Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

The Dominion of Fire

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

The Dominion of Fire

Article excerpt

Fire shapes our culture even as it shapes our physical landscape.

Human societies have inserted fire into every conceivable place for every conceivable purpose, and they have done so for so long and so pervasively that it is impossible to disentangle fire from either human life or the biosphere. The alliance between hominids and fire is ancient, apparently dating from the time of Homo erectus.

The era of anthropogenic fire, however, was neither inevitable nor inextinguishable. It began, and it may well end. One useful way to imagine that history is through a series of competitions. While combustion in various forms is reasonably well understood, the specific character of these competitions is not.

There was, initially, the competition with lightning. Not all burning yields identical effects. Anthropogenic fire practices - both ignition and suppression - alter the timing, frequency, size, intensity, and seasonality of fire regimes; and it is to these regimes, not to generic fire, that ecosystems adapt. Lightning and humans compete over the source materials, the biomass that serves as fuels. What one burns the other cannot. The classic index of environmental health in this combustion calculus is the soil, especially its organic component.

At the other end of this historical continuum, there is the growing competition between anthropogenic fire and fossil-fuel combustion.

This competition affects fuels indirectly by changing agricultural and land-use practices, fuelwood gathering, a redefinition of natural resources, and so on. But the real competition between fire and furnace is over the available sink, the amount of emissions that the atmosphere can absorb without major dislocations. The atmosphere stirs local burning into a common cauldron of global combustion in ways that were not true in a preindustrial age. A burned forest in Indonesia finds itself linked with automobiles in California, a firestick-kindled savanna in West Africa with coal-fired steel mills in eastern Germany. Airshed has replaced soil as the ultimate index of environmental health.

These two borders are porous, of course. In only a few places and for limited times have humans utterly replaced natural ignition sources, and in recent decades lightning has reasserted itself as a significant source of wildland burning. Likewise, fossil-fuel combustion has not abolished biomass burning, and in fact cannot do so. Again, changes in land use catalyzed by industrialization have in many places encouraged a proliferation of biomass, which in turn has led to renewed burning. And inevitably there is accidental fire.

Even so, the advent of fire-wielding hominids does mark a boundary that did not exist before, and so does the spread of fossil-fuel combustion. That those boundaries are subject to incessant negotiation does not change the fact that they exist. The sea advances and retreats twice daily and rises and falls with the tides of climates, but no one would deny the existence of a shoreline.

Between these mobile borders the history of fire can be understood as a competition between anthropogenic fire of various kinds. In some instances this involves literally a change in fire technologies, or the outright dislocation of one set of fire practices by another through the migration and dislocation of peoples. In most cases, however, fire serves as an enabling device for a variety of technologies.

Fire restructured the relationship between humans and their world. It furnished light and heat. It made possible a social life after dark; redefined social roles; warmed against the cold; demanded shelter and sustenance; served as communication media; supplemented ax, knife, and drill; and allowed cooking, which revolutionized diets and food gathering. Fires assisted almost all branches of technology. The tools for re-creating fire more or less at will - drills, saws, and flints - obviously derived from or coevolved with the technologies for striking, scraping, and drilling in stone and bone. …

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