Our Human Irony: Fire People on a Fire Planet

Photo by Adam Wilson

Upon our mastery of fire has humanity risen to global dominance. It is the most powerful tool employed by our toolmaking species, and the energy with which we make our tools and run them, from chainsaws to computers.  The fires we have unlocked are also the greatest threat to our existence, from the fossil fuel combustion that is changing the climate to nuclear weapons that hold the potential for world-ending immolation

“We are uniquely fire creatures on a fire planet,” the great historian of fire, Stephen J. Pyne, begins his global history of flame, World Fire.  In the solar system, he explains, only Earth has the oxygen atmosphere and carbon fuels that can support fire. “More disturbing, the planet possesses a creature not merely adapted to fire’s presence, or even prone to exploit and encourage fire, but one capable of starting and stopping it.”  It is our “species monopoly.”  “Nothing else so empowered hominids, and no other human technology has influenced the planet for so long and so pervasively.”[1]  When “promethean” is defined as “daringly original and creative,”[2] let us recall that Prometheus’ original act of daring was to steal fire from the gods, founding, as Aeschylus said, “all the arts of men.”[3]

Likewise, fire is a crucial maker of our mythologies, and the fire that gets away the source of our apocalyptic fears.  “ . . .among human societies the belief in a world-creating and world-ending fire is nearly universal,” writes Pyne. “From the Nordic Ragnarok to the Aztec New Fire, from the Great Fire of the Stoics to the Christian Apocalypse, from the chained Prometheus to the Aboriginal Dreamtime, the pine-pitch torch to the nuclear firestorm – the fate of humans and the fate of fire have joined.”[4]

Our evolutionary track

Archeological evidence firmly places human mastery of fire at least 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.  Less certain evidence puts it back as far as 1.5 million years.[5]  From the earliest evolution of our ancestors on the open grasslands of Africa around three million years ago, they lived in an environment often swept by natural fires, and, as with other opportunistic species, took advantage of its gifts such as pre-cooked meat.

Something happened in hominid evolution around 2.5 million years ago, and it appears closely correlated with abrupt climate disruptions.  That was the time when the Earth tipped into its ice age phase.  Some theorize this was due to the changes in ocean currents when continental drift locked North America and South America together.  The Earth shifted from warm-wet to cool-dry conditions, causing a retreat of deep forests in Africa, and the spread of savanna grasslands and open woodlands.  Our australopithecines ancestors, already distinguished as upright standing animals, were advantaged over their ape relations, still mobile on all four extremities.  Our predecessors could move more quickly across the open lands, less exposed to the sun, and more capable of surveying the landscape.

Hominids quickly leveraged these advantages.  Evidence of tools dates from around that time, as does the beginning of an increase in brain size. By around 1.88 million years ago, Homo Erectus had evolved, and quickly spread from Africa to Eurasia.[6]Neurophysiologist William Calvin tracks these advances to continuing climatic instability.

“One of the most shocking scientific realizations of all time as slowly been dawning on us,” Calvin writes, “the earth’s climate does great flip-flops every few thousand years, and with breathtaking speed.  Many times in the lives of our ancestors, the climate abruptly cooled, just within several years.”  Consequences were droughts, high winds, severe dust storms, animal population crashes, forest diebacks and lighting strikes that caused huge conflagrations. “Sometimes this was only the first step of descent into a madhouse century of flickering climate.

“Our ancestors lived through hundreds of such episodes – but each became a population bottleneck, one that eliminated most of their relatives.  We are the improbable descendants of those who survived – and later thrived.” Harsh conditions would have selected for individuals and groups with the greatest capacities for hunting, innovation and cooperation.  “Even if each individual window of opportunity only changed the inborn abilities for hunting or cooperation by a mere one percent, 200 repetitions of this same selection scenario would (just like compound interest) be potentially capable of explaining seven-fold differences between our inborn abilities and those of our closest relatives among the great apes.”[7]

Our ultimate irony

Thus, humanity is confronted by its ultimate irony.  We are children of climate disruption.  It opened spaces for the evolutionary take-off of hominids at the beginning of the ice ages. Repeated abrupt shifts generated the big brains that gave us the capacity to innovate new social orders and technologies, supreme among them fire.  Those enabled our species, homo sapiens, to advance north across the planet in the face of the last ice age, and take over the planet.

Our capacities to innovate and cooperate gave us agriculture, its surpluses the foundation of civilization.  That civilization replicated the original savanna by cutting down forests, plowing up soils, and spreading farm fields wherever we could, releasing huge amounts of climate-changing carbon.  Ultimately we learned to unlock the fires of fossil fuels, tipping the balance of atmospheric carbon back to conditions that existed millions of years ago. A creature of fire born of repeated, abrupt climate shifts is now by its own fires profoundly disrupting the climate, and the entire sphere of life on Earth.

Our evolutionary leaps in the past, the one which brought us our current mastery, grew out of mass population diebacks. But our fires have now grown so powerful they threaten our extinction.  Our evolutionary challenge now is to find our natural cooperative tendencies and emphasize them over our competitive instincts, to master our fires by common agreements around our inhabitation of the planet. To eliminate the fires of nuclear weapons. To tamp down the fossil fuel fires and move as much as possible toward energy sources not reliant on combustion. Overall, to turn our fires and their powers toward the common good.

We are fire people on a fire planet, and our fires now burn with unprecedented heat. Our survival depends on taking in this fact, and acting accordingly, to become people of cooperation.

Originally published on Patrick Mazza’s Substack page, The Raven.