Welcome to the ‘Pyrocene,’ an Epoch of Runaway Fire
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It isn’t justCalifornia that’s burning. This summer, smoke from massive wildfires in Siberia choked skies as far as Alaska and set new pollution records, in a second consecutive year ofunprecedented blazes in the Arctic Circle. Rising temperatures, a loss of precipitation, and parched vegetation are hallmarks of climate change, scientists say, as are the increasingly extreme wildfires that result, from the arid Western U.S. to some of coldest places on Earth.
Yet these infernos are but one dimension of a vast human geography of fire. That’s according toStephen J. Pyne, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and former wildland firefighter with more than 30 books to his name, most of which, as he writes, “make fire a protagonist.” His forthcoming book proposes that the past 10,000-12,000 years — an epoch officially known as the Holocene, starting at the end of the last Ice Age — are coterminous with what he calls the “Pyrocene.” The book, built on a 2015 essay called “The Fire Age” published in Aeon, will summarize how the destiny of Homo sapiens is tied to its habit of burning things.
In brief: Early people wielded fire to forage for resources, cook food, build tools and develop social rituals. Later, slash-and-burn agriculture replaced hunter-gatherer societies and eventually enabled the growth of cities. The size of the human brain — the thing that dreamt up combustion-based technologies like the steam engine — is likely thanks to the dietary improvements and leisure time that fire provided to our ancestors. The Industrial Age marked major escalation in humanity’s pyromania, setting off several chain reactions that now cannot be easily extinguished, including the rising global temperatures that have set the world ablaze.
If the Pyrocene is our past and present, what does it mean for the future? CityLab spoke with Pyne over the phone on Monday.
If the Holocene refers to the same time period, what is the purpose in coming up with a different term? What does “Pyrocene” offer as a lens on human history?
I’m not on a campaign to remove any other descriptions. I also like “Anthropocene.” But looking at things from a fire perspective helps us see how fire is manifesting and how fire, particularly the human use of it, is providing the power source for the Anthropocene.
Earth is a uniquely fire planet, the only one that we know has had fire ever since it has had terrestrial vegetation. The manipulation of fire is also unique to humans — no other animal does that. It’s our ecological signature. We underwent a major acceleration when we began burning fossil fuels. When you add up all of the changes that we’re producing, it looks like we’re entering an ice age for fire. From sea level rise, to mass extinctions, to huge shifts in biogeography, add it up and it looks like we’re replacing the ice ages of the Pleistocene with a fire age that I’m calling the Pyrocene.
I wonder if coining this term — essentially a new unit of geologic time — risks shifting responsibility for climate change away from humans.
I think the Pyrocene puts it fully on us, because we’re the only creature that uses fire. The quest for fire was always to find things to burn and ways to burn it, and now we’ve got an unbounded amount of combustibles and ways to burn but no place for the effluent to go — it’s overloaded the atmosphere and oceans. So it doesn’t absolve us at all. It lays it right on us, because even climate history is now a subnarrative of a longer fire history, which sees us becoming a geologic force.
In what ways are we becoming a geologic force?
The old interpretation is that the last 10,000 or 12,000 years has been an interglacial period, and that we’re living in a short period of intense warming before heading to a new ice age. When I was in school, climatologists would say that winter was coming. Now I think that because of all the things we’re doing, winter is not coming. We’ve broken the cycle. For me, that’s part of a continuous narrative of humanity dealing with fire, and a couple hundred years ago coming onto a form of fuel and ways to combust it that put afterburners on the whole process.
Since the last glacial recession, we see a fire-wielding creature who meets a fire-receptive environment and the two begin interacting. Think about how much hunting and foraging are tied to fire, and most agriculture outside of flood plains. You had to grow stuff that you could burn to get the ecological effects of fire. That goes on and then we hit on fossil fuels, first in the form of coal. Then we developed machines to burn the coal. This changes the relationship to fire and through fire to everything we do.
Burning fossil fuels also changes our relationship to the landscape, right?
