The Age of Fire / Stephen Pyne & Anders Dunker

«Fire is part of our identity as humans. It’s our ecological signature», says Stephen Pyne in this interview with Anders Dunker.

Part I: Fire creatures on a fire planet

AD: This year the fire season has been grueling in American West, with unusual fires in the northern states as well as the biggest fire in the history of California. Even if the fire season should be over for now, but it is only just beginning in Australia, where they still recovering from the disastrous megafires two years ago. You have written about the ancient and complex Australian fire history in Burning Bush and very extensively about fire in North America: All in all, I have counted that twenty of your thirty books are about fire. How was your interest in fire ignited, if you allow the pun? 

SP: It is impossible to ignore such words, which also testify to the way in which fire penetrates the culture, without us even thinking about it. I got interested in fire completely by accident. Right after graduating from high school, I was 18 years old, and I got a job at Grand Canyon National Park. On the day I showed up to sign my papers, someone from the North Rim fire crew had called, saying he couldn’t come. So there I was, and they asked – do you want to go over to the North Rim and join a fire crew? I’d never been there, had never done anything with fire, so I said, Sure. And that began a wonderful life in a very magical place. I did it for 15 seasons, 12 as crew boss.

I never studied fire in school – it wasn’t taught much, and certainly not at the universities I attended. So I had two completely different lives. My first life was on the North Rim, but I never studied fire in school. My second life was as a student of history and geology. My doctoral dissertation was a biography of an American geologist and explorer, and I focused on the American West, mostly topics pertinent to the Canyon. 

Good fires and bad fires

AD: It strikes me that looking into the Grand Canyon, we get a very visceral experience of deep time, which gives a striking perspective on the tremendous history of the earth and its slow rhythms. The dramatic close-up experience of forest fires and wildfires also gives you a very intimate understanding of this phenomenon, which most scholars and laymen don’t have:  Reading about fires in the news is one thing, but experiencing them firsthand and repeatedly must be very different? 

SP: Being on a fire crew you learn to talk about fire in a certain way.  Fire is not some alien visitation. It’s not a disaster. It’s a continual presence, it organizes your life, and while you don’t personify fire, you can animate it. It takes on certain traits. I mean, there are really, really nice fires, sweet fires, really horrible fires, existentially awful fires. There are fires that are fun. There are fires that are just miserable from start to finish.

My point is you can have an engagement with fire and very few of those fires are terrifying. A hearth fire is the very emblem of domesticity. In fact, fire may be our first domestication because it required us to take care of it. We speak of such fires with the same terms we use for raising children. So, I like to say that fire is not just a tool or process. It’s also a relationship.

AD: Nonetheless, for wildfire victims, as we encounter them in the media, the experience of wildfires often becomes a harrowing trauma – and fires like the one in the small town of Paradise write themselves into history. With every new megafire, people discuss if it started from natural causes or was it something done by people, and caused by climate change…

SP: To be clear, there are bad fires, and all these images in the media arouse a lot of interest, and unfortunately, some people want to hijack these disasters to support other causes. We must understand that climate change is a major contributing factor. Land management is also a major factor. Our past fire practices are a major factor. There’s no one driver here: fire is more like a driverless car running down the road, drawing in everything around it. 

The Pyrocene

AD: You have developed a great many perspectives on fire in your previous books, and some original concepts, too. One of them is the Pyrocene, which is the title of your latest book and your proposed name for our own epoch. In a one phrase definition it is simply a fire age, much like the way we speak about ice ages. In a particularly bold claim, you say that climate history is becoming a subset of fire history. How far into deep time does fire history go? And what is the relationship between the Pyrocene and the Anthropocene? Are we right to make megafires emblematic of climate change?

SP:  Let’s start with the observation that we have a species monopoly over fire. A few creatures can play with fire, but no other starts fires, surprisingly. Fire is part of our identity as humans. It’s our ecological signature.

While we must remember that not everywhere burns, and not everywhere that burns burns the same way, fire has nonetheless been a constant factor. It’s not something foreign to nature, and it’s not something that humans invented and imposed on the world.

AD: They say our history as fire-starters and fire-managers began about 2 million years ago, with the use of fire among early, now extinct hominids, even before Homo Sapiens. But your history of fire goes even further back in Earth’s history?

SP: Well, the earth has not always had fire. Certainly, today earth is the only fire planet we know of, but there was a time when fire didn’t exist even here. Fire is very much a creation of life. Life created the oxygen in the atmosphere, and when life began colonizing the continents, it created fuel and organized this fuel for fires, which were normally ignited by lightning.

AD: Anything that is combustible is counted as fuel – and fuel is somehow always organic?

SP: It’s all organic, that’s right. So we have fire shortly after we have the first evidence of plants on land. There is fossil charcoal that dates as far back as 420 million years ago. This means that all of terrestrial life has in effect grown up with fire as an emerging property of its existence. While we must remember that not everywhere burns, and not everywhere that burns burns the same way, fire has nonetheless been a constant factor. It’s not something foreign to nature, and it’s not something that humans invented and imposed on the world.

