I propose that fire made our evolution possible. While there’s no scientific evidence for that hypothesis, we know that our life isn’t possible for long without it. If combustion suddenly stopped happening, how long would we last? That’s become our species survival test.

Consider an analogy to our situation. We hear a roar, but the river upon which we float is wide and smooth. It’s not like some malevolent entity is plotting to throw everyone on the raft over a cliff. We’re about to discover danger in the lay of this land.

The real precipice we face is the steep slope between how easily our planet’s chemistry and temperature can shift into escalating greenhouse effect to how difficult it is to shift back. It’s not as if some malevolent entity designed the universe so that advanced life tends to evolve on planets hovering between ice age and greenhouse conditions. Or built the universe so that physical and chemical processes favoring ice move at geologic speed, and those favoring greenhouse events can go a million times faster and self-reinforce. Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by processes in geologic time frames, weathering of rock and sequestration in sediments. Carbon dioxide is returned in fast processes such as wildfire, volcanic eruption, methane hydrate breakdown, and fossil fuel combustion.

“We are now burning in one year the equivalent of one million years’-worth of plankton deposits as fossil fuel,...

The Fabulous History of Phytoplankton and Why Our Species Depends o...

It’s not as if some evil spirit designed animals so that a second source of energy, mastery of fire, was necessary for big brains and sentience to emerge.

That’s just the lay of this universe.

The odds have been stacked against us all along.

We co-evolved with fire. That second source of energy, beyond food, made Homo Sapiens a possibility. But plant fuel has limitations. Once a culture has denuded it’s continent for firewood, soil washes away, life gets too hard to support a developing civilization. Mastering fossil fuel solves that problem and makes globalization a possibility. But fossil fuel has catastrophic limitations.

Throwing carbon, which had been sequestered underground, back into the air a million times faster kickstarts positive feedbacks which can’t be turned off, changing albedo from melting snow and ice, burning forests in a drying climate, decreasing phytoplankton productivity and dissolving animal shells in hotter acidifying oceans (which slows sequestration), raising levels of water vapor (a greenhouse gas), and melting methane hydrate.

It’s not fair that processes which push planetary chemistry/temperature toward anoxic/hot conditions are both self-reinforcing and exponentially faster. Fairness is a social trait. Physical laws don’t answer to society.

It’s not fair that we need a second energy source, and none is an easy replacement for fire.

In short, planets which can support carbon-based advanced life forms which evolved using fire mastery are planets far from equilibrium. They can easily and rapidly transition into chemistry/temperature regimes hostile to that life.

We’ve been taking fire mastery for granted, failing to realize at the gut level both its significance to our evolution and the inherent danger that entails. Energy is not an externality for us, any more than food is.

Many have wondered why there’s no evidence of other advanced civilizations in the Milky Way. The Great Silence can now be seen as a warning. Given the planetary chemistry and physics we’re discovering here on Earth, our predecessors probably failed to grasp that very fleeting opportunity, at the height of their fossil fuel civilizations, to decarbonize. Once the feedbacks rev up, we sentients lose control. End of story.

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Replies to This Discussion

What a beautiful analogy Ruth! I can picture it perfectly; the whole of the human species floating blissfully down a seemingly lazy river, with just a few keen-eared individuals perking up and shouting "hey! I think I hear a waterful! And haven't any of you noticed that we're picking up speed here?!" And the vast masses responding, "hey, shut up you! Everything is fine. Look around, the water is smooth, there's no danger here, now sit down or we'll throw you overboard." Yup. That's just how I've been feeling. The analogy I've been working with was something like heading towards a cliff and shouting but everyone else is deaf. The waterfall analogy is much more beautiful and elegant. I'm stealing it. Thanks! :)

I agree with Jedi - beautiful analogy.

I propose that fire made. our evolution possible. While there’s no scientific evidence for that hypothesis ...

I don't know why you think that!  The control of fire was very important in human evolution, beyond a doubt.  Cooking influenced human evolution, and also the warmth and protection of fires was important. 

Thinking in a geologic time frame creates a perspective that recognizes Geologic Ages come and go;  Earth and the Universe do not care, they just move on, with or without sentient beings. Hearing a waterfall while in calm waters offers a warning that danger lies ahead. We have been in calm waters with the sound of trouble growing. Some could hear the threat, others denied it. The waterfall and environmental collapse do not care, they are not sentient beings. The wise ones take action to avoid possible danger while deniers flow merrily on until there is no turning back. A good metaphor Ruth.

