Exploring paradoxes of native vegetation management in the context of bushfire in south-east Australia in the 21st century

Samantha Strong

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Abstract

Complex issues relating to Australia’s environment stem from its particular evolutionary history over millennia in response to very particular conditions and environmental changes. Many species have adapted to long periods of drought and frequent fire. Australian native vegetation is of global significance biologically, yet many Australian ecosystems have been profoundly altered over the past 200 years since European colonisation and many flora species are threatened with extinction. South-east Australia is one of the most fire prone regions of the world; however, fire fits uncomfortably in the land management portfolio in highly settled areas and significantly altered ecosystems, despite a general acknowledgement in scientific circles of fire being an element for ecological dynamics. Hence, native vegetation management in Australia is an example of complex, problematic and interconnected issues operating at multiple scales, that is, with wicked problems, and necessarily requires complex understandings. Contradictory multi-scalar wicked problems can be explored in terms of paradoxes, referred to as complexities and disconnects. In south-east Australia, paradoxes can be understood as contradictions between: scientific knowledge and local, cultural perceptions; political and economic drivers; and anthropocentric responses to impacts of climate on altered environmental conditions.
Two of the most costly and intense bushfires this century were selected as comparative case studies: the 2003 Canberra and 2009 Victorian Kilmore-Murrindindi Black Saturday bushfires. These two fires provide opportunities for comparisons between urban and regional fire and native vegetation management issues, as well as integrating a longitudinal component for analysis between different jurisdictions and responses by agencies and communities. Efforts to understand complex environmental management problems are inextricably linked to language and constructing meaning through sharing information. Therefore a range of data was selected to reflect the diversity of narratives existing in the field that included policies, news media, environmental histories, memorial sculptures and reflective conversations in the form of interviews.
Iterative analysis shows that the problems are concerned not solely on policy conflicts and management, but culturally derived ‘baggage’ that was retold and stimulated after each bushfire using a particular choice of language and mythic concepts. These narratives function as important sense-making myths that are static, cross temporal boundaries and places and encompass ambiguity. Thus, for a paradox to function it must be based upon the articulation of a myth; and for a myth to function, it relies upon the paradoxical. Three major paradoxes — referring to learning from history, mitigation of risks, and trying to control the uncontrollable — function with five myths: the cultural landscape, community, conservation, certainty and knowledge and government control.
A key contribution of this research is that it incorporates a ‘trilogy’ of narrative criteria into social constructivist approaches: paradox, metaphor and myth, in conjunction with reflexivity and interpretative methodologies. A significant discovery concerns societal learning and knowing. Myths effectively frame perceptions of risk and control at critical moments which coincides with reactive policy making. The results show learning is based upon historical representations loaded with mythic roles and characterisations of how to connect with, and manage, the environment. Exploring paradoxes via myths can therefore contribute rich perceptions to the framing of learning and knowledge regarding the environment to guide community and management responses.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Allan, Catherine, Principal Supervisor
  • Thwaites, Rik, Principal Supervisor
Award date01 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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