Sep 23, 2020

World on Fire

By Charles Eisenstein /
World on Fire

Brazil’s Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, covering an area nearly the size of Britain. Only today, it isn’t so wet. After a summer of drought, catastrophic fires are raging that have devastated 2.4 million hectares of land already this year. (That’s more than has burned in California, Oregon, and Washington combined.) Its precious wildlife, including the world’s largest population of jaguars, are suffering irreparable damage.

What’s causing the destruction? The proximate causes seem quite different from what is causing the fires in California, but if we trace them back through enough layers, we get to the same deep cause and, therefore, to the same deep solution.

Since 2019, catastrophic fires have afflicted the Amazon, the Congo basin, Australia, Siberia, Argentina, and countless other places. While some on the political Right were in denial that anything unusual was happening, today the entire political spectrum is in agreement that something is horribly amiss. In the US, the Right offers candidate explanations like poor forest management, while Democratic politicians emphasize climate change. What they both agree on is that the current state of affairs in abnormal, unacceptable, and requires action. This, at least, is progress.

In fact, both sides are approaching the same truth from different directions. Let me start at forest management, pass through climate change via a back door, visit the blatantly criminal behavior behind fires in the Amazon and Pantanal, and arrive finally at the core of the issue.

Forest Management

Right-wing articles on the US fires commonly invoke the phrase, “Forests have to be properly maintained to prevent catastrophic fires.” Often their conclusion is that burdensome government regulation has prevented the timber industry from culling dead trees and managing forests wisely. The problem, of course, is that subject to market forces, timber companies have historically and up to the present managed forests according to profit, not wisdom. A further problem is that, superficially at least, it can’t be right that forests require human management,. Prior to twelve or fifteen thousand years ago, there were no humans at all in California, but nature took care of itself just fine.

The story is not so simple though – forests then as now required management. In pre-human times the management was accomplished by other species such as, in North America, beavers, salmon, and especially megafauna. The continent teemed with gigantic herbivores like mammoths and mastodons, who devoured sprouting trees, stripped bark, trampled vegetation, and pushed down trees like bulldozers. These “ecosystem engineers” created mosaic landscapes of forest and savanna, and made the forests less dense. After their disappearance soon following the arrival of humans, the humans replaced them as ecosystem engineers, using controlled burns and many other methods to maintain productive, resilient, biodiverse landscapes that were resistant to catastrophic fires. As Kat Anderson describes it in Tending the Wild:

Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.

A similar scenario took place in Australia tens of thousands of years earlier: human colonization followed by megafauna disappearance, followed by the exquisitely developed controlled burns and other ecosystem management techniques. On both continents, even when megafauna disappeared, other ecosystem engineers flourished: migratory birds, apex predators, beavers, insects, and so on.

In the last few centuries, forests and other ecosystems have come to be managed not for health, but for profit. Today we see signs of a turnaround as policymakers begin to recognize the necessity to reduce the fuel load in forests; sometimes they even consult traditional peoples who remember the old ways. Too often, though, profit motives pervert forest thinning practices, steering them toward producing salable lumber rather than forest health.

Furthermore, fuel load is much too narrow a focus in understanding today’s catastrophic fires. A century or more of deforestation and other land abuse has lowered the resistance of forests to fires and created drought conditions that exacerbate them. It’s commonplace to declare that climate change is harming forests, but it may be more accurate to say that harm to forests causes climate change, which then harms forests even more.

Forest clearcutting affects climate far beyond the oxidation of stored carbon. Without leaves, leaf litter, and roots to protect it, exposed topsoil washes away and the rainwater has no chance to sink into the earth. The resulting floods are inevitably followed by droughts. Why? A healthy forest transpires groundwater, maintaining moist conditions and extending the rainy season. Globally, at least 40% of rainfall originates from plant transpiration; in the Amazon it is 70%.

