by Steven Pyne
Millions of arcs burn in the Arctic, thousands of fires blazing in the Amazon and with seemingly endless flareups in between California to Gran Canaria – fire seems dangerous and destabilizing everywhere and everywhere. In a worsening climate, the fires that drive the earth from the tropics into the tundra appear as pilot flames of a progressive apocalypse. For some commentators, the prognosis changes are so threatening and so unprecedented that they claim we have no language or narrative to express burns that end up in the cities and in the garbage. The same applies to the good fires that have disappeared because they are suppressed or no longer lit. More of the world suffers from a famine of good than from an overabundance of bad fires; the bad ones fill a gap; they are less wild than wild.
Both are the immense turn in which man transforms from the burning of living landscapes to the burning of lithic landscapes in the form of fossil fuels. This is today's Big Burn, which serves as a performance enhancer for all aspects of Fire's global footprint. The extent of these changes is so great that we could rightly speak of a coming age of fire, which in its stature corresponds to the glacial ages of the Pleistocene. Let's call it the pyrozene.
So there is a narrative, one of the oldest, known to mankind, and one that has defined our distinctive ecological agency. It is the story of the fire. The earth is a unique fire planet ̵
This is a narrative so old that it is prelapsic. Our alliance with fire has become a true symbiosis. We have small guts and big heads because we have learned 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 started to cook the planet. We've set fire to places and times that could never have reached them on their own, and it took us everywhere, even outside the world. We used fire; Fire helped us.
How this happened is a largely hidden story – hidden in public. Fire disappeared as a major issue as we hid fires in Franklin ovens and steam engines. (The only fire brigade at a university is the one that sends emergency vehicles when an alarm sounds.) It has lost its importance as an independent topic. As with today's fires, history has served to illustrate other issues and not to follow their own narrative.
But how the present scene came about is clear enough in its general contours. How could early humans with fire sticks adopt selected biotas? How companies with axes and plows and livestock as fires could recode the patches and legumes of vast tracts of land for agriculture. From the hunger for more and more firepower, we have changed from burning to burning landscapes – once living biomass that has been converted into eons of oil, gas, lignite and coal. Our firepower was unlimited.
That's literally true. The old search for sources has turned into a search for sinks. Finding more material to burn has become a problem where all wastewater can be dumped. Industrial incineration can burn without the old ecological check-and-balance: it can burn day and night, winter and summer, due to drought and flooding. We take things out of the geological past and introduce them into the geological future.
It's not just about changing the climate or the acidification of the oceans. It's about how we live in the countryside. Land use is the other half of the modern dialectic of fire on Earth, and when a people converts to fossil fuels, the way it inhabits landscapes changes. They rely on industrial pyrotechnologies to organize agriculture, transportation, urban structures and even nature reserves that aggravate the dangers of fires and make it more difficult to reintroduce fires. The many fires caused by power lines capture the collision between living and lithic landscapes well. Even if we were to tame the burning of fossil fuels, we would still have to work through our disturbed relationship with fires in living landscapes.
Because fire is a reaction, not a substance, the extent of our fire-induced transformations can be difficult to see. But we are creating the blatant equivalents of ice shields, mountain glaciers, pluvial lakes, flood plains, and naturally changing sea levels, not to mention mass extinctions. Too much bad fire, too little good, too much total combustion – it's an ice age for fire. The Pyrozän transforms from metaphor to descriptor.
Everything is there: narration, analogy, explanation. A few centuries ago, we began to hide our fires in machinery and off-field, making it difficult for modern city dwellers to understand how profoundly anthropogenic fire practices are affecting the Earth today. We use the raging flames to invigorate other agendas, not to understand what fire is telling us. But the fire, the great shapeshifter, is fast and unbelievable.
What does a full-grown Age of Fire look like? We will find out right away.
Steve Pyne, Emeritus Professor at Arizona State University, is the author of the recently updated and revised Fire: A Short History (University of Washington Press).
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