«Fire has always been our best friend. And right now it threatens to become an overwhelming enemy that will obliterate much of what we regard as valuable, places that used to be habitable.»
Part II: A fire story with an open ending
AD: The question remains whether what you call the Pyrocene must mean a constant escalation of both global warming and wildfire, mutually reinforcing each other, directly and indirectly. We have spoken about the first natural fire, and the second fire wielded by humans – as well as the third fire, that of combustion engines. What about a fourth fire or a fifth fire? I am not a supporter of nuclear power myself because of risks and long-term perspectives, but did you contemplate the question of nuclear power in relation to fire, not to speak about nuclear bombs. I know you wrote a book about nuclear winter. Going from total nuclear war to a planetary freeze because of dust and ashes, is the most horrible way of cooling down the planet imaginable. Regardless, one candidate for a fourth fire would be nuclear fission. And if we crack the technology for cold nuclear fusion, we will have a fifth fire. Perhaps with a new, non-combustion energy source, even with solar power, we would stand a chance in cooling the planet down for real?
SP: That would be very cool, certainly. It’s energy, but I wouldn’t call it a fire because it’s not burning living or once living material. Solar and nuclear power are purely physical and chemical reactions, independent of the organic realm. We speak about it loosely as fire – volcanic fires, solar fires. I would leave that in the realm of poetic invention, which I’m very happy for, but I would not really call it fire.
I think the whole Long Anthropocene is the Pyrocene, because people have used fire directly and indirectly to establish their power.
Regardless, fire has always been power – which is even more true with this kind of industrial combustion. So, suppose we got rid of the combustion part of it and would create a source of unbounded power. At that point, we’d have to ask: how do people deal with power of any sort? Are we going to use it wisely and distribute it equally?
When it comes to predicting our chances to control the climate or cool down the planet, it comes back to people – I’m sorry to say – because I know the scientists hate that fact in some ways. They can’t – or they don’t want to – put people in their models because all those people are too unpredictable. That’s one reason why wilderness fire ecology was attractive for researchers, because you didn’t have to deal with human fire practices. But in the end, it turns out that that’s a hypothetical world that doesn’t exist today. In such cases you’re using science to create fantasy worlds.
AD: Which brings us back to the Anthropocene, the era where Earth Systems Sciences are forced to change all their models, since it turns out that the earth is changing drastically on a grand scale due to the impact of mankind. The megafires have become a popular image of the Anthropocene or an image of global warming. The headlines of 2019 repeated the phrase “the world is on fire”, a phrase which also echoed Greta Thunberg’s talks. Yet, it seems that your vision of the Pyrocene is not exactly like an all-consuming world-fire of apocalyptic proportions.
SP: In different world mythologies, there is a long, long tradition of world-ending fires. Ragnarök is one, but there are many other versions – the Stoics had a cycle of fire cataclysms, for example. Isaac Asimov even wrote a story based on it called “Nightfall”, where fire periodically destroys the world, and survivors have to rebuild by first getting control over fire.
We have to rationalize the landscapes – that’s part of what justifies European presence. So traditional knowledge was extinguished along with traditional fires.
AD: Which is our situation, more or less. To rephrase your own words, it seems to be about recalibrating our relationship to fire in an age dominated by that same element? Is the Pyrocene the culmination or escalation of the Anthropocene?
SP: I think the whole Long Anthropocene is the Pyrocene, because people have used fire directly and indirectly to establish their power. That is what has underwritten our global dominance in a sense. Fire is the technology which has enabled us to shape the Earth. Ever since we got fossil fuels, however, the relationship is completely out of control.
AD: Maybe I’m wrong, but then we had this huge fire season in Australia and we had same year, a huge fire season in California, it also struck me they’re both very recently colonized areas where you could suspect that traditional knowledge has been lost. Landscapes have changed too fast, and our ways of living in them even faster. Is that a correct assumption to some extent?
SP: That is very much true. And one of the tragic parts of European expansion was that the old proselytizing impulses of the Renaissance age of discovery were secularized and the Enlightenment became a kind of crusading spirit. We have to convert these people to modernity. We have to rationalize the landscapes – that’s part of what justifies European presence. So traditional knowledge was extinguished along with traditional fires. We lost all that.