"As our sciences mature, and as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence continues to fail, the Great Silence becomes louder than ever. The seemingly empty cosmos is screaming out to us that something is askew."

Sentient Development: The Great Silence

Robin Hanson, conceived in 1998 the idea of a Great Filter, a natural law of the universe, a "stumbling block," "some kind of absurdly difficult step in the evolution of life" that prevents life from becoming interstellar. If a Great Filter applies to the universe it applies Earth.

~The Great Filter

Homo sapiens evolved because of food and fire enabling development of a brain capable of reasoning and problem solving and developing ways to live in a civil society. Ancient humans discovered how to manage food and fire and their potential for even more abstract thinking grew until the power to destroy life on Earth as we know it came into their hands, for good or ill. 

We exist today with tools and resources that cave dwellers couldn't even imagine. The Age of Fossil Fuel peaked during our lifetime and if we are wise, we will find ways to reinvent fire. Rocky Mountain Institue offers maps to replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy and has the potential to replace CO2 contaminants. 

Reinventing Fire 

All these ideas emanate out of the writings of Ruth Anthony-Gardner 

All these ideas emanate out of the writings of Ruth Anthony-Gardner.

You give me far too much credit, Joan. I'm just an outsider, connecting ideas from others. My ideas aren't even published. I appreciate the way you connected my thoughts to Reinventing Fire from The Rockey Mountain Institute and to George Dvorsky. I especially like

The seemingly empty cosmos is screaming out to us that something is askew.

I admire your zest and zeal.  Bringing it down to the practical world what do you propose?  I'm from West Virginia...the 14th Colony that was never invited to sit at table.  We were part of Virginia, our Governor sports an I Heart Coal 'Friends of Coal' gimmie cap.    We aren't a state, we're a colony owned by out of state interests for their benefit and profit.  The political machine of the State of West Virginia in the USA would make a powerful field of research and you'd be facing far deadlier than the Mafia or the cartels.  You'd be facing people who believe they are right...they have to in order to keep their jobs.  But what kind of life?  You either get killed flat out...slate fall took out my uncle in '73.  Call it a 'kettle drop'.  Means there's no warning just a 2 and a half ton slab of slate coming down on the top of your head and driving your head down between your knees and turning your skin a livid blue/black because you blood doesn't have anywhere to go when you body mass is swiftly compacted to less than a quarter of its former size but out through your skin.  Needless to say, dead coal miners didn't get open casket funerals.

My great grandfathers on both sides of my family stood their ground at the Battle of Blair Mountain.

And then, if you actually make it through like my other uncle did what do you have to look forward to?  A slow death from a cancer called Black Lung caused by inhaling coal dust all day long and work.  It still goes on.  We have the coal industry offering high paying jobs to young men knowing that the job they will be doing will kill them...one way or the other...

How is it possible in this, or any other civilized country, that an entire industry is permitted to hire workers knowing that they are asking people for their life in exchange for a high paying job in the present?  This is insanity.  

The UMW is a union of scabs, people who agree to toe the company line and cover up what needs to be covered up without questioning.  The Companies are blood sucking fiends ripping out the heart of our state, our hills.

The story is here, laid out like on display at a museum.  Investigating reporting.  And it isn't just us, we West Virginians are a microcosm, highlighted because of the tight confines of our small state.  But what goes on here, goes on in the sprawling heartland.  And on the high seas.  Or the oil derricks...the same give and take, nod and sway.

And here I am, after the long and tubulent 20th Century, thrown out on dry land.  And guess what?  I'm still asking for what I wanted...what my grandfathers wanted...way back in the Violent Days.

I want a 40 hour work week.  I want one man, working one job, to be able to make enough to support his wife so she can stay home and raise the kids...if she wants to...or go off and do what she wants.  So this 40 hour a week man could have a car in the garage, be buying his own home, and making enough money so his kids can go to university some day...maybe not private, but state schools get the job done without the surcharge for the diploma from MIT or Princetown...

