Australian General Semantics Society Inc.



2020 Seminar Summary

Sunday 1st. March
10:30 am - 4:30 pm

"Bush Fires in Australia:
Causes and solutions from a GS perspective"

Presenter: David Hewson

Our Seminar
was generously hosted at Gav & Pauline's beautiful Bonnet Bay home -
Thank you both!

Catching Up
Sharing of triumphs and tragedies and miscellaneous yarns.

GS Diary
In the spirit of "applying general semantics principles" to our lives, as opposed to dwelling in theory, we considered members' accounts of observations and applications relating to the principles and formulations of our discipline.

Celebration of David's 20 Years in Australia!

Pauline and Gavan "went over the top" in decorating their AGS Meeting Room with patriotic ferver, to celebrate David's 20 years in Australia.

David migrated from the Land of the Long White Cloud in 1999, specifically to join Laurie Cox (whom he met via publications of the General Semantics Institte) and the Australian GS fraternity.  Not only flags, but a lovely cake, special drinkies, and inspiring speeches.  Congratulations David, and thank you Pauline & Gav !  

David's presentation today ...

included a roundup of the Australian bushfire crisis (eg RJ's letter, below), its general and specific aspects, and some general-semantic guidelines for addressing the situation.

The group looked at the recent 2019 bush fires in Australia from a GS perspective.
  We discussed the history and causes of the fires and suggested possible short and long term solutions, i.e. how can GS help humans cope better with “natural” disasters.

GS formulations that can help

Timebinding: learning correct information from past generations.
Aristotle’s assumptions and GS solutions to those problems.
Is of projection  - GS solution using “to me” or being explicit about viewpoint
Is of identity  - GS solution using indexing and dating
Either/or  e.g. either we have solar/wind or we need nuclear.

We watched a TED talk by Plait on “The Secret to scientific discoveries”.  This talked about the scientific method and its ability to admit error and “throw out the garbage” of faulty theories.

We looked at some of the history about global warming

A National Geographic Nov 1976 (Vol 150 No 5) had an article on climate change "What's Happening to Our Climate?" by S Mathews.  This talks about CO2 as a greenhouse gas and that CO2 levels have gone up more than 10 percent since 1850 and the 1976 experts then predicted it would rise 20 percent more by the year 2000, with a rise in global temperatures.  Well - their predictions came true!

In the 80s the evidence was controversial with some alternative hypotheses but now, with the trend continuing.  its beyond reasonable doubt.  Yet, still we are debating it, much like the debate over “Is smoking bad for you?”

Climate cynics said that global warming will make it only a little hotter, with no really bad effects so we don’t need to spend any money fixing things.  But the 2019 bush fires showed up this prediction as false.  It was statistically worse than the norm.

Most likely predictions

While there are predictions about a possible runaway greenhouse effect, that possibility is small.  More likely is that the drought of 2019 and resulting bushfires will become more often the norm.  There will be fluctuations, with next year most likely having (as statisticians say) “regression to the norm” and so it will not be as bad.  Unfortunately people may start to forget 2019 so vividly or think that the new measures by politicians are working, without thinking of an alternative hypothesis of statistical variation.  Global temperature averages will continue to rise on average and occasionally we will get bush fires seasons significantly worse than 2019.

How is this possible?  Dr Karl Kruszelnicki AM gave some talks and suggested some ideas.

Here are some points from his three talks:

Now in Australia we classify bushfires into two main types, mostly related to the landscape:

·       The first type of bushfire happens on flattish open grasslands.
The second type of bushfire happens on hilly countryside, and this is much more challenging.

Apart from season, the likelihood of bushfire is related to four major triggers - these control where and when a bushfire will happen:
Ignition (Mostly a spark or flame),
Fuel quantity available to be burnt,
·       Weather conditions that are suitable for fire to spread -- usually hot, dry and windy.
Dryness of the fuel.  In the case of the cataclysmic Australian bushfires of 2019/2020,
         the three previous years had the lowest winter rainfalls ever on record.

But what about the intense and unprecedented bushfires in Australia of 2019/2020?

Were they really unprecedented, and were they definitely related to global warming? The answers are "yes", and "yes".

These bushfires are unprecedented in several ways.

They are much more fierce than the bushfires we have seen before. They also move much more quickly than the bushfires of the past.

As well as the increased intensity and speed, they have a greater range -- never before have the fires extended from northern NSW to just outside Melbourne.

Now for the big one -- are the bushfires related to Global Warming?

Yes. Global Warming is one of the two major factors driving the change in our bushfires.