Then more recently, the last 2.6 million years ago, the Pleistocene arrives, dominated by a series of ice ages. About 80% of the Pleistocene was glacial, interrupted by short interglacial sudden warming periods. This pattern dominated about 90% of the last million years. This is also the epoch in which early hominins appear and acquire the ability to manipulate fire. It’s pretty clear Homo erectus could use fire at least for cooking. There’s a lot of interesting evidence that cooked food was the energy supplement that allowed us to have small guts and big heads. And so, all of the hominins from the erectus line could use fire. There were many different species of hominins, but only one survived the last glaciation. Which gave our species a monopoly as fire-using creatures.

For me the Pyrocene begins at the end of the last glaciation. A fire-wielding creature met a fire-receptive environment. I like a Long Anthropocene.  I am aware this is a controversial statement – the Anthropocene began when humans started manipulating landscapes at scale, assisted by their use of fire.  Some recent research from central Africa has evidence that early humans were shaping landscapes with fire as far back as 85,000 years ago. But larger environmental conditions, especially climate, limited their global impact.

Between ice ages

AD: This early dating of the Pyrocene makes little room for the Holocene, which geologists have intersected between the Pleistocene ice age. It also seems to overlap with the problematic geological age of mankind, the Anthropocene? You do not at all claim that the human use of fire caused the Pleistocene to end, of course …

The fire age doesn’t begin with fossil fuel combustion. 

SP: No, no. The Pleistocene had causes outside the human capacity to influence.  The Holocene is an oddity because it is an interglacial.

AD: So what that means is that we are supposed to be living in a temporary warm period between the last Ice-age and the next?

SP: In many ways, our age continues the cold Pleistocene.  But it has taken on a different character that interrupts the old rhythms.  It has overwhelmed the drivers of the Pleistocene.  This shift is the result of people and their fires.  So I would rename the Holocene as the Anthropocene, and because the power source of the Anthropocene is humanity’s firepower, I would rename the Anthropocene as the Pyrocene.  The fire age doesn’t begin with fossil fuel combustion. 

The ability to set fires can deeply hack a biota. It’s as though it rewrites the ecological software. Modern societies underestimate the power of landscape fire perhaps because we have converted to fossil-fuel combustion and don’t see our extensive landscaping as a fire-catalyzed practice.  You know, we tend to think that agriculture must be responsible for deforestation and carbon release because it involves cutting trees. But aboriginal fire practices, especially burning prairie grasslands and steppes, prevented trees from establishing in the first place, as they would have done in previous interglacials.  If you quit burning those savannas, many very quickly overrun with woods.

The fires of the Pyrocene

AD: You sometimes speak of first and second fire. So, this is where we go from the first wild fire to the second one, a more controlled fire, domesticated by humans?

SP: First fire is simply the fires that have existed for 420 million years on earth. They’re just a property of the planet and terrestrial life. I like to distinguish a second fire that appears when people capture fire and use it in new ways. Second fire competes with first fire because in a given landscape one or the other kind of fire can burn. I mean, either lightning burns a place, or people burn it, but both can’t burn it at the same time.

So, we use our tamed fires in a sense to expand our habitat. That’s also how we protect ourselves from wildfire, from wild nature. People traditionally would burn early in the dry season, so that it wasn’t very explosive. And then they would gradually increase the amount of burning as you get closer to the rainy season. In places with well-defined wet and dry seasons, the early storms would have a lot of dry lightning, which would kindle fires. Those could be dangerous, except that everything you want protected is already protected because you’ve replaced those wild fires with your tame ones.

Well, we tend to overdo things. We overdo slash and burn. We shorten the cycle. We overgraze. We overburn to a point where the system crashes.

AD:  Even today fires are very cyclical, and the satellite footage you refer to in your writings, show fires flaring up rhythmically in sequences of satellite photos of earth seen from space. Heraclitus has this phrase which you probably know very well that fire, flares up and dies away – all according to measure. It would be wonderful if it always did so annually, and if also ages of fire and ice alternated in a predictable rhythm. But there is a sense in which the fire age that we’re in has something monstrous or unnatural to it. Isn’t this also the subtext of the whole story about Prometheus, which you quote in your book: the Titan in Greek mythology who stole the fire from the gods, and accordingly brought the cosmic order out of balance?

SP: Prometheus gave humans almost divine power – and was punished for it by being shackled.  In a similar way, humanity’s firepower was fettered as well.  It was always limited by what the environment would allow. We could try to change that and expand our firepower. We could cut trees, dry them out and burn those that otherwise they wouldn’t burn. We can drain wetlands and burn them. We can cut, dry, and burn peat.   People were ingenious about finding new stuff to burn.  But even then, the fuel is limited, it needs to grow back. There were always checks and balances because we’re dealing with living landscapes, and they are not infinitely plastic. Well, we tend to overdo things. We overdo slash and burn. We shorten the cycle. We overgraze. We overburn to a point where the system crashes.

Promotheus by Peter Paul Rubens / Wikimedia Commons

AD: So we had to deal with the consequences, but these were only local? This can be dramatic enough, but today, the problem has planetary proportions – which puts us in a different situation?