But note that this wasn’t limited to colonial settings. Europe treated its own traditional knowledge and fire practitioners with equal disdain. Intellectuals and officials stigmatized fire as primitive. The US Forest Service in the 1920s even hired a psychologist to investigate why people believed, irrationally, that burning the land was a sensible practice. The officials and self-styled scientists of the day were the ones in denial. We can hope there’s enough left to recover some practices and to begin creating hybrids because that’s what we need to move forward. We’re not going to return to a landscape where we’re harvesting twigs for baskets and eating acorns as a primary food source, but we need to find modern equivalents for these practices and adapt them.
It’s interesting to see how at the same time Enlightenment science identified oxygen, it lost the old sense of fire, and this was the same time that steam engines began burning coal, and that the second wave of European colonization (from the north) got underway. Fire was part of a package – and a process. It’s still hard for modern urbanites to appreciate -– and it took me a long time to learn –how many species depend on fire and that if you list all fire’s effects, even smoke can be beneficial.
Fire in contexts
AD: It is very hard to get your head around it, since fire seems so destructive. I take it that such effects must be very local and – and different from place to place too. I know there are some studies on the relationship between what they call pyrodiversity – a variety of fire practices – and of biodiversity, and the first seems to support the other…
SP: Historically, Scandinavians, as you probably know, used a lot of swidden techniques, some of them very advanced, but these have been condemned, at least since the Enlightenment. For instance, the great Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, near the end of his career was commissioned by the Swedish king to report on the southern provinces. He went through his old home province, Småland, and Linnaeus admired the local fire techniques, which he wrote about approvingly. But the ministry of agriculture forced him to remove all of those positive remarks about burning and put in a paragraph about manure. The use of fire was seen as primitive and backward.
AD: An emphasis on local knowledge, on cultural diversity supporting biodiversity, seems to imply that we need all kinds of fires in different combinations, but at the same time, you maintain a distinction between good fires and bad fires? How do they differ?
It’s the pattern of fire that matters, the particular rhythm and characteristics of fires.
SP: Bad fires are easy to define. They are fires that kill people, burn towns, and trash ecosystems that are not adapted to this particular kind of fire. Good fires enhance the integrity and habitability of the place. They improve the human capacity to live in the land in sustainable ways. This type of fire is harder to define because bad fires are all alike in a certain way, whereas good fires can take many, many forms. One of America’s famous environmental philosophers Aldo Leopold came up with the concept of a land ethic. And in some ways we could adapt that to fire. What fires harm the long-term stability and health of places are bad and what improve it are good.
So it’s not just as if we can sit by and watch, saying, okay, bad fire, good fire, check it off. It’s about how fire interacts with us and other parts of the surroundings. I mean, fire is a reaction. It takes its character from its setting. Fire is a shape-shifter, so whether it’s good or bad depends on its context.
Paracelsus, the Renaissance humanist said that the toxicity of a poison was in the dosage. Similarly, when we say something is adapted to fire, it’s not that an organism or landscape either accepts fire or doesn’t. It’s the pattern of fire that matters, the particular rhythm and characteristics of fires. And if you change that, the adaptations that an animal or plant has developed may no longer serve, so that a particular fire may in fact be harmful to it.
The future of fire management
AD: They say that the sequoias are adapted to fires, but none the less the fires this year harmed and wiped out a lot of them, due to climate change and a more intense fire season.
SP: The giant sequoia is a celebrity canary in the coalmine. It’s very tolerant of fire, even needs it to regenerate. Its fire adaptations made it a poster child in the 1960s for reintroducing fire – the groves around Redwood Mountain in California were the hearth for a revolution in fire policy. There was public support for the reform; after all, three of America’s first four national parks were established to protect the Big Trees. Now, in the past two years we’ve lost 15–20% of the global population of mature sequoias to wildfire. A pyrocumulus even towered over Redwood Mountain. These are different kinds of fires. Fifty years of mitigation have proven inadequate. How do we propose to preserve the groves in a future of worsening fire?