Correct. We have always had what I call “living landscapes,” which are the ones we live in, with growing stuff and dead stuff on the surface. The fires burning in California right now are fires in living landscapes. Then I offer the term “lithic landscape,” which shows a continuity between us burning in one setting and then another. These are the fossil landscapes buried in the past that we’re now burning in the present, with all kinds of strange interactions that we don’t understand.
In the book, I show how that transition occurred and how it has affected all the landscapes we live in. One example is how fire shapes our ability to sprawl. It used to be that our communities were surrounded by worked agricultural landscapes, which involved burning fields. That created an environment with buffers around towns [that protected them from wildfires]. Now most of that is gone, and we can go cheek-to-jowl right up against a wildland setting by bringing in food from elsewhere. These communities become landscapes for burning.
In many places we’ve also removed fire from the landscape — in some places to good effect, such as around houses and in cities. But when you get the countryside, where you’re dealing with living landscapes with their own ecology, removing fires can be damaging.
Why is it damaging to remove fire from landscapes?
In the U.S., federal agencies have long argued that fire was intrinsically bad and the more we removed it the healthier landscape would be. That’s fundamentally wrong, and it’s ignorant of science and the knowledge of Indigenous communities. But the effect was enough to disrupt forest systems and make them more fire prone. When people talk about fuel build-up, this is the legacy of that.
There are clearly tradeoffs. If we didn’t have all of those fossil fuel machines — the planes, the drip torches, the helicopters, the fire trucks — we’d have to manage fire in ways people have always done, by cultivating and burning land. But instead we believed that we could counter fire, that we could go toe-to-toe with it. That has proved wrongheaded. I’m not saying we should stand aside and let cities burn down — not at all. But that one of the reasons that cities and municipal watersheds are at risk today is because we took [fire suppression], which worked in cities, and projected it out to the wildlands. But it doesn’t work there. It can make them more fire prone.
So if fire is so bound up in human volition, what does fire look like absent of humans?
Humans greatly expanded the domain of fire and added a whole layer by going to the geologic past. But fire has been on the planet for 420 million years — it’s not going away. If people disappeared, fire would clearly continue. It would recede, and in many places its patterning would change. It would go on, but it would be different.
At the same time, I don’t know how we can exist without fire. It almost began like a mutual assistance pact, where we’ve taken fire to places it couldn’t be. We’ve had fire on Antarctica, we’ve had fire in space. And we’ve empowered ourselves in ways we couldn’t have. But now it’s looking like a Faustian bargain, where we made a bid for power but broke the checks and balances. Today there are no seasons for when to burn. We burn 24/7, in every season, every year. That didn’t used to be possible when fire was a medium of exchange. Now we just force our will on it, to a point. But we have the consequences of that, especially the ones playing out in the atmosphere that’s shared by everyone. Even countries that don’t use many fossil fuels are subject to the same difficulties.
What are some of the likely scenarios we’ll experience in the coming years of the Pyrocene? What are the ways we can forge a more responsible relationship with fire?
We may be in a runaway fire age unless we can shut down our fossil-fuel burning enough to allow the climate to stabilize. As we do that, we also have to manage the landscape better. That doesn’t mean clear-cutting forests. It means thinning. It means the careful manipulation of our landscapes. That also means more controlled burning. Some places we’d do well to burn every year or every few years, others every five to ten. There are areas where we will still have to muster our firefighting capabilities. But right now we have too much of the wrong kind of fire, too little of the right kind of fire, and way too much fossil fuel combustion overall. The paradox is that we need to shut off the burning of fossil fuels, but accelerate the burning of living landscapes.
We can also certainly prevent cities from burning. There is no reason to see them burn like they are. We can shut down the nastier ignition sources like power lines by reinvesting in our grids. We can reimagine how we power our cities: If we had more solar or local power sources, then you would not need [a spread-out electrical grid].
I also think there needs to be a sense of recognition that fire is here to stay, and that we need to work with it in ways that don’t destroy us, or in ways that turn tame fires into feral fires, which is what we have done. Living with fire is an awkward phrase, but it’s true. Unlike Covid-19, there’s no vaccine possible.
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