Wednesday, November 06, 2019

We're living in the Pyrocene


(Thinking of my California friends.)

... humans turned from burning living landscapes to burning lithic ones in the form of fossil fuels. That is the Big Burn of today, acting as a performance enhancer on all aspects of fire’s global presence. So vast is the magnitude of these changes that we might rightly speak of a coming Fire Age equivalent in stature to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. Call it the Pyrocene.

So there does exist a narrative, one of the oldest known to humanity, and one that has defined our distinctive ecological agency. It’s the story of fire.  Earth is a uniquely fire planet – it has been since life clambered onto the continents.  Equally, humans are a uniquely fire creature, not only the keystone species for fire but a species monopolist over its manipulation.  The fires in the Arctic testify to the planetary antiquity of fire.  Nearly all are kindled by lightning and burn biotas nicely adapted to fire; many could be suppressed, but extinguishing them will only put off, not put out, the flames. By contrast, the fires in the Amazon bear witness to a Faustian pact that hominins made with fire so long ago it is coded into our genome.  They are set by people in circumstances that people made, well outside ecological barriers and historical buffers.
 
This is a narrative so ancient it is prelapsarian. Our alliance with fire has become a veritable symbiosis.  We got small guts and big heads because we learned to cook food.  We went to the top of the food chain because we learned to cook landscapes.  Now we have become a geological force because we have begun to cook the planet.  We have taken fire to places and times it could never have reached on its own, and it has taken us everywhere, even off world. We have leveraged fire; fire has leveraged us. ...

Steve Pyne, emeritus professor at Arizona State University, is the author of the recently updated and revised Fire: A Brief History from which this is excerpted.

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