Listen to our various podcasts.
In Arcx, our six episode mini-series, Anjali Alappat talks to six South Asian sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction writers about literary inspiration.
In this spin off of our podcast series, The Subverse, we uncover hidden and marginalized stories through a more personal storytelling lens
Season 1 of The Subverse contains eight conversations that range from the intricacies of origami and protein folding, to flow and play, to understanding bioacoustics, renewable energy, protecting our commons and the dark side of aesthetics in neoliberal cities.
In Season 2 of The Subverse, ‘water’ is our main theme. Join us as we explore the multifaceted dimensions of this life giving molecule.
In the third season of The Subverse, host Susan Mathews explores another elemental theme — fire. Join us for a series of thoughtful conversations, with experts in varied fields, centred around fire and the way it has influenced the world around us.
Tracing the Pyrocene: an ecological three-body problem
In Season 3 of The Subverse, we are journeying into ‘fire’. In this opening episode, we speak with Prof. Stephen J. Pyne, a fire historian, urban farmer, and emeritus professor at Arizona State University, U.S.A. Pyne has written over 40 books, most of which are centred around fire. In this conversation, we focus on his book The Pyrocene: How we Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next, published in 2021.
The discussion began with how fire is, for humans, our defining ecological trait. We are unique fire creatures on a unique fire planet, and as keepers of the flame, we need to somehow get the right mix of fire in the world to balance our interests and those of others. In his book, Pyne proposes a fire-centric perspective on how humans continue to shape the Earth. The book renames and redefines the so-called Anthropocene according to humanity’s primary ecological signature, which is our ability to manipulate fire. As he states in the book, “the sum of our fire practices is creating a fire age that is equivalent in stature to the ice ages of the Pleistocene.” In the narrative he lays out, the pyric prism he uses is what he terms as an ecological three-body problem.
The history that Pyne narrates chronicles three fires. First-fire is the fire of nature that appeared as soon as plants colonised continents, about 420 million years ago. Thanks to cooking, a dependence on fire became coded into hominin DNA. Second-fire was an act of domestication, perhaps the model for all pyrotechnologies, in which people had transformed wildfire into hearth and torch. Third-fire is qualitatively different. Pyne points out that third-fire burns lithic landscapes no longer bounded by ecological limits. With a source of combustibles, which are essentially unbounded, inadequate sinks for the effluent, from cooking food and landscapes, we are now cooking planets. The sum of Earth’s three fires is creating the fire-informed equivalent of an ice age, and instead of ice amassing more ice, fire is generating more fire.
This pyric transition also means that fire vanished as a serious object of inquiry. Fire with its flame, glow, heat, and crackle has been reduced to the most elemental chemical and physical expressions, each isolated and engineered, so that what had been ‘fire’ became ‘combustion,’ and combustion has become only its constituent parts. What we erased were traditional and indigenous knowledges of living with fire. Pyne writes, “Earth’s fire story was not just about the visible, the sudden, and the novel: the invisible, the incremental, and the traditional were equally part of the emerging order.” “The absence of fires where it should be was as critical, if less conspicuous, as its exaggerated presence.” So, dealing with a deficit of good fire rather than a surplus of bad fire, and foregrounding fire as a serious object of inquiry are crucial.
We wrapped up the episode speaking about aesthetics and fire. Pyne noted that how we understand the regeneration of nature will depend on how we regenerate our aesthetics. If we see the future world only through past perspectives, we must see it as a loss. We need an appreciation and creation of art suitable for our remade world and a robust aesthetics for our age.
More about the guest
Apart from being such a prolific scholar of fire, Stephen J. Pyne spent 15 seasons with the North Rim Longshots, a fire crew at Grand Canyon National Park, 12 as crew boss, with another three seasons writing fire plans for other national parks. He lives in Queen Creek, Arizona. His next book is a fire history of Mexico.