Black Summer and the Pyrocene
One way to test the hypothesis of the Anthropocene is to define it
as an age in which human behaviour has left a mark in the
geological record. The amount of carbon released into the
atmosphere has radically increased during the industrial
revolution; that is, since the invention and widespread adoption
of the steam engine, powered by coal boiling water to drive a
turbine. The key activity is burning.
Humanity’s use of fire is much older than the industrial revolution, though. Indeed, prehuman hominins captured and controlled fire, though it remained for homo sapiens to gain the ability to ignite it. They used it as a campfire, to cook and give light and warmth, later to bend wood, and to melt metal. This was one of the great moments of all of history, and it left its mark in the fossil record. (It also left a mark in the cultural record, as the story of the fire-thief recurs, expressed among peoples and times in all their diversity. The Greek Prometheus has many cousins.) Pyne points out that the remains of domestic fires mark the diaspora of the first true humans. The transformation was mutual.
“By cooking food we got small guts and big heads.” (Pyne 2019)
These patches of charcoal indicate particular sites of habitation. Humans also used fire to transform and control the landscapes they arrived at and moved through. They learned how to contain fire by lighting it at the right place and time, so as to create a fire hot enough to clear the scrub, but not so hot as to escape control. Thus, for example, the Australian landscape changed with the seasons, and with the assistance of the inhabitants of the bush (Gammage 2011).
“By cooking landscapes we went to the top of the food chain.” (Pyne 2019)
But fire, like markets, is useful when contained and damaging when
it escapes. Benign, controlled burning in cool weather is one
thing. The cataclysmic bushfires that ravaged south-eastern
Australia in the summer of 2019-2020 were something else.
Beginning before the official fire season in September and fuelled by a landscape strewn with drought-stricken fuel, the firestorms left a residue in the culture. They were designated unofficially as the Black Summer. Their traces will no doubt be findable in the strata of the eons, as long as anyone is left to look for it.
“By cooking the planet we have become a geologic force.” (Pyne 2019)
Opinions on human influences on the fires are diverse, and
contested. They range from cessation of the old patterns of
‘cultural burns’, in the cool weather (Weir 2020), to our
contributions to climate change. The fires were attributed to the
work of arsonists, which some undoubtedly were, though the degree
is disputed (Spencer 2020).
Thus we see how the Anthropocene might be called the ‘pyrocene’ (Pyne 2021),
since much of modern industrialism’s legacy in the stone will exist as a result of burning.
Gammage, B. (2011). The Biggest Estate on Earth : How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney, AUSTRALIA, Allen & Unwin.
Pyne, S. J. (2019). Fire : a brief history. Seattle, University of Washington Press.
Pyne, S. J. (2021). The Pyrocene : How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next. Berkeley, UNITED STATES, University of California Press.
Spencer, S. H. (2020) Setting the Record Straight on Climate Change and Arson in Australia’s Bushfires. Factcheck.org
Weir, J. (2020). “Bushfire lessons from cultural burns.” Australian journal of emergency management 35(3): 11-12.
Whether cultural burns are the answer or not, depends on the question. During the Australian summer of 2019-20, Aboriginal peoples’ landscape fires-often called cultural, traditional or Aboriginal burns-were central in discussions about bushfire responses. Aboriginal peoples have traditionally lit ‘cool’ fires to reduce the occurrence of hot fires and for other reasons. But what question is really being asked about cultural burning?