[Note: This is the seventh sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
Fire: Big Juju
Civilization would have never been possible without the domestication of a superpower we call fire. Look around you, and eliminate everything you see or use that was directly or indirectly made possible by the combustion of coal, petroleum, wood, or natural gas. For example: metal, concrete, plastic, glowing screens, internal combustion engines. If you could magically eliminate everything enabled by fire-based processes, you’d immediately be sitting naked in a wilderness — except that your existence was also made possible by a fire-powered civilization. You and I are fire children.
The original tool for kindling fire is called a fire drill. Its spindle is a straight, pointed, dry wooden stick that is spun back and forth with the hands. The tip of the spindle is inserted into a cone-shaped socket in a fireboard of dry wood. Rapidly spinning the stick creates friction as it rubs into the fireboard’s socket, and eventually, if all goes well, a glowing ember comes into being. The fireboard is then tilted to drop the ember into a fluffy wad of dry tinder. The ember is gently blown on, forcing its heat into the tinder. Finally, a wee flame emerges in a puff of smoke. Success!
Tom Brown described a Native American legend about fire making. One day, the Great Spirit gave people the “wisdom of whirling wood.” The spindle was the male element, active and aggressive. The fireboard was the female element, receiving the whirling spindle, and nurturing a glowing ember. The ceremony was like two lovers passionately meeting, and giving birth to a powerful being. The bundle of tinder was the Earth, which nurtured the new life into fullness.
The invention of the fire drill enabled our tropical primate ancestors to migrate into chilly non-tropical ecosystems, and eventually spread to all continents, even the arctic. As hungry hominins, skilled at ambush hunting, moved into unknown lands, many species of megafauna gradually disappeared from the stage — millions and millions of animals. Without fire magic, I expect that hominins would be absent in much of the world today — the regions having annual or permanent snowy seasons. The Americas would maybe still be home to mastodons, wooly rhinos, sabertooth cats, and other beautiful wild giants.
The original hominin homeland, south of the equator in Africa, was a highly unlikely location for the emergence of civilizations. Jared Diamond wrote that, of the crop plants domesticated in Africa, all originated north of the equator. He added that no large herbivores suitable for domestication originally lived south of the equator in Africa — only the guinea fowl was enslaved in this region. This implies that if we had never wandered out of our ancestral homeland, the planet might have remained unspoiled.
Anyway, some too-clever African ancestor succeeded in inventing the fire drill. What if a hungry crocodile had dismembered this person ten minutes before the big discovery? Would we have been likely to migrate out of Africa, and spread around the Earth? Would the world of today be a civilization-free wilderness, home to fantastic numbers of animals? Would London still be a vast ancient forest, home to hippos, elephants, giant deer, aurochs, and lions? Would the Thames still thrash and splash with huge migrations of giant salmon? Would a wee population of hominins still be chasing critters across the savannah — wild, free, and happy?
Types of Fire
Stephen Pyne, one of the world’s foremost experts on fire history, described three categories of fire.
(1) Natural fire is not ignited by humans. Nature can start fires via lightning strikes, volcanoes, meteors, or falling rocks. It rarely ignites when the temperature is cold, the ecosystem is moist, or where little or no fuel is present. When conditions are ideal, these wild fires can quickly reduce large areas of forest or grassland to ashes. This is perfectly normal and natural. In regions where wildfires commonly occur, like America’s west coast, the vegetation consists of many species that are fire dependent or fire tolerant. Some plants actually require fire to germinate their seeds.
(2) Anthropogenic fire is started by humans, deliberately or unintentionally. It can be ignited in many different ways — fire drills, flint and steel, friction matches, electric sparks, machinery, power lines, chemical explosions, atomic bombs, and so on. Until recent centuries, it primarily burned biomass fuels like wood, grass, or dung.
Unlike modern societies that burn fossil biomass imported from distant lands, preindustrial communities had firm limits on the firewood available nearby. At its peak in A.D. 1050, the Native American civilization at Cahokia (near modern St. Louis) was home to 30,000 folks who cooked and heated with wood. This was twice the number of folks living in London at the time, and London was Europe’s biggest city north of the Alps.
Cahokia’s homes were wood framed and thatched, and the palisade that surrounded the settlement was made of logs. They had no carts, horses, or iron axes. By 1250, it was a ghost town. Did they run short of fuel, overhunt, deplete their topsoil, perish from warfare, experience a climate surprise, or all of the above?
Anthropogenic fire has been used extensively around the world to alter ecosystems, in order to make them more suitable for agriculture, herding, and wild game. More on this subject later.
(3) Industrial fire is a more recent variation of anthropogenic fire. Its primary fuel is associated with fossil biomass — coal, petroleum, and natural gas. It can burn anywhere — in airplanes, ships, diamond mines, and skyscrapers. It can burn on barren sand dunes, in soggy rainforests, or in the frozen arctic. Industrial fire is often designed to burn automatically, like in a furnace or water heater.
Fossil biomass consists of enormous deposits of sequestered carbon. Coal is rainforest vegetation that accumulated over the course of 60 million years. Oil and natural gas come from dead phytoplankton that accumulated over 250 million years. Combined, this is a one-time 310 million year stash of extremely high quality energy. Industrial civilization is furiously burning this fuel on a huge scale, at an increasing rate. Every day, the remaining fuel is further depleted, to support the survival of several billion humans who live like there’s no tomorrow. What could possibly go wrong?
Pyne says that the civilization of our grandparents was limited by the amount of fossil fuel reserves remaining — eventually, the fuel gage would drop to Empty, and the party would end. The current generation has a new and closer limit. Before the needle ever hits Empty, the planet will become an ecological catastrophe. The Big Burn is belching out far more harmful waste than our planet’s ecosystem can absorb.
The oceans are acidifying. Carbon is building up in the atmosphere, resulting in rising temperatures and intensified storm systems. Ice packs are melting, and sea levels are rising. More than a billion people survive on food grown on cropland irrigated with water from melting snowpack and glaciers, which are shrinking. Acid rain is hammering forests. Millions of people are sick and dying from the perpetual haze of industrial air pollution. And on and on. Fire is powerful juju. Wistfully modifying Smokey the Bear’s slogan, “Only you can prevent anthropogenic fire!”