Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

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. . . .

A Predilection for Extinction?

 

There appears to be a lot of concern about extinctions nowadays -everything from spotted owls to indigenous languages pepper the list. Things around us that we took for granted seem to be disappearing before we even get to know or appreciate them. One has to wonder whether this is accompanied by furtive, yet anxious, glances in the mirror each morning.

Extinction. I wonder what it would be like -or can we even imagine it? If we could, then presumably we’re not extinct, of course, but our view of history is necessarily a short one. Oral traditions aside, we can only confidently access information from the onset of written accounts; many extinctions require a longer time-frame to detect… although, perhaps even that is changing as we become more aware of the disappearance of less threatening -less obvious- species. Given our obsessive proclivity for expanding our knowledge, someone somewhere is bound to have studied issues that have simply not occurred to the rest of us.

And yet, it’s one thing to comment on the absence of Neanderthals amongst us and tut-tut about their extinction, but yet another to fail to fully appreciate the profound changes in climate that are gradually occurring. Could the same fate that befell Neanderthals be forecasting our own demise -a refashioning of the Cassandra myth for our self-declared Anthropocene?

It would not be the first time we failed to see our own noses, though, would it? For all our perceived sophistication, we often forget the ragged undergarments of hubris we hide beneath our freshly-laundered clothes.

Religion has long hinted at our ultimate extinction, of course -especially the Christian one with which those of us in the West are most familiar- with its talk of End-of-Days. But, if you think more closely about it, this is predicted to occur at the end of Time; extinction, on the other hand, occurs -as with, say, the dinosaurs- within Time. After all, we are able to talk about it, measure its extent, and determine how long ago it happened.

And yet, for most of us, I suspect, the idea of extinction of our own species is not inextricably linked to our own demise. Yes, each of us will cease to exist at some point, but our children will live on after us -and their children, too. And so on for a long, long time. It is enough to think that since we are here, our children will continue on when we are not. Our species is somehow different than our own progeny…

Darwin, and the subsequent recognition of the evolutionary pressures that favour the more successfully adapted no doubt planted some concerns, but an essay in Aeon by Thomas Moynihan (who completed his PhD at Oxford), set the issue of Extinction in a more historical context for me, however. https://aeon.co/essays/to-imagine-our-own-extinction-is-to-be-able-to-answer-for-it

Moynihan believes that only after the Enlightenment (generally attributed to the philosophical movement between the late 17th to the 19th century) did the idea of human extinction become an issue for consideration. ‘It was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who defined ‘Enlightenment’ itself as humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility. The history of the idea of human extinction is therefore also a history of enlightening. It concerns the modern loss of the ancient conviction that we live in a cosmos inherently imbued with value, and the connected realisation that our human values would not be natural realities independently of our continued championing and guardianship of them.’

But, one may well ask, why was there no serious consideration of human extinction before then? It would appear to be related to what the American historian of ideas, Arthur Lovejoy, has called the Principle of Plenitude that seemed to have been believed in the West since the time of Aristotle right up until the time of Leibniz (who died in 1716): things as they are, could be no other way. It would be meaningless to think of any species (even human) not continuing to exist, because they were meant to exist. Period. I am reminded -as I am meant to be- of Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide and the uncritical espousal of Leibniz’ belief that they were all living in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ -despite proof to the contrary.

I realize that in our current era, this idea seems difficult to accept, but Moynihan goes on to list several historical examples of the persistence of this type of thinking -including those that led ‘Thomas Jefferson to argue, in 1799, in the face of mounting anatomical evidence to the contrary, that specimens such as the newly unearthed Mammuthus or Megalonyx represented species still extant and populous throughout the unexplored regions of the Americas.’

Still, ‘A related issue obstructed thinking on human extinction. This was the conviction that the cosmos itself is imbued with value and justice. This assumption dates back to the roots of Western philosophy… Where ‘being’ is presumed inherently rational, reason cannot itself cease ‘to be’… So, human extinction could become meaningful (and thus a motivating target for enquiry and anticipation) only after value was fully ‘localised’ to the minds of value-mongering creatures.’ Us, in other words.

And, of course, the emerging findings in geology and archeology helped to increase our awareness of the transience of existence. So too, ‘the rise of demography [the statistical analysis of human populations] was a crucial factor in growing receptivity to our existential precariousness because demography cemented humanity’s awareness of itself as a biological species.’

Having set the stage, Moynihan’s argument is finally ready: ‘And so, given new awareness of the vicissitude of Earth history, of our precarious position within it as a biological species, and of our wider placement within a cosmic backdrop of roaming hazards, we were finally in a position to become receptive to the prospect of human extinction. Yet none of this could truly matter until ‘fact’ was fully separated from ‘value’. Only through full acceptance that the Universe is not itself inherently imbued with value could ‘human extinction’ gain the unique moral stakes that pick it out as a distinctive concept.’

And interestingly, it was Kant who, as he aged, became ‘increasingly preoccupied with the prospect of human extinction…  During an essay on futurology, or what he calls ‘predictive history’, Kant’s projections upon humanity’s perfectibility are interrupted by the plausibility of an ‘epoch of natural revolution which will push aside the human race… Kant himself characteristically defined enlightening as humanity’s undertaking of self-responsibility: and human rationality assumes culpability for itself only to the exact extent that it progressively spells out the stakes involved… This means that predicting increasingly severe threats is part and parcel of our progressive and historical assumption of accountability to ourselves.’

So, I don’t see this recognition of the possibility of human extinction as a necessarily bad thing. The more we consider the prospect of our disappearance, the more we become motivated to do something about it. Or, as Moynihan points out, ‘The story of the discovery of our species’ precariousness is also the story of humanity’s progressive undertaking of responsibility for itself. One is only responsible for oneself to the extent that one understands the risks one faces and is thereby motivated to mitigate against them.’ That’s what the  Enlightenment was all about: humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility.

Maybe there is still hope for us… well, inshallah.