Now you might say, how can such a tiny change as the single Celsius degree of atmospheric warming that we've seen cause any major effect? After all, surely the air temperature changes more than one single degree between midday and midnight?

Well, it turns out the conditions on the ground vary hugely depending on the air temperature.

The way that Global Warming has acted on Australia is to cause both drought and heat. Of course, it's more complicated than this.

In our case, we had lots of rain which gave us lots of potential fuel, and then we had three years of unprecedented low winter rainfall on south-eastern Australia and then we had the hottest year ever measured for Australia in 2019.

These all combined to make a huge amount of potential fuel very dry -- just the conditions needed for catastrophic bushfires.

Australia is now both hotter and drier than it used to be, and these factors mean than the potential bushfire season will last longer, and that the bushfires, when they do happen, will be harder to control.

Australian climate, and the likelihood of bushfires, is also affected by weather patterns such as the El Nino and the Indian Ocean Dipole.

Global warming from burning fossil fuels has made the ten years from 2010 to 2019 the hottest years ever measured.

So, putting it all together, the horrific 2019/2020 bushfires in Australia were the result of many factors -- and human activity driving climate change was a major player.

But - we were actually very lucky. The bushfires could have been a lot worse.

The Indian Ocean Dipole was the specific cause of the lower winter rainfalls across Australia for the last three years. They were the lowest three consecutive years of winter rainfall ever recorded in Australia. But, remember, the El Nino was not in force. And usually, El Nino is a bigger and more powerful driver of drought than the Indian Ocean Dipole.

So here's the scary bit. Seventy per cent of the time, the El Nino and the Indian Ocean Dipole happen at the same time. Imagine how much worse the bushfires would have been if the El Nino and the Indian Ocean Dipole had both been in action!

We don't need to wait for any major scientific or technological breakthroughs to cut emissions. We can already get our energy without pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In the past, we've had "wars" on cancer, drugs and terrorism.
Isn't it time for a "war" on emissions?

By Dr Karl

We also discussed a summary of
by Jared Diamond

Here’s an abstract of that summary

Society fails to solve a problem for one of the following four reasons:

  * One may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.

  * When the problem arrives, you may fail to perceive the problem.

  * After you perceive the problem, you may fail even to try to solve the problem.

  * You may try to solve it but may fail in your attempts to do so.

Australia has missed the first two and we are now struggling with the third.  The 2019 bush fires have finally made us perceive the problem of global warming and some of its consequences. But will we put in the required effort to solve it?

Some solutions suggested by the group ...

·       Educating our leaders in general semantics.  Thanks Milton.
The Government should listen to the predictions by scientific groups on global warming and not dismiss them as “alarmist”.
That our politicians should set adequate targets for CO2 and methane emission reduction, with a good plan of how to get there.  Solutions can make new jobs as well as making some old jobs redundant.
We should buy our own large and small aircraft for water bombing as well as leasing some from other countries.
We could make “fire tanks” that can travel through a raging fire for 30 minutes or more with no trouble and strong enough so that a failing tree won’t crush them and a turret with a water cannon and the ability to clear roads.
And “fire Armoured Personnel Carriers” that can also travel through roads with fire on both sides, crush proof and the ability to clear burning trees off the road.  These “fire APCs” could then get supplies into communities surrounded by fire and evacuate people even if all roads in and out of the communities are in raging bush fires.
We could convert coal burning power stations to burning wood.  More trees can be planted and the CO2 is then kept in a closed loop.  Wood can be stockpiled for the days with little sun or wind, i.e. this is a method for storing solar energy.  Other wood sources are the branches and roots, left to rot, by the timber industry only interested in the trunks of trees.  We could also harvest wood instead of back burning it when we try to reduce the fuel load.
We can challenge the assumption (P1) that only solar and wind, are clean and green energy sources.  How about geothermal, sea water temperature difference, wave power, tidal power and hydroelectric.  Also look at many power storage options.  Let’s not limit ourselves to just batteries but look at raised water storage, hot rocks, hot high pressure water, high pressure gas, fly wheels, capacitors, hydrogen, etc, for storing energy. 
So also let us not limit ourselves to just having electric vehicles running on batteries as the only replacements for petrol/diesel powered cars/trucks/buses.
Adding a small amount of seaweed to cattle’s diet can reduce their methane emissions by 60%.
·       We can eat less meat and more TVP or artificial meat.  Or just have fewer serves of meat per week.  Less meat consumed means smaller herds and less methane emissions.

