Fighting Fire with Fire

Saturday 21st of March 2020

Since the Australian fires of some weeks ago, I have felt that there is much to be considered in what has been happening. At the same time there has been a part of me that doesn’t want to write anything about them. I have wondered why it is that I have felt able to write about UK floods and yet it has been more difficult to find something to say about the bush fires in Australia.
My reticence may be because this has happened on the other side of the world from where I live, but I think there is more to it than that. The differing effects of climate change or perhaps it would be more appropriate to use the phrase “climate emergency” are linked by an increase in chaos. When we are looking at the impact of wild-fire, this is especially stark, because of the damage caused to humans, animals and also the vegetable kingdom. One part of this may be the sheer number of animals and humans who have died or been seriously injured. I think there is also the fact that so much vegetation has been destroyed in the fires. Although plants can grow back after fire, it feels very different to think of this happening in this situation from what happens after storm or flood. What this reminds me of is the symbolism of fire and I’d like to go on to think about this.
As with most symbols, there is a dual aspect to fire. It can be warming, homely even, if we think of being gathered round a fire or its domesticated cousin, a hearth. In some languages, the hearth becomes a word for “home”, as if the warmth of the fire is an echo of the warmth of the human heart. Yet fire can be destructive, even devastating if it gets out of hand or is uncontrolled.
A group of scientists from the World Weather Attribution consortium has been described in the last few weeks as having produced a report about the Australian fires. The main question they have been trying to address is the extent to which the likelihood of the fires has been increased by global warming. They admit the difficulty of the task because of the number of the complexities involved. With a number of caveats as to how problematic it is to come up with a figure they have never the less done so. They have said that global warming as it is currently has increased the risk of fires such as the ones that Australia has experienced over its 2019-20 summer by at least 30%. The prospect of even hotter and drier weather as the average global temperature rise continues to grow will only serve to exacerbate the situation.
I confess that I have very mixed feelings about this type of report. I’ve said previously that having scientific observations available will help those who are making a case to change the human behaviour which is contributing to climate change. However, I question how much this type of report will have this particular effect for two very different reasons.
The first of these reasons is that this type of approach links with the idea of risk management. My worry in this field is always that those who are experts in managing risk are not those who are at risk. For the latter folk this is not a scientific, statistical or indeed academic exercise. Those whose homes or indeed lives are open to being destroyed have a totally different perspective. In the days before writing this I have heard radio broadcasts about a Welsh village where I spent an afternoon a few years ago. It is on the other side of the Mawddach estuary from Barmouth and is called Fairbourne. The local council is already anticipating a time when it will be regarded as counter-productive to maintain sea defences and so the village is threatened with either inundation or “decommissioning” or some combination of the two. Whilst the council is trying to initiate a process of “managed retreat”, what the people who own homes in the village want to know is whether anyone is going to help them to find alternative accommodation and, if not, how they could buy somewhere else to live when no-one is going to want to pay anything like a substantial sum for where they now live. I imagine that very few, if any, of the current residents will have funds that would enable them to discard their current home without receiving an appreciable amount of money for it and buy another. This is the financial aspect, but there is also the question of what happens to the life of a community. Community life is not something which can be “decommissioned”, the relationships, albeit often fractious or fragile, which enable people to live together in ways which are greater than “the sum of the parts”.
I’m not convinced that “risk management” reports make it any easier for people to relocate in this type of situation. I don’t imagine that they would make a similar process any more bearable for anyone in Australia who is now wondering how susceptible somewhere that they live is going to be to continuing fires and what the severity of those fires is going to be.
The second reason is that anything weather-related is inherently chaotic. What this means is that small changes can make a hugely significant difference to outcomes. This makes these matters terribly difficult to predict. The report on the Australian fires includes high temperatures and drought as significant factors in increasing the risk of fire, but the spread of a fire is dependent also on wind direction and speed, something else which played a significant role at various points in the last few months.
Many of the attempts to describe, categorise and predict the effects of climate change are linked to weather. As I have already suggested in other terms, this presents a challenge to those who are arguing for action which is both urgent and sustained, for example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will always be easy for anyone opposed to such action to argue that the data is not conclusive. Meteorological data always deals in shifts and trends, rather than being completely watertight (no pun intended) in its conclusions. It is my belief therefore that aiming to convince someone solely by logical argument of the need to reduce emissions (or to follow other measures which could have ecological benefits) is likely to have limited effect.
This brings me back to another aspect of the symbolism of fire. We have an expression “to fight fire with fire”. This usually has a positive connotation, but not always - sometimes people have a sense that in fighting fire with fire everyone is likely to get burned… Strangely, having been reflecting on this expression and its relevance to climate change issues for some weeks, I went to the cinema and saw a film which had this particular expression at its emotional and philosophical heart. That is in spite of the fact (or is it actually for this very reason?) that it is an animation aimed at a younger audience. In the film there is a debate as to whether there is an alternative to bombs and guns i.e. weapons which whilst stopping “the bad guy” do not cause the same amount of harm (for anyone interested the film is Spies in Disguise).
This phrase had its origins in the theory that fires can be stopped by creating a “buffer” by burning material ahead of the fire, so that it effectively runs out of fuel when it gets to that point. I can’t say that I have any experience of fighting fires, but it seems to me that this only works if the “buffer fire” and the original fire are both relatively predictable. My sense is that where we are right now (and this is why I chose to use the wording “climate emergency” in the early part of this blog) is that we are in a chaotic and therefore unpredictable part of our “climate journey”. If that is the case, “fighting fire with fire” is fraught with danger as it is likely only to stoke a fire rather than to put it out. What I would suggest is that if we merely employ statistics and other forms of intellectual argument we are likely only to end up with a debate which is as sterile as a fire-ravaged landscape and which does not take us forward.
I am taken back again to Iain McGilchrist’s presentation of the two sides of the brain. He contrasts the left-brain’s marshalling of information or facts with the right-brain’s more sensitive and contextual approach. We need both, but my view is that as well as facing up to the real consequences of climate change we need to develop more of a sense of what a different relationship with the natural world might have to offer us.
I have come across a number of references in the last few years to the idea of re-wilding. George Monbiot is one of its leading advocates and when he talks about this he is usually referring to returning our landscape to one influenced less by human beings and more influenced by eco-systems of which we are only a small part. Whilst I am not against that type of approach and can certainly see its benefits, I am also aware of another strand, in which writers talk about re-wilding ourselves. Last year, my wife read a book on this theme, Rewild Yourself, by Simon Barnes. The fly-leaf description of the book makes the point of us needing to change: “with a few new techniques, a little new equipment and, above all, a new way of thinking, [my italics] birds hidden in the treetops will shed the cloak of anonymity, butterflies you never noticed will bring joy to every sunny day and creatures of the darkness will enter the light of your consciousness”.
I am not sure to what extent it was the result of Simon Barnes’ book (he has a section on his discovering this joy for himself) and to what extent it was more a factor of a long-standing interest and awareness which our daughter had been sharing with us over some years, but last year we bought a moth-trap. Along with that, we let some areas of our garden grow wilder, which probably helped. It is no exaggeration to say that we were astonished and indeed thrilled by the harvest of “creatures of the darkness” hidden amongst the artificial nooks and crannies of our perspex treasure-chest. There are some gorgeous butterflies regularly seen in Britain but there are many more types of moth than butterflies and their patterning and even colouring can be just as fascinating as their more glamorous cousins. One of our favourites gives me the perfect place to stop in this fire-themed blog - a yellow and red-brown trimmed beauty which rejoices in the name of Brimstone.