Stephen Pyne: Humanity’s Complex Relationship With The Shapeshifter Element

LBW: So if you could speak to that a bit like
our long history with fire and fire’s relationship with the planet in general
yeah STEPHEN PYNE: Sure well fire has been around since
terrestrial life. Life in the oceans created oxygen gave us an oxygenated
atmosphere life on land gave us combustibles stuff to burn the one thing
life the chemistry of fire is essentially a
biochemistry it takes apart with photosynthesis puts together and when it
occurs in ourselves we call it respiration when it occurs same
reaction occurs out in the wide world we call it fire so it’s really fundamental
it’s a creation of the living world it’s been around we have fossil charcoal
from fires dating 420 million years ago so it’s been there for a long
time but it’s always had it organizes itself in various ways and the big
change is when a species arrived who could control ignition and that that really
begins with the hominins and before even before the sapiens came on the scene so
it’s really part of our heritage as a species but we got you know small guts
and big heads because we learned to cook food and then we went to the top of the
food chain because we learned to cook landscapes and now we’ve become a
geologic force because we begin to cook the planet so we were a pretty
fire is pretty fundamental for us as you point out it in our genome I mean there
are a lot of studies that point out we can’t live in the sense being able to
reproduce and survive on raw food alone we need the added boost that cooking
brings we now over process our food so that’s a problem but we had to be
able to process at some point so we didn’t have enormous guts
and giant mandibles and small skulls you know to hold the to hold
the muscles to work the mandibles so we could we could chew and process it
easier so all of that so that’s in our genome and then we began you know
extending the process across landscapes we always burned deliberately and
accidentally and that yeah that kind of goes to the operating system with a lot
of ecosystems and you can really change things if it’s already burning or if
it’s prone to burn but doesn’t have a regular ignition source well now it
does if it’s prone to burn you can preemptively burn you can redirect that
whole system and like a lot of Mediterranean climates don’t have a lot
of lightning certainly not dry lightning but they’re perfectly situated
climatically to burn because they go through wetting and drying so it’s wet
enough to grow stuff dry enough to allow it to burn and people can put ignition
into that system and then pretty much take control of it so paradoxically
given today’s circumstances we thrived where we could use fire because that was
our power that’s sort of our ecological signature we have a
species monopoly over it now we it’s what we do that no other species does
you know other creatures knock over trees and dig holes in the ground
we do fire but there were always and we you know we could do a lot just by
ignition controlling the timing and placing of ignition and we can we can
prevent places from foresting a lot of what steps the [?] felt in
Africa the eastern the tall grass prairie in North America all these places
needed regular burning and if you don’t burn over maybe as much as four or five
or six years woody vegetation takes over so they had to be burned every two or
three years and the only way to get that is with people but that’s also a way
of saying that there was a lot of carbon they could have been stored that wasn’t
not because we went in and cleared for us but we prevented them from
establishing that density and when fire was removed they’ve come back and now
it’s very difficult to get rid of them sometimes
so just what I think it was an Aboriginal economy of fire by control
over ignition can have huge influence but it’s working within the system and
then what I think of as the agricultural turn we began creating more fuels where
nature wouldn’t have we can do it outside of the season we can slash kill
dry out and then burn out of season we can drain areas expose them to fire
that they wouldn’t have except under really extreme drought and so we can
begin expanding the domain of fire and we can in a sense begin recoding the
pulses and patches by which it occurs in the landscape and we’ve done this you
know essentially every place that could burn we’ve taken fire to and we’ve taken
fire to places that don’t burn like Greenland and Antarctica and it’s fire that
even takes us off planet when you see the spacecraft lifting off they’re
doing it on an enormous plume of fire so we have really we’ve made a kind of
mutual assistance pact with fire very early on in the sense we would expand
the opportunities for fire the same time fire would allow us to occupy and make
habitable many many places but even so there are limits you know you can’t
slash and burn too often or too extensively without the system starting
to run down and then it can no longer function so there are all kinds of
ecological checks and balances you can’t you can’t burn when there’s snow on the
ground you know soaked in fog you know not
going to burn very well so there are all kinds of ecological limits and for much
of our existence our quest for fire was a quest for more stuff to burn and
then that changes and it changes when we begin burning going from burning living
landscapes to burning what I call lithic landscapes that is fossil fuels and
the first big one was of course coal and then oil and others follow beyond and
that gave us essentially unbounded firepower and we don’t see it as fire
often but we it is we’re just not burning it in the same
visible way that it was before and that has also allowed us to restructure the
places we lived in the landscapes we live in so generally we have used that
power to remove the old kinds of fires so we don’t have a lot of working
fires in our houses anymore we would have heated it we would have cooked we
would have illuminated even entertained there would have been fires it would
have been fire all the time I mean I can even remember in Phoenix where I grew up
you’d go out in the spring and burn off your Bermuda lawn took a few minutes and
then you know and then it is over with and it’s ready for the rains to come and
the lawn to come back well you can’t do that anymore so the alternative and this
shows in a certain sense the power but also the goofy paradox of going to a
fossil fuel alternative with sort of mindlessly so now instead of burning it
I rent a dethatcher which runs runs gas and then I have to
rake up all of the the dead grass and I have to put it in plastic bags
take it out to the street where a large truck burning more fossil fuels picks it
up drives it to a landfill dumps it where it decomposes to methane but
there’s no flame LBW: Yeah well when you put it like that yeah sure yeah STEPHEN PYNE: But that’s
in a sense what we’ve done and so we have used that new kind of fossil power
which in many ways is unbounded to replace over over immense landscapes
and this has been hugely destructive ecologically and this takes place quite
apart from climate change

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