Forests also contribute to local, regional, and global cooling as the transpired water evaporates and rises into the atmosphere. Its latent heat is released when it condenses higher up, some of which radiates out into space. Furthermore, healthy forests emit ice nucleating compounds and particles, increasing cloud cover, creating rain, and reflecting sunlight back into space. Old growth forests perform these functions especially well (only 1% of California’s old growth forests remain). Here is a passage, slightly modified, from my book on climate:

Kenya, which has lost most of its forest cover over the last half-century, is also suffering persistent droughts and higher temperatures. Regions in Kenya where the daytime temperature in the forest might be 19 degrees record temperatures in nearby, recently cleared agricultural land of 50 degrees.… In Sumatra, land cleared for palm oil plantations was 10 degrees hotter than nearby rainforest, and stayed hotter even when the palm trees matured.

A real, living forest interacts with the water cycle in complex ways that science is just beginning to understand. (Much of the following is sourced from the fantastic book Global Deforestation, by Runyan & D’Odorico.) One way is by converting humidity to rain. Water vapor in the atmosphere doesn’t necessarily fall as rain, but may instead persist as haze in what is known as a “humid drought.” One reason for the formation of haze is an overabundance of small condensation nuclei, which prevents water droplets from becoming large enough to fall as rain. Pollutants, smoke from forest fires, and dust from desiccated soil are among the culprits in haze formation. Over forests, the condensation nuclei are mainly biogenic, including plant detritus, bacteria, fungal spores, and secondary organic aerosols originating as volatile organic compounds emitted by vegetation. These aid the formation of precipitation-bearing clouds rather than haze, and allow cloud formation at higher temperatures than abiotic nuclei do. Recent research confirms the increased cloud cover over and near forests. These lower, thicker clouds have a greater cooling effect than high-altitude clouds. According to one researcher, a 1 percent increase in albedo from forest-generated clouds would offset all warming from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Healthy forests not only recycle rainfall, they also draw it in from the ocean through the biotic pump mechanism. Evapotranspired water vapor condenses to create low pressure zones, which draw new moisture-laden air in from the oceans and affect global wind patterns and, therefore, patterns of rainfall. When forests are damaged or destroyed, earth’s physiology is compromised.

In the western United States, the damming of rivers and the near-extermination of beavers has also done incalculable damage to forests and the climate. Dams prevent seasonal floods, alter silt distribution, lead to downstream erosion, and thwart migratory fish that transport marine nutrients to the forest and play a key role in food webs. Beavers create wetlands, augment biodiversity, and slow down water to mitigate floods and sustain water tables. In fact, extinguishing any species will weaken the whole forest (or any ecosystem), just as your health would suffer if you destroyed one type of tissue or cell. After centuries of habitat destruction around the world, it is amazing that Earth is still clinging to health.

Criminality and Ignorance

My Brazilian friend Alan Dubner described to me the “cascade of criminality” that is destroying the Amazon. First come the loggers, using sophisticated methods to evade government enforcement of logging bans. What’s left easily dries out and can be burned by cattle ranchers, who graze their cattle on what is trying to grow back. Then come the soybean plantations, exhausting whatever fertility remains in the soil. What’s left is basically a desert, useless to anyone but the mining companies who finish the ruination.

The more of the Amazon that is destroyed, the less rain it can pull in from the Atlantic ocean, and the more vulnerable it becomes to fires. The declining rainfall affects the rest of Brazil, from the Pantanal on south. In fact, the power of the Amazonian biotic pump is such that its destabilization alters weather patterns around the world.

The Pantanal is affected not only by changing weather patterns, but also by big hydroelectric dams and progressive encroachment by cattle ranchers. The great wetlands of the Pantanal become highly flammable when they dry out, giving unscrupulous landowners and speculators the opportunity to set fires. The renowned Brazilian environmentalist Marina Silva wrote me the following comment: “Orchestrated tragedy. This is what is happening in the Pantanal here in Brazil. Dismantling of environmental policies, cutting of resources to fight deforestation and fires, all of this in an action by criminals, the result could not be different.”

“What needs to be clear is that the fires in the Pantanal and in the Amazon are not accidental. They are part of a project and a worldview that despises the environment, which the government agrees with and encourages. It does not matter if it is the territory with the greatest diversity of mammals in the world, the largest humid area on the planet and with the greatest presence of jaguars.”

