I love it when I hear a new word, wrestle with a new concept. Pyrocene -don’t you adore it? Even just sounding it out quietly in your head, it’s hard to miss the excitement, or the imagery.
It takes its shape, as with all great epochs, by combining two Greek words, pur (or pyro), meaning ‘fire’, and the suffix kainos (or cene) -added to whatever noun, and meaning ‘new’. In other words, the Pyrocene is the fire epoch.
When you think about it, Pyrocene is an evocative and descriptive name for what has been going on for some time now. Fire has been tremendously important for our species. First came lightening and its effect of setting nature alight, and then, once we discovered we could tame fire, it kept us warm, it cooked, and it protected us from whatever predators remained afraid of it.
But that was just the beginning of our love affair: we began to invent new things it could do -like smelting metals, and boiling water to produce steam. All you needed was enough wood for fuel. And then, serendipitously no doubt, came the discovery of other less obvious sources that burned even hotter such as coal and, eventually, oil. It seems that hominids have embraced fire almost from the beginning; we are the fire-animal.
Unfortunately, fire seems to be in the news a lot lately -too much, in fact: bush fires, forest fires, the Amazon, Fort McMurray here in Canada, California, Europe, Australia… I can’t help but think of the poem by Goethe: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice -or at least its depiction in the animated Disney film Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse, to the music of the unforgettable symphonic poem by Paul Ducas, tires of his job of cleaning the room of his mentor (the sorcerer) and tries to use magic to make the broom do it for him. He quickly loses control, however.
I have to admit that my thoughts about the history of fire were otherwise quite embryonic and unfocussed until I came across an epiphanic essay about Fire in Aeon, written by Stephen J Pyne, an emeritus professor of Life sciences at Arizona State University: https://aeon.co/essays/the-planet-is-burning-around-us-is-it-time-to-declare-the-pyrocene
He identifies different sources of fire -different ways of producing the energy: ‘Three fires now exist, and they interact in a kind of three-body dynamic. The first fire is nature’s. It has existed since plants first colonised continents… The second fire is humanity’s. It’s what humans have done as they moved from cooking food to cooking landscapes, and because it feeds on the same grasses, shrubs and woods as first-fire, the two fires compete for fuels: what one burns the other can’t, and neither can break beyond the ecological boundaries set by their biotic matrix… Third-fire transcends the others. It burns fossil biomass, a fuel which is outside the biotic box of the living world. Where third-fire flourishes, the others don’t, or can burn only in special preserves or as genuinely wild breakouts. After a period of transition, third-fire erases the others, leaving ecological messes behind. Because it doesn’t burn living landscapes, those combustibles grow and pile up and create conditions for more damaging burns; because it isn’t in a biotic box, its smoke can overwhelm local airsheds and its emissions can clog the global atmosphere.’
So, why does he feel the need for a new name for the epoch in which we live? I mean, we seem deluged by names -some admittedly hubristic and anthroponomic: centered mainly around us, as if everything revolved around our presence; Anthropocene comes to mind.
‘The Pleistocene began 2.58 million years ago. Unusually among geologic periods, it is characterised by climate. The Earth cooled and, atop that trend, it repeatedly toggled between frost and thaw, as 40-50 cycles switched between glacial ice and interglacial warmth. Some 90 per cent of the past 900,000 years have been icy. Our current epoch, the Holocene, is one of the interglacial warm spells, and most calculations reckon that the Earth is due – maybe overdue – to swing back to ice.’
But Pyne argues that we’re really still in the Pleistocene: ‘Other than the fact that it’s our time, and we are sufficiently special in our own eyes to merit our own era, there is little cause to have split it off from the Pleistocene… By the metrics that established the Pleistocene, the Pleistocene persists. Only humanity’s vanity insists on a secessional epoch. The ice will return… Or not. Something seems to have broken the rhythms. That something is us…
‘Or more usefully, among all the assorted ecological wobbles and biotic swerves that humans affect, the sapients negotiated a pact with fire. We created conditions that favoured more fire, and together we have so reworked the planet that we now have remade biotas, begun melting most of the relic ice, turned the atmosphere into a crock pot and the oceans into acid vats, and are sparking a sixth great extinction… fire has become as much a cause and consequence as ice was before. We’re entering a Fire Age.’ And yet, in the old days, ‘there were limits to human-enabled burning. Burn too much, too quickly, and living landscape cannot recover, and the fires ebb. Once humans started burning fire’s lithic landscapes – fossil fuels – there seemed to be no such limits.’
Apart from nuclear energy -be it fission, or the long-promised fusion technology- the options currently available to power industry and society’s ever-increasing needs, seem in great need of innovative thinking. In a time of changing climatic conditions, reliable sources that are independent of the vagaries of weather events such as droughts or unexpected flooding, unpredictable or destructive winds, not to mention massive uncontrollable fires, are urgently required. Renewable technology is only as good as the foreseeable conditions upon which it depends.
Our addiction to fire has really left us with a Sophie’s choice: either accept the consequences of the damage it is doing to everything that allowed us to flourish in this geologically opportune -albeit temporary- interregnum between Ice-Ages, or… What? Abandon our overweening hubris and slip back into what forests still remain on the horizon’s edge -but this time aware that we are no more important, no more entitled than anything else that shares our world?
And yet, even then, would we make the same mistakes again…? Would our too-active brains mislead us once more? I don’t mean to end with an existential crisis, but I’m reminded of the observations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth -a creature of that old, untethered world: I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’other. . . .