by Stephen Pine
Millions of acres burn in the Arctic, thousands of fires are burning in the Amazon and with seemingly endless flames between California and Gran Canaria – fire seems to be everywhere and everywhere dangerous and destabilizing. With the worsening climate, the fires that sweep the Earth from the tropics to the tundra appear as the pilot flames of an advancing apocalypse. For some commentators, so terrible, so unprecedented are the changes in the forecast that they claim that we have no language or narrative to express them.
In fact, the scene with the fire is worse than the headlines and breathless comments, because it's not just bad burns that bump into cities and junk. It is also about the good fires that have disappeared because they are extinguished or no longer lit. Most of the world suffers from the famine of good fires rather than the bad ones; the bad fill the void; they are not as wild as they are wild.
The signing of both is that enormous tendency in which people turn from burning living landscapes to burning lithic ones in the form of fossil fuels. This is the Great Burn of today, acting as a productivity enhancer in all aspects of the global presence of fire. The magnitude of these changes is so great that we can rightly speak of an imminent fiery age equal to the growth of the Pleistocene ice ages. Call it pyrocene
So there is a story, one of the oldest known to mankind and one that defined our distinctive environmental agency. This is the story of the fire. Earth is a uniquely fiery planet ̵
This is a story so ancient is pre-Lapsary. Our alliance with fire has become a real symbiosis. We have small intestines and big heads because we learned how to cook food. We went to the top of the food chain because we learned how to cook landscapes. Now we have become a geological force because we have begun to cook the planet. We took fire in places and times we could never reach on our own, and took us everywhere, even outside the world. We used fire; the fire has helped us.
How it happened is a largely hidden story – hidden from view. The fire disappeared as an integral part of the time we covered fire in Franklin stoves and steam engines. (The only fire department at the university is the one that sends emergency vehicles when an alarm sounds.) It loses position as a topic in itself. As with today's fires, its use in history has been to illustrate other topics rather than to follow one's own story.
Yet how the present scene came about is sufficiently clear in its general outlines. How, equipped with sticks of fire, early humans could absorb selected biota. How with axes and plows and livestock as fire pillars, societies could transcode patches and impulses on vast farmlands. How, craving for increasing firepower, we have transformed from burning living landscapes into burning lytic – once living biomass converted through aeons into oil, gas, lignite and coal. Our firepower has become unlimited.
This is literally true. The old search for sources has become one of the sinks. The search for more incineration has become a problem where to put all the wastewater. Industrial burning can burn without any of the old environmental checks and balances: it can burn day and night, winter and summer, through drought and flood. We extract things from the geological past and unfold it into the geological future.
It's not just about climate change or the acidification of the oceans. It's about how we live on land. Land use is the other half of the modern dialectic of earth's fire, and when humans switch to fossil fuels, they change the way they inhabit landscapes. They rely on industrial pyrotechnology to organize agriculture, transport, urban models, even nature reserves, all of which tend to aggravate the dangers of a bad fire and complicate the reintroduction of a good fire. The multiple fires caused by power lines perfectly capture the ripple clash between lively and lytic landscapes. Yet, even if fossil fuel combustion has been tamed, we will still have to work through our perverse attitude toward wildlife fires.
Because fire is a reaction, not a substance, the scale of our fire-induced transformations can be difficult to see. But we are developing the fire-informed equivalents of ice sheets, mountain glaciers, swimming ponds, flushing plains, and of course changing sea levels, not to mention sparks of extinction. Too much bad fire, too little good, too much burning overall – this is a glacial period for a fire. Pyrocene moves from metaphor to descriptor.
Everything is there: story, analogue, explication. A few centuries ago, we started hiding our fires inside and outside machines, which may make it difficult for modern urbanists to appreciate how deeply anthropogenic fire practices inform the Earth today. We use raging flames to enliven other programs so that we do not understand what the fire is saying to us. But fire, the great switch of form, quickly translates beyond our grasp.
What does a full-fledged fire era look like? We are about to find out.
Steve Pine, Emeritus Professor at Arizona State University, is the author of the recently updated and revised Fire: A Brief History (University of Washington Press).
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