Let’s take a step back for a moment. The criminality Marina Silva speaks of is especially damaging because of conditions brought on by other criminality in other areas, for example the Amazon. Yet, we can’t entirely blame criminality for the world’s fires. After all, most deforestation and forest degradation is perfectly legal. The problem lies in the mentality and the economic forces underlying the destruction of forests, whether criminal, legal, or even unconscious.

Illegal logging and burning is on the same spectrum as the “poor forest management” conservatives blame for the fires in the US. To varying degrees, both suppress rather than participate in natural processes. They partake of the pattern of domination: physical domination built upon the conceptual demotion of living forests into mere things. The conservatives are, in a sense, correct, except that the “poor management” goes way beyond fire suppression to encompass modern society’s entire relationship with the forest. Furthermore, this poor relationship generates many of the conditions for which progressive politicians blame climate change. In a sense they are right too, except that climate change encompasses much more than greenhouse gas-induced global warming, and it is just as much a consequence as it is a cause of forest degradation.

Reverence and Relationship

While engineers, ecologists, and especially indigenous people can offer techniques to properly steward forests and restore them to resiliency, the transition to a healed world requires something much deeper than better techniques. More important is to learn to inhabit the source from which indigenous land stewardship practices arise. That source is a way of seeing, conceiving, and relating to nature. It is also a way of understanding ourselves: who we are and why we are here.

Fundamentally, the source of wise forest management is to see and know nature as a being, not a thing. That’s the best I can put it, but it isn’t good enough. The words themselves entrap me in error. Nature is not something separate from ourselves, and not even “things” are just things. Let me say then that traditional and indigenous cultures live in a world where being is everywhere and in everything, and humans are no more or less sacred than trees, mountains, water, or ants.

On the most obvious level, the view of nature-as-thing greatly facilitates the clearcutting, mining, stripping, and profiteering, just as dehumanization of other people allows their exploitation and enslavement. It’s the same basic mindset. But there is another problem too: the mindset of nature-as-thing prevents us from coming into the intimacy of relationship that is necessary to tend, heal, and cocreate with it to mutual benefit. It is like the difference between a doctor who treats you impersonally, as a “case,” and one who sees you as a full human being.

Last month, the state of California committed to a 20-year program of forest thinning which seeks to reduce fires through brush clearing, logging, and prescribed burns. This program is fraught with possible unintended consequences. When we understand a forest as an organism, a being, rather than an engineering object, we recognize engineering concepts like reducing fuel load as, at best, a first step. After all, a healthy forest requires rotting vegetable matter to nourish fungi, invertebrates, etc. that are crucial elements of forest ecology. How do we know how much brush to clear and how many logs to remove? We can only learn that through attentive observation and long relationship. Here, the experience of local first peoples can be invaluable, as they have built up that knowledge over countless generations. To learn from the inevitable mistakes that will occur in the forest thinning program will require humility, the kind that comes when one knows one is relating to a complex living being. Otherwise, we stumble from one error to the next, as when, in an effort to increase carbon sequestration, we plant ecologically and culturally unsuitable trees that end up dying a few decades later, leaving conditions even worse than before.

Another word for the attitude that I named as the source from which indigenous land stewardship practices arise is “reverence.” To revere something is the opposite of reducing it to a thing. Modern, educated people have long lived in an ideological matrix that says nature, at bottom, is merely a whirl of generic particles bumping around according to mathematical forces. What is there to revere? It says that purpose, intelligence, and consciousness subsist in human beings alone. The burning of the world calls us to awaken from this delusion.

From the attitude of reverence, we see things invisible to the engineer’s eye. We ask questions the utilitarian never asks. Paradoxically, in the end, the knowledge thus gained we be more useful – not just to the forest, but to ourselves – than anything we could accomplish from the exploitative mindset.

In truth, we are not separate from nature. What we do to the other, we ultimately do to ourselves. When the forests are sick, we are sick. When they burn, even if we escape the flames, something burns within us too. The social climate mirrors the geological climate. We may not recognize this truth as indigenous people do, but we are the land. Is it not obvious, looking at today’s political landscape, that a fire rages out of control?