SP: Yes, but with fossil fuels, all that changes because there are virtually no limits, because now there are no longer the old checks and balances, the natural constraints that hold us back. We are burning what I call a lithic landscape: what were once living landscapes that have fossilized into coal and oil and so forth, and that we overlay on living landscapes.

This third fire cannot exist in nature (okay, apart from a few exposed coal seams and oil seeps). It’s strictly something we created and we have to manage. I don’t really develop the notion in the book, but we could think about the world that it creates as a kind of “third nature”. People made a second nature out first nature – this is an ancient concept, even Cicero wrote about it.  Farming domesticated existing plants and animals; we burned fuels from wood, dung, peat.  We reorganized first nature. 

Now we are using our unbounded firepower to not only reassemble second nature, but to find unnatural alternatives drawn out of the geologic past.  We sublimate fire into electricity and steam, we populate landscapes with mechanical fauna powered by fossil-fuels, we fill our habitats with plastics and petrochemicals.  We can burn day and night, winter and summer, wet or dry.  We have unshackled Prometheus. The problem is no longer finding stuff to burn but to find places to put all the byproducts.  This seems to me qualitatively different. It adds further fuel to the fires of the Pyrocene.

Colluding fires

AD: And you have this memorable sentence in your book where you say that we dig out fuel from the Earth’s geological past, we burn it in the present, and then we release it into the geological future of our planet. And this makes for a very, very grand story that is also very frightening, because we don’t know where we are at, in our relationship to fire.

SP: We have long had a pact and alliance with fire. We each expanded the range of the other.  We’ve taken fire to Antarctica. Fire has taken us to the moon and Mars, for heaven sakes.    Then our relationship got perverted. We’re not treating fire with care, we’re not tending it well. Our coal and gas power plants are the equivalent of factory farms for combustion: they’re very efficient at making one thing – raw energy – but we have no place to put all the waste. The world is much more finite than our ability to fill it up with stuff. Fire on earth did many tasks; we reduced it to one.  Our ancient pact is looking like a Faustian bargain.

We’re removing traditional fire in agricultural and pastoral settings, and we’re replacing it as we did in cities with this kind of third-fire landscape.

Initially, third fire competed with the other two. It successfully replaced working fires in houses, offices, modern cities.  We don’t have flames, or smoke, in our homes or experience conflagrating cities. The problem is that we took that vision and tried to project it out over the countryside and into wildlands where fire has a critical function. That goal unhinged a lot of environments, and by changing the climate, those disturbances were drastically intensified.  

What we’re seeing now is that instead of competing, the three fires are colluding. They are converging and piling on one another in very disastrous ways: this is not the kind of fire we want.  Paradoxically, megafires are a pathology of the developed world, of fossil-fuel societies.   Yet I would also point out that satellite studies show of the amount of burning on the planet has been decreasing. 

AD: This seems to me a little-known fact – and almost unbelievable, given all the big fires we see in the news. What makes the amount of burning go down?

SP: What we see is the conversion to a kind of third-fire economy where fossil biomass is providing our fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides. With third fire it is allowing us to restructure the landscape. We’re removing traditional fire in agricultural and pastoral settings, and we’re replacing it as we did in cities with this kind of third-fire landscape. Yes, we have some very large landclearing projects in the developing world (like Amazonia and Indonesia) that burn the slash and peat, and we have megafires in the developed world, but the total amount of land burned is decreasing.  Even California, for all its outbreaks, is burning less land than a century ago.  We’ve removed many benign burns with a few conflagrations.  To switch analogies, we’ve replaced irrigated fields with mass flooding.  

AD: This decline in fires, which is caused by modernization of land use and increased fire suppression, might not last much longer, I suppose, if the global temperature continues to rise?

SP: The consequences are disguised for a while, then they seem to burst upon us.  In the U.S. our modern era of wildland firefighting, committed solely to suppression, began with a massive outbreak of wildfire in 1910 known as the Big Blowup.  Fifty years ago, before climate change was an issue, we recognized the folly of this approach and tried to restore good fire, with mixed results.  A century later we are seeing the outcome, what I have come to think of a Big Blowback.  In the meantime, we’ve built up a huge backlog of lost fire, a fire debt, and it has to be satisfied, either deliberately or through cataclysms.  Even if we should get control of climate, we’re still going to see a whole lot more fire in the world, but within living landscapes, recycling carbon, not transferring it out of the geologic past. All the fires that third fire, our control of nature through combustion energy, took out of the landscapes still have to go back. So, we’re going to be doing a lot more with fire in the future. The fire age won’t end when we cease burning fossil fuels. Can we do it?  I hope so.  We’re a fire creature.  We have to.

(TBC)

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Stephen J. Pyne, Emeritus Professor at the Arizona State University, has written over 30 books, mostly on the history and management of wildland and rural fire. His last book The Pyrocene was published in September 2021.

Photo: Courtesy of Arizona State University.

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Anders Dunker works as a journalist and philosophical author, focusing on the environment, technology, and the future of the planet. His works includes a series of interviews with leading international environmentalists for the Norwegian journal Samtiden, that was published as Gjenoppdagelsen av Jorden (2019) and translated into English in 2021 as Rediscovering Earth (O/R books).

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