An important book about fire thinking, fire beings and the Anthropocene

Alliances in the Anthropocene: Fire, Plants and People by Christine Eriksen and Susan Ballard is a challenging perspective on human interrelationships with plants and fire. They assert that accepting human entwinement with nature is a precondition for successful adaptation to the Anthropocene.

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At the height of the 2019-20 Australian bushfire crisis, I recall trying to think of a way to publicly convey the daunting magnitude of the adaptation pathway that lies ahead of Australia.  Accordingly, I wrote a short opinion piece that explained that because of climate change the traditional summer holidays were soon to become unworkable, and would need to be rescheduled into the cooler autumnal months1.  The piece went viral.  The idea had a beguiling, disturbing familiarity yet foreignness, a touch of madness and a touch of truth. And it matched the other weird stuff that was happening in everyday people’s lived experiences.  Extraordinary smoke pollution was relentlessly fumigating Sydney and Canberra2. The fires spanned the east coast of Australia from Victoria to southern Queensland, starting in winter and burning to mid-summer.  Some bushfires expressed truly extreme fire behaviour, including a wedge of ‘black swan’ events, with over 30 pyrocumulonimbus fire storms doubling the known Australian record3.  Water supplies were threatened, beach holidays ended in Dunkirk-like coastal evacuations.  The ‘real world’ of modern Australia was in crisis.

 Of course, my idea about changing holidays concerned a distant future, where humans would come to grips with their relationship with nature in general, and bushfires in particular. What no one knew when I published that piece was that in only a few months their world was about to be turned upside down by a tiny biological particle - SARS-CoV-2.  Changing holidays is now the least of the immediate, and ongoing, disruptions.

 Bushfire disasters and pandemic diseases have many common features.  Both are contagious and can have exponential growth. They are natural and involve deep time evolutionary processes but are also socially constructed. In the case of bushfires, they are an inevitable consequence of the interplay of carbon-based terrestrial life and an oxygen-rich atmosphere with the first fires occurring soon after life colonised dry land. Viruses reach back into the base of the tree of life, and arguably are the precursor to all other biological replication4.

 Humans have, and will, adapted to both viruses and fire both biologically and culturally.  Cooking transformed hominin physiologies and arguably enabled our species to develop our intellectual capacities and culture5. Many indigenous cultures have successfully co-existed with flammable environments6.  Likewise, humans and viruses co-evolve via increased immunity and decreased virulence, and the risk of diseases changes behaviours and hence cultures7.  The current threat of both COVID-19 and the global bushfire crisis are fundamentally caused by human maladaptation. Nature is obdurate, we will change; so the question is how we will change.

Book cover

Alliances in the Anthropocene: Fire, Plants and People by Christine Eriksen and Susan Ballard challenges the way we think about human relationships with plants, fire and ongoing environmental changes. 

The book Alliances in the Anthropocene: Fire, Plants and People by Christine Eriksen and Susan Ballard is an important and accessible conduit into thinking about human (mal)adaptation to bushfire.  Both the premise, and the take-home message, is that appreciating human entwinement with nature is a precondition for adaptation.  Yet this simple point is deeply destabilising to our entrenched cultural practices and norms, including academic research.  Thinking about the adaptive tasks ahead raises difficult questions, including how to answer difficult questions.  The strategy of Christine Eriksen and Susan Ballard is to embrace personal testimony and artistic expression rather than gripping onto the handrails of data and analysis.  Nonetheless, and importantly, they do not repudiate these empirical approaches; rather they use science to help illustrate the depth of the coevolution, entwinement, interrelationships, and feedback amongst fire, plants, and people. 

 The net effect of their book is the conscious raising of various ‘alliances’ amongst strong, contrasting entities and actors, spanning the natural, aesthetic, spiritual, and possibly the supernatural.  Shining a spotlight on these relationships provides scope, and academic licence, to breakdown old orthodoxies and think anew. This includes centring the self (and others) in research practice; hyper-awareness of other non-human selves; openness to sensations and feelings; reciprocal love of place (or to use Aboriginal English ‘Country’); and acceptance of the inability of logic and data to meaningfully capture the totality of lived experience.  Illuminating and valuing environmental and metaphysical alliances that have been traditionally belittled or ignored by scientists can be intellectually and personally liberating.  So, Christine Eriksen and Susan Ballard’s book identifies real opportunities for managing the challenges of the Anthropocene.  But this path carries serious risks too.

 If contemporary western educated humans, such as the readers of Christine Eriksen and Susan Ballard’s book, accept a more modest place in Nature, it will necessarily lead to a very different world - philosophically, culturally, and materially. Even if this new world is environmentally sustainable, it is uncertain if that world will also be safe, just, and tolerant of diversity. Would sceptical thinking, application of reason, and global perspectives be respected and widely applied? Could humans lose the capacity, and indeed the desire, to manage the Earth system, retreating to the local-scale and reactive adaptation? Ultimately, could the entire scientific, and indeed enlightenment, project, be unfit for purpose in the Anthropocene? 

 Christine Eriksen and Susan Ballard’s book does not answer these questions; rather it sets up the problem of how thinking-beings should think and act when there is evidence that the world that they know is ending.  This is important because the global environmental crisis is playing out in real time. Everyday there are implicit and explicit political debates about the value and role of science, the reality of facts, and the worth of expertise. These debates deeply affect managing and adapting to bushfires, viruses, and all other malignancies of the Anthropocene.

 References

 1.   Bowman, D. As bushfire and holiday seasons converge, it may be time to say goodbye to the typical Australian summer holiday. The Conversation (2020).

2.   Borchers Arriagada, N. et al. Unprecedented smoke-related health burden associated with the 2019–20 bushfires in eastern Australia. Medical Journal of Australia, doi:10.5694/mja2.50545 (2020).

3.   Sharples, J. J. et al. Natural hazards in Australia: extreme bushfire. Climatic Change 139, 85-99, doi:10.1007/s10584-016-1811-1 (2016).

4.   Wessner, D. R. The origins of viruses. Nature Education 3, 37 (2010).

5.   Wrangham, R. W. & Carmody, R. N. Human adaptation to the control of fire. Evolutionary Anthropology (2010).

6.  Huffman, M. R. The many elements of traditional fire knowledge: synthesis, classification, and aids to cross-cultural problem solving in fire-dependent systems around the world. Ecology and Society 18(2013).

7.   Kramer, P. & Bressan, P. Humans as superorganisms: How microbes, viruses, imprinted genes, and other selfish entities shape our behavior. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10, 464-481 (2015).

David Bowman

Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

fire ecology, fire management and pyrogeography