I can’t easily draw a causal connection here, but it seems significant that uncontainable wildfires are contemporaneous with inflammatory rhetoric, heated debates, flaring tempers, burning hatred, seething distrust, and smoldering resentment. Just as dried out, fuel-laden forests burned out of control with a mere spark, so also have our cities burned as the spark of police murders touched the ready fuel of generations of racism; decades of economic decay, and months of Covid confinement. Our social ecosystem is as damaged and depleted as the forests that are so prone to fire. The matrix of complex relationships that we call community has to a great degree collapsed into simplified relations with impersonal institutions, mediated by money and technology. Social networks may give the appearance of community, but they lack the interdependency that marks a real community (or ecosystem). We can see now how fragile – or how inflammable – such a society is.

I won’t be so bold as to say that addressing our social separation will quell the fires. Yet, one can see how the project of land healing through reverence and relationship is congruent to the project of social healing, which, too, depends on restoring reverence and relationship.

The Doorway Called Enchantment

I live in the northeast of the land people call the United States. Here, fire is not much of a threat, yet. A few weeks ago I was walking with my brother in the woods behind his Pennsylvania farm, where the sloping land gives way to mountainside. We crossed a creek, a bare trickle in some places, dry in others. John told me that he had been here with an old-timer who said that in his youth, this creek was so deep and strong, even in August, that there were only a few places one could cross it. What happened to this being, this creek? Some locals say it is because too many wells were dug, drawing down the water tables and drying out the springs that feed the creeks. Others say it is because of the repeated logging of the mountain, going back to colonial times. Or maybe, I thought, it is again a long-delayed result of the cascade of changes following the extermination of wolves, cougars, and beavers. All these activities are an insult to the land and to the water, oblivious to reverence.

Ultimately, to stop the fires and turn onto a world-healing path, we must turn from domination and subjugation to reverence and respect. Sometimes that means adopting the role of a protector for vulnerable, precious beings, like Marina Silva is doing in Brazil. (Here is an organization she works with, along with others I mentioned in my 2019 article on the Amazon fires.) Sometimes it means stepping into the role of nurturer or healer, like the people reintroducing beavers, practicing regenerative agriculture, and building water retention landscapes. For someone in the corporate or financial world, reverence might steer them to choose life over profit in a moment where it takes a little courage to do that. That courage is a dilute version of the courage of South American indigenous activists who risk torture and murder by landowners, logging companies, mining companies, and their paramilitaries, because it puts something else above maximizing personal self-interest. It is thus an important act of solidarity.

Reverence brings courage. Reverence brings knowledge. Reverence brings skill. Reverence brings healing. It is the fulcrum of the great turning of civilization toward reunion with nature. Today the word has religious connotations, but this is not the kind of reverence that worships an idol. It is the reverence of the lover who looks into the eyes of the beloved and sees infinity.

If reverence brings all these things, then what brings reverence? It will not do merely to exhort people to be more reverent. The gateway to reverence is enchantment. A few days ago I stood with my son Cary, age seven, at Rhode Island’s last undeveloped coastal pond watching turtles. We felt what it was like to be those turtles. We could hardly stop watching them. In that moment, the thought that we would harm them for anything less than a sacred purpose was horrifying and absurd. We knew them as precious in and of themselves, not for any use to us. Few people, dropping into that moment, could escape that enchantment. Yet, every day, we participate in systems that treat turtles and much else as resources to exploit, or make them collateral damage in other exploitation. We cannot avoid this participation, for we live in that system, and that system lives in us. More and more of us no longer feel at home in it though. It cannot easily accommodate our reverence, our enchantment, and our true purpose of service to life.

Mining company executives or members of ranchers’ death squads might be far away from the doorway of enchantment. The principle of enchantment-borne reverence does not substitute for legal action, nonviolent direct action, and so on. However, a healed planet will not result from a succession of desperate holding actions. We need to ground ourselves in directly experiencing earth as obviously precious as the turtles were to Cary; to know her as a being and as an organism, and we need to spread that knowledge. Then we will have the clarity, the courage, the skill, and most importantly, the allies in unlikely places, to defend her vulnerable parts, to preserve and strengthen her organs, and to transition away from systems built on the mythology of earth-as-thing.


This essay is also available in Portuguese

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