AD: So what is the future of fire management – not just with respect to the precious sequoias, but generally in a time of prolonged draughts and a hotter climate?
SP: At the moment, it’s a runaway fire age that is not good. We know lots of things we need to do. They have different scales of operation, and I think we need to do them all at the same time. If we fold fire into a general overhaul of infrastructure, places like California could, if it chose, say within four or five years, provide adequate protection for all of its cities that are at risk. That’s what I would start with because people won’t care about good fires until they have protection against bad fires.
Secondly, we address the larger landscape, which we need to get into a more sustainable form for lots of reasons. That means many interventions, some severe, some quite light, but all intended to put good fire back in those places that need it. For this we need traditional knowledge, we need modern knowledge. Part of it is just a change of attitude. Part of it will require a change in law.
The third program is grappling with climate change, which for me is also a fire story.
The big fires in the boreal forests and peatlands and their interaction with permafrost are an event over which we have limited control.
AD: So how do we relate to this global fire management problem? In an ideal situation, we would slowly learn and relearn what we have unlearned and forgotten about how to live well with the landscape. And we would gradually settle into the land ethic and I’m sure we will to some extent. But what about regions which now experience big fires, and who didn’t use to have them, like the Arctic? Where do we go to, to get our knowledge about tending the landscape when we have things happening that actually never happened before? How do you see your field of knowledge, fire history helping in the debates about problems of near-irreversible change, as with fires in Siberia and the thawing of the permafrost?
SP: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. And that may be the starting point: humility about what we know and the limits of what we can do. We need to “hasten slowly,” as Horace famously put it. I don’t think history identifies techniques we can use to keep permafrost frozen. What it can teach us is how to act boldly yet prudently, how to admit and learn from errors instead of doubling down, how to be patient in the face of uncertainty, how doing many little things may be better than heroic engineering on a planetary scale, how to expect and plan for the unanticipated consequences that are sure to occur, how to find collective agreement to act.
The scale might just be too big for us. I don’t know how we would, how we can put it back. Maybe in another two centuries, we can begin refreezing it. I don’t see how we can do it with what we know now. All this argues for as quickly as possible stopping the continued warming. The big fires in the boreal forests and peatlands and their interaction with permafrost are an event over which we have limited control. Burning fossil fuels, on the other hand, is something we actively do: We have to dig up the coal. We have to burn the oil. We have to create facilities to do all this. That’s where the change needs to begin. The blowback could be enormous if we really start liberating all that permafrost in Eurasia and North America. It’s like melting the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. It’s an experiment we don’t want to start.
What do we want fire to be?
AD: The frightening thing about tipping points is that they are more like tripping points. Once you cross the line, you fall! Or you can’t get back up to the other side! I have talked to environmentalists in Australia, they said, yes, some of these forests are going to grow back. But some will not, ever. And that’s a very drastic insight.
SP: There’s a great saying, that fire is the best of friends and the worst of enemies. I like it because, again, it describes a relationship, and you know – it’s up to us, what do we want it to be? Fire has always been our best friend. And right now it threatens to become an overwhelming enemy that will obliterate much of what we regard as valuable, places that used to be habitable.
The future is obviously very uncertain. I’ve got grandkids, and I’d like to leave them a better world than I found, and that is not what they are getting. Anyway, my histories and the concept of the Pyrocene are my contribution to the discussion. I accept that it’s an eccentric one. The Pyrocene is not likely to become an internet meme. It’s a metaphor, and as with models, all metaphors are wrong but some are useful. People will take it up and use it in ways I don’t intend, but that’s just how it is.
Still, I do think the concept is useful because it gives us a continuous narrative of humanity and fire. It’s my reply to those who have said that the future is so strange and so dire and desperate, we have no narrative by which to connect it to the past and we have no analog to guide us for the future. I think the Pyrocene gives us a narrative, one both continuous and powerful. And I think it gives us an analog. When you add up all the things we’re doing with fire, we are creating the fire-informed equivalent of an ice age.
Photo: The fresco mural Prometheus by José Clemente Orozco in Frary Dining Hall at Pomona College.
Read part I of this interview here.
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.
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).