I'm not arguing the other side, I'm agreeing with you.  And I'm thinking if you redefine 'fire' as the release of energy from a placid, simple state and into a more active complex state.

I want a world that doesn't require anything from me.  

Then one day I ran across this book and I realized I had no business hiding out and having fun.

Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence [Paperback]

Peter Unger (Author)

Peter Unger (Author)

  That's from the Amazon.com site.

I couldn't find a flaw in his reasoning that didn't come off whiney and pleading.

The book sounds great Philip, thanks. And your writing is beautiful, you really painted the picture. Great response.

I aim to please.  

There are people out there with more talent and intelligence than me.  When I was growing up I was pretty much like the portrayal of the kid in Lou Reed's Smalll Town.  I learned one thing going in.  People like to laugh.  If I could make them laugh, they would want me around.  I didn't not fit in with either the Jocks or the Future Famer's of America crowd...this was Fifties and Sixties Ohio in the middle of nowhere town.  I tell my best friend...black guy, dreads, Snoop Dog only not as alert...that the closest black person was thirty miles away...but then, the town was named "Lynch'burg, Ohio, so that might have had something to do with it.  

I started reading Richard Wright and James Baldwin when I was 12.  Why?  Because the only people I could feel any sort of empathy for were the black and hopeless and gay.  

I like to think of myself as a Wit...a Court Jesture without a Court.  

Or maybe I'm just a Fool.

LOL, were I African-American I'd hesitate to move to Lynch'burg.

Humor is a powerful tool of communication, Philip. It doesn't require self-deprecation in a nonhostile environment. You're not a fool any more than the rest of us.

Philip Jarrett 

I am an Atheists and I intend to:

Create art, music, literature, sing and dance,

Be stubborn, joyful, brilliant, and relentless.

Tell my own stories.

Organize, coalesce, march, picket.

Boycott goods and services of bigots.

Vote for atheist candidates.

Refuse to support war, make their weapons, read their versions of history, buy their goods and services.

Provide a safe haven if my children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren are called to fight for the right of oligarchs to take oil from people who do not want to give it away.

Philip, your story is a compelling one and it needs to be told. There are those who don’t want to hear it, some will criticize you, or accuse you of being anti-USA. They speak from ignorance, following the dictates of propaganda. If they would get off their pity potty and go stand in your shoes for even a day, they might get an inkling of what life is like if they were not pampered, served, and coddled.

You write with power and conviction, with a hint of an idea of how to make life work better for all people.  There are those who will read and identify with what you write. A “cloud of witnesses” will form around you because of your words and you make a difference.

No, I don’t suppose mine accident victims have open casket funerals. Nor do I suppose miners go into the mines for the love of their work. If they survive the labor, the slow death from Black Lung should keep future generations away from mining. It must be hard to be a family member of a miner as well. Many compelling stories should grab our attention and help us focus on getting off coal.

If enough miners would agree to not go into the mines, and if the scabs joined your effort, the industry would be powerless to make you go back to work. Sadly, supporting families takes priority over working in a safe job. I am saddened to read the UMW is a union of scabs.

Your grandfathers and you want reasonable things, while being safe at work and earning a decent wage, and supporting your families and educating your children.

I know you agree with me. Fire is energy that comes to us through food and flame and a simple life with people you love and who love you, without claims from the world for your sacrifice.

Thank you for the references to Peter Unger’s work. I’m downloading some pieces from the internet. 

Well put, Joan.

You state a strong moral position both from personal history and philosophy. As I see it the main things preventing people from accepting this moral position is that we live in a Dominator culture rather than a Partnership Culture. This hierarchical structure "morally" justifies exploitation by those at the very top of everyone else beneath them and the natural world too. Part of this morality is a heavy over emphasis on punishing cheaters (which is a legitimate part of managing a commons), of loyalty to one's own group at the expense of outsiders and of respect for authority at the expense of justice, empathy and fairness (competing moral values). "Cheaters" gets distorted to include everyone not like yourself or not above you in the hierarchy. Those at the very top of the hierarchy, meanwhile, somehow become immune to being scrutinized for cheating. You know the way the financiers can steal from taxpayers and not go to jail, and they're still held in the highest respect and their expertise is still trusted after they've been exposed.

The Illusion of Innocence resembles willful ignorance, doesn't it.


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