A simple solution to a complex problem?

18 May 2010 3 By Viv McWaters

Southern Australia, and especially where I live, is particularly bush fire prone. Bush fires start often from lightening strikes. Not much you can do about that except be prepared. In February 2009, the weather gods conspired to create conditions that we now describe as catastrophic – extremely hot and windy, nearly non-existent humidity. It was a horrible day and had tragic consequences. Bush fires wiped out entire towns, many people died, wildlife and stock also perished. A single day changed the lives of many people.

People rallied. Money was raised. Lives rebuilt. Others may never recover. The media had a proverbial field day, the recriminations began…and continue. Formal and informal investigations try to find the ‘answer’ – how to avoid a repeat. No-one wants to be in such circumstances. No-one wants to die in a bush fire. I don’t. I have a bushfire plan. I think I know what I’d do, but the only way to really know is to actually experience a bush fire. I’m happy to live with not knowing. I’m happy to have a plan that I never need use. I’m happy to live with the uncertainty and the knowledge that one day, I too may have to face a catastrophic bush fire.

I’m not happy to let it rule my life though. To give up the reasons why I choose to live where I do on the slim chance that I can tame, even avoid, the consequences of living with nature. I like living with nature. I like birdwatching. I like seeing the changing seasons, watching plants grow, discovering orchids, noticing the small things.

So I’m devastated at the recent ‘asset protection works’ done in the Ironbark Basin, near where I live. This is a small native reserve dominated by Red Ironbark trees, and is significant for its vegetation and history. Bulldozers moved in a few weeks ago and cleared a swathe of undergrowth supposedly to protect private homes that abut the reserve. Larger trees remain, so any devastating fire will crown anyway. Sure, I’m no expert on fire management or behaviour. I simply have a feeling in my gut that this is overkill. The ground has been laid bare. The winter rains will cause erosion. The understory vegetation may recover in time, or maybe not.

It seems to be a case of being ‘seen’ to be effective. Matthew May in his book In Pursuit of Elegance writes that we humans face two major obstacles when we try and solve problems. The first is acting – we favour doing something; and the second is adding – doing more must be better. The problem with this is that now it’s done, we can stop looking for other solutions. Problem solved! This, however, is not a simple cause and effect relationship. The ecosystem and human inhabitants and users form a complex web of needs that can’t be satisfied with a single solution of clearing the undergrowth. Dave Snowden uses his Cynefin framework to explore how we might respond when faced with complexity (where we might see the effects before we know the cause): we need to Probe – Sense – Respond, applying multiple small and diverse interventions to create options. The Ironbark Basin ‘asset management works’ is an example of applying a solution to what is considered a simple, maybe even complicated, situation where standard procedures and analytical information suggests what should be done. Only problem is, it’s complex. And the consequences will be as unpredictable as any fire that may race through the area in the future.