brought to bear on this crisis and its aftermath.

While the tragedy of this summer’s bushfires presents a monumental challenge to our nation, the incredible response over several months by our brave firefighters, volunteers, donors, neighbours and communities, has shone a light on some of our nation’s greatest strengths – our resilience, generosity of spirit, compassion, and our collective humanity.

As the peak body for humanities research, and with the human experience at the heart of everything we do, we stand ready to add our efforts, our expertise, our infrastructure, and our voice to these crucial national recovery efforts.

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Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.