On modernity and the concealment of fire

I’ve always been interested in the elements. Not the periodical table per se, but our ancestral understanding of the elements: earth, wind, water, and fire. Scientists tell us that earth is made up of a complex mixture of elements each with their own mass, which translates into rocks, dirt, and mountains. Fire, we are told, is nothing but a chemical process where elements re-configure and release energy in the form of heat. Looking culturally however over the past 100 years we’ve drastically changed our relationship and thus our shared sense of meaning around ‘fire’. This renegotiation of fire may explain some of the debates around climate change and the future of energy.

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Fire to our ancestors seemed to have an intrinsic power to devour physical material, but also provide life-giving heat. Its no wonder that complex cultural practices then (just as  now – think bbq), revolved around fire. For example, the Aztecs performed their New Fire ceremony once every 52 years in order to stave off the end of the world. In fact, the ‘New’ Fire ceremonies were performed before the rise of the Aztec empire suggesting that the Aztecs had inherited the ceremony from much earlier civilizations of central Mexico. In these ceremonies, fire was something to both befriend and fear. A delicate balance; a duality.

Controlling fire, on one hand, is essentially what it means to be human. British primatologist Richard Wrangham in his book ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human‘ argues that cooking food was an essential element in the physiological evolution of human beings. Controlling fire and using it to cook allowed humans to evolve differently than other primates. However, examples of fire’s destructive capabilities extend throughout human history. Most famously is the case of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. In its time, it was one of the largest and most significant libraries of antiquity. It was a major center for scholarship since its creation in the 3rd century with collections of works, lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens, where many of the most famous thinkers of the ancient world studied. The library famously burned, resulting in the loss of many scrolls and books, and has become a symbol of the destruction of cultural knowledge. Incalculable amounts of knowledge kept on papyrus scrolls and books lost in an instant. What is more, nearly every major world city has been at one point ravaged by fire. The frequency of its power to both benefit and destroy kept constant in the minds of humans through the ages.

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Today, the reality and duality of fire is being renegotiated. Nowhere is this more clear than the climate debates. Technological developments and efficiency gains over the past 100 years have allowed humans to burn fossil fuels at a rate unimaginable only a few generations ago. The amount of energy created unleashes many and more of us from natural, spatial limits; we no longer depend on burning biomass created recently, but eons of biomass since the Earth was made. New industries and professions are made possible, and economic growth, if shared quasi-equally, has led to prosperous societies. Yet, unintentionally burning fossil fuels is very likely to be leading to a changing climate by disrupting the carbon cycle. Greenhouse gases trap heat, warming the planet. Rather than Alexandria alone burning, the planet is warming and the consequences may be globally devastating.

Taking a step back, what differs between our prehistoric relationship with fire and today is that we may have blindly overemphasized the positives of fire while forgetting or ignoring the devastating power it wields. But how did this happen?

I believe that twentieth century modernity was essentially about the control and the concealment of fire. Firstly, by believing we had fully controlled the power of fire and mitigated or reduced its destructive consequences, we believed that we have finally freed ourselves from worldly boundaries. Rockets to the moon! Secondly, modernity is about the systematic concealment of fire away from public perception and comprehension. In his book Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, Hughes explains how prior to the 1920s, Edison direct-current systems were characterized by small generators that were housed in dispersed locations. From about 1890 until World War I, the major electric power utilities concentrated on supplying the most heavily populated and industrialized urban centers by creating the vision of a ‘universal system’ of supply. The universal system aimed at interconnecting characteristics of many independent and heterogeneous power stations. In short, the story of our modern fossil fuel energy system is how we moved from a decentralized, regionally based energy supply towards a modern, centralized system where fossil fuels are extracted faraway, traded, and combusted in gigantic power plants on the outskirts of everything. Too distance, too large of an operation  for any one individual to sensually grasp. With fewer and less devastating outbreaks of devastating fire, little reminds us of society’s reliance on it. In the matter of a generation, the benefits of electric light were realized, fire was concealed, and the destructive power of fire forgotten.

What is more curious is that many people today do have close interactions with fire on a daily basis, though like electricity production, they go unnoticed. The daily commute, trip to the market, or long summer road trip by automobile all rely on fire. Yet, fire here too is concealed and internalized with the advent of the internal combustion engine. Thus, our primeval experience with fire has been limited to a flick of the switch or a turn of key – departed from our consciousness. Only the family’s outdoor grill sparks a remembrance of fire, though clearly in a protected area.

In fact, the culturally produced forgetfulness of fire may explain why some peoples have such a palpable aversion to renewable and nuclear energy. Unlike fire, something we have experience with controlling and concealing, renewable energy is free and flexible and highly visible on landscapes. So called Nimbies (Not in my backyard) is a characterization of people in opposition to a proposals for a new development because it is close and visible to them, often with the connotation that such residents believe that the developments are needed in society but should be further away. The newness they experience and rally against is the uncontrollability and visibility of renewable energy, which is the opposite of our control and concealment of fire. Nuclear energy differs as it creates energy without the use of fire rather tearing apart atoms and using the residual heat to create steam and turn turbines. Psychologically, nuclear energy parallels with concepts of control and concealment of fire but differs largely in the perception of risk, control and consequences of nuclear failure.

Looking forward, humans will be always faced with the duality of fire. We would be wise to rebalanced our understanding and reverence of it.

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