A letter from Robert James to Milton Dawes,
dated 6th January 2020, and updated slightly since

G'day Milton,

Thank you for your various greetings, and offer of posters.

Yes, we’re all well, and typically focussed on visits to children and g’children over Christmas and new year. We put our eight-year-old grand-daughter onto an airline flight Canberra-Melbourne as an “unaccompanied minor” yesterday, which was very successful - another rite of passage milestone! She just got away before the Airport was closed due to bushfire smoke.

No we’re not happy with the state of the world and the state of our nation. President Trump and Iran seem to be taunting each other with a view to escalating violence in a never-ending cycle. And as stewards of our own vast land, we’re in a dreadful state, ravaged by unprecedented bushfires that have consumed around 100,000 sq. km, - similar to the size of South Korea. Canberra yesterday had its hottest day on record: 45 deg. C. (=113 deg. F), and some areas had 48.8 C. (=119 deg F.). Canberra has been isolated by road, rail and air because of fires and smoke. The air-pollution index has been over 3,000 here (200 is listed as “hazardous”).

Dairy farmers in the “high rainfall” area of Central Highlands say that for five generations their dams were never dry, and now they’ve been dry for the last few years. We’re told not to expect any real rain until April, and that the fires will burn until then. Graziers have been shooting their cattle in advance of the advancing fire, when they know that there’s no hope of saving them.

At Mallacoota, five thousand people crowded onto the beach and into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames, and are being rescued by naval ships and fishing boats etc. (like Dunkirk!).

People have been killed, and immense property losses: thousands of houses destroyed, tens of thousands of livestock, community facilities, power lines, communication facilities, bridges, pastures, stock feed, vineyards, orchards, fencing, commercial forests etc. And incalculable deaths of wildlife (more than 3,000,000,000 large animals burnt, plus incalculable numbers of small creatures), their food and water sources destroyed, and the native plants that normally provide our oxygen. We have fire-fronts of 6,000 km., and more than 100 separate fires at "Emergency" or "Catastrophic" level.

This is happening exactly as predicted by scientific warnings, which the Government dismissed as “alarmist”.

The Government has declared a “State of Emergency”, and called up Army, Navy and Air Force reserves to assist, and we have teams of specialists arriving from Canada, USA, and Europe. One problem is that large aircraft that we normally lease from Northern Hemisphere countries have been unavailable due to the fire season ending later there and starting earlier here. An American C-130 Hercules tanker has crashed in the mountains, killing its three US crew members. We have about 160 fire-fighting aircraft in operation, which is grossly inadequate.

Aerial fire-fighting operations are greatly impeded by wind. One crew working was trying to muster some cattle that were caught in the corner of the paddock, on flat ground with a very low fuel level. Very suddenly, they experienced extreme winds, and what could only be described as a fire tornado, lifted the back of the 10-tonne fire truck, fully inverted it and landed it on its roof, trapping three people, one of them fatally.

Bushfire risk used to be classified as “Low”, “Medium”, “High” and “Extreme”. There’s now a new category “Catastrophic”, when there is no hope of limiting a fire, and all effort is to be directed to saving human life.

We now learn that our fires are depositing black ash onto glaciers in New Zealand, 2,100 Km to the East, and expediting their melting. Could we have any better illustration that this is indeed a global challenge?

And still the Prime Minister says that climate change is not an issue, that we don’t want any “alarmist talk”, that our (very modest) targets for CO2 reduction are appropriate, and that we should not expect to be a leader in climate-change mitigation measures. I wonder what would be the response if the damage as above was caused by terrorists or attack from a foreign power, rather than “acts of God”?

Robert J.

Thank you:
  * To all those who make diligent and honest attempt at the "homework" questions,
  * And to all the others who contributed their wisdom and experience to our deliberations.  :-)

Next Meeting:

Covid-19?  We will advise here if we need to delay this seminar for the virus.

Saturday 25th April 2020 (ANZAC Day!)
"The Exhilaration and Challenges
of Applying our Learning of General Semantics"
We love to read the books, watch engaging presentations of great minds,
nod wisely to things we agree with, and ignore those that we disagree with.
But how does that move us forward and honour the tradition of time-binding?

Presenter: Robert James

The 2020 Seminar Programme is evolving - "Watch this space" !


This "summary" is a collection of notes derived from our discussion by a number of means.  It is by no means a scholarly dissertation on the subject as presented.  It does not purport to be the "policy of AGS".  Comment and criticism (constructive or otherwise) is welcome.  If anyone has been misquoted, copyrights infringed or confidences betrayed, please Contact us.