Anthropocene, Pyrocene, and the Ravencene: fire use and abuse and the risks of environmental upheaval

The Anthropocene concept is of great utility in Earth System Science, despite being rejected as a geological epoch by specialist stratigraphers. I illustrate this with reference to the concepts of the Pyrocene and the Ravencene that concern adverse Earth System effects of fire use.
Anthropocene, Pyrocene, and the Ravencene: fire use and abuse and the risks of environmental upheaval

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The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has decided that the ‘Anthropocene’ is not a new geological epoch. This decision has spawned much discussion in Nature regarding the appropriateness of this decision, and the utility and definitional bounds of the Anthropocene concept that go well beyond geological sciences. Less discussed are other terms that have been used to also capture the idea that humans are having substantial Earth System-scale effects with unknown consequences. Here, I want to draw attention to two related concepts that show the potential philosophical footprint of the Anthropocene goes well beyond defining the start of a new geological epoch.  

The fire historian Stephen Pyne has proposed that human mastery of fire, that led to the combustion of fossil fuels and the climate crisis, has created the Pyrocene.  He suggests that a ‘fire-centric perspective furnishes a usable narrative for the Anthropocene, one that allows us to understand its full ramifications and the indispensable role of humans’. Taking a different tack, Thomas Thornton and colleagues have drawn on indigenous mythologies about the trickster Raven-being from the Pacific Northwest of the North America and East Asia that disrupt ecological systems, often with fire. Thorton and Malhi note that ‘in many Native American traditions he [the Raven-being] begins his existence as a pure white being, only to be permanently blackened by his own misadventures with fire and its sooty, hydrocarbon emissions’. The Raven-being myth led Thorton to propose a  ‘Ravencene’  that ‘anticipates humanity in the Anthropocene, both as an agent (or “driver”) of change through his appetites and aspirations to control things for his own purposes, and as a resilient respondent to change (through coping, mitigation, adaptation, etc.) when earth systems and their constituent elements prove too powerful, dynamic, and complex to be harnessed for the benefit of one being or species. ’

I am struck by the coincidence of these Raven myths from the north Pacific Rim and the Arrernte people’s of central Australia dreamtime story of firestorms lit by a ‘malicious crow ancestor’   that threatened the ecological integrity of the world and required intervention of other mythical beings to restore environmental order. Yet ‘without special and secret ceremonies by Arrernte people, the conflagrations could re-emerge, and this would ‘magically induce the summer sun to increase its heat to such a dangerously high level that men and animals everywhere would be scorched to death'. The parallels of the Raven and Crow myths likely relate to the high intelligence and adaptability of Corvids, and the capacity of some birds to spread fire.

What the Anthropocene,  Pyrocene and Ravencene share is an emphasis on the risks of unintended consequences associated with the human mastery of fire, although these concerns are encoded  differently. With Pyrocene this is stated explicitly, whereas fire is often glossed over as the driver of the Anthropocene . The Ravencene highlights how intelligent, yet fallible beings, are prone to disrupt ecological systems with fire, highlighting, as Thorton and Malhi note, the  'need for humility and adaptive collaboration in the face of non-linear complexity, contingency and change in human–environmental systems' making Raven narratives 'strikingly relevant in the Anthropocene.’

As the Pyrocene and Ravencene concepts demonstrate, the Anthropocene is much more that a geological epoch: rather it is a framework to understand human-nature relationships to help us navigate a path to a sustainable future.

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Fire Ecology
Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Ecology > Fire Ecology
Earth System Sciences
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Earth Sciences > Earth System Sciences
Environmental Anthropology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Anthropology > Environmental Anthropology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Anthropology > Environmental Anthropology > Sustainability
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Earth Sciences > Geology
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