Headline: The log and the flame: what fire can teach us about the transformation towards sustainability

The log and the flame: what fire can teach us about the transformation towards sustainability

The “Green Me Global Festival for Sustainability” is an annual event hosted at different locations around the world. Recent iterations of the festival have explored the elements earth, water and air across film screenings, discussions, and other initiatives. Researchers from the IASS have contributed to a number of these events over the years. The eleventh GreenMe Festival will take place in Berlin later this year under the motto “Action, Passion, Fire”. This prompted me to explore the themes of fire and sustainability in a dinner speech at a recent function to which sponsors and supporters of the festival were invited in early May. The following essay draws upon my comments there.

While the last three iterations of this festival took as their motto classical elements that are by their nature physical, this year the GreenMe Festival will explore a process – or rather a symptom thereof – one that is as a rule a process of far-reaching transformation. A German play that is very close to my heart, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “The Adventurer and the Singer”, concludes in a Promethean fashion with this fiery metaphor: “What matter the log upon which it ignites: by its nature the flame is divine!”

As a researcher in the field of sustainability, I have learned to think differently about this quote, not because of the forest fires that we are all familiar with from the media: raging infernos that drive people from their homes and kill livestock and wild animals alike. The televised images of horrific incidents in Australia, Portugal and California invite us to believe that such events take place more frequently today. But there is no evidence for this. On the contrary, the total land area affected annually by forest and wildfires fires has decreased by as much as a quarter over the last twenty years. As with air disasters, we tend to overestimate the risk presented by wildfires. In saying this, I do not wish to criticise the adoption of preventive measures, but to highlight the disproportional focus that is afforded to wildfires in our mass media.

Humankind – a conflagration consuming the planet

I find this fascination – akin to the act of gazing into the flames – in itself fascinating, and of course – and this is crucial – these fires are linked, both causally and by way of analogy, to major systemic risks. The latter include the depletion of freshwater resources, climate change, and changes in land use, and are testing the limits of three of the nine so-called planetary boundaries. Let us consider then the resources and land use in particular – and the desirable and undesirable transformations (both actual and metaphorical) brought about by fire.

We could speak, in this regard, of humankind as a conflagration that is consuming our planet. At fault, of course, is our resource-hungry way of life. It is, to be precise, a way of life that metabolises resources at an ever-increasing rate – and this metabolism is powered almost exclusively by combustion processes. Karl Marx hailed the attending dynamics of innovation and the economic and social transformations that intersected with them as the ‘emancipation of the forces of production’. These processes continued to gain momentum after the Second World War – driven by the rise of electronics and plastics, for example, and by the consumption of vast quantities of materials in modern urban development, which has seen China use more construction materials within a single decade than were consumed in the United States throughout the entire twentieth century.

Resource conservation, innovation and the planetary crisis

Researchers speak in this context of a ‘Great Acceleration’. And ‘sustainable development’ is an attempt to put the brakes on this acceleration. To start with, the idea is not as far removed from the productivity paradigm as one might think. Three hundred years ago Hans Carl von Carlowitz, one of the forefathers of sustainable development in Germany, wasn’t interested in forest conservation for the sake of the trees – a forest manager only in so far as he was a mining inspector, von Carlowitz’ ecological concerns came much later; he simply wanted to secure a supply of wood for melting metal in his native region of Saxony tomorrow and well into the future.

The wood crisis that so exercised von Carlowitz abated soon after his death. This was due not to the sustainable development von Carlowitz had championed – felling no more trees than can grow back – but to innovation: the discovery that it was possible to mine and burn coal on a huge scale. Thus began the spiral whose consequences have produced the planetary crisis we talk about today – and I’m referring not just to the immediate effect of the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 40 per cent to date, but also to the massive increase in material throughput, to land consumption, and to the loss of species. Yet it was also this spiral that made it possible for the global population to increase seven-fold and for life expectancy to more than double worldwide – worldwide, not just in the Global North!

Less fire, greater vulnerability

Today, four billion people live in the world’s cities, four times the total global population in 1800. Forests have been drastically depleted as the area taken up by agricultural land has increased significantly. By the way, that fact alone disproves the claim that wildfires are on the rise. Desertification processes can be observed everywhere, but they have less to do with open burning fires than with leaching processes, which in turn stem from our need for animal feed, oil for engines and plastics, and cement. What is true is that such fires now pose a much larger threat to human life than they used to. That’s similar to the heat-island effect in cities, which exacerbates the consequences of heatwaves for the many people who live there, especially the weakest among them, the elderly and children: so human vulnerability is increasing, also due to fire.

I’m not talking about the scarcity of resources here, but about vulnerability and the loss of resilience. And usually – but not always – it’s poorer people who are the worst affected. The modern, political concept of sustainability, which has been in vogue for the last thirty years, is concerned above all with establishing justice in the distribution of benefits and risks.

Warming as opposed to burning

But a fairer distribution will not come from producing ever more, newer things. On the contrary, we need to ask ourselves what we can still do apart from producing and consuming, metabolising and combusting. The transformation towards sustainability must mean: not just viewing trees as a resource, but also appreciating the forest as a habitat. Because the log upon which the flame ignites does matter after all: it needs to keep us warm without burning us.

Header image: istock/lechatnoir

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