the mega fires

Image: Oto Vale


Massively deforesting, artificializing and fragmenting land, extracting mineral resources without any care for the landscapes or their inhabitants, but also moving peoples, isolating them, destroying their culture, are ecocides duplicated most of the time by ethnocide

Is there anything wilder than a forest fire? For two reasons: it sows the earth and regenerates the landscape, but it causes destruction and brings death.[I]. Usually, fires happen reasonably, punctually, and in seasons. They are “part” of nature. Its English equivalent would be wilderness: the nature separate from human activities, not transformed by them, which serves both as a model, as a general explanation, and sometimes as a more or less lost paradise.

This nature without humans is, or rather was, real until about two million years ago. As the great historian of fire, Stephen Pyne, shows, what he calls “spontaneous” fires have shaped it for as long as oxygen gas has existed in the atmosphere. These fires, caused essentially by lightning in dry thunderstorms, were regular events; on the scale of human life, however, they were rare. They were spaced far enough apart so that the forest could regenerate as long as it took – between 30 and 400 years, depending on the region.

The fires currently occurring in California or the Amazon, by contrast, are not 'wild' in the sense of being part of nature. They are savage in the sense of being destructive, paroxysmal, violent. What corresponds to this savagery is not the wilderness but the wild: predation, ferocity, “barbarism”, which escapes every undertaking. In our imagination, normally, “wild beasts” are not squirrels and grasshoppers, but large predators that attack their prey, kill and devour them. The fires that ravage California, the Amazon, Australia, Siberia and many other regions of the world are wild in this sense: they are mega fires.

Whether in their extent, intensity or duration, they are incomparable to “normal” forest fires. Its passage causes irreversible damage. They cause not regeneration but desolation: trees are burned down to the depths of the trunk and main roots, animals die, people suffocate, the atmosphere is charged with carbon dioxide and methane, which contribute dramatically to the deregulation of the climate. The smoke generated by the South East Australian wildfires in January 2020 circled the world and returned to its starting point in 18 days.

These fires have nothing natural in the first sense of the term. Excluding those caused by lightning, all are of human origin. Depending on the region, 87 to 98% of forest fires are anthropogenic. And many are criminals, either directly or indirectly. About 40% of them are direct, being intentionally initiated by revenge, malice, usurpation of land for the purpose of exploitation or subdivision, or even by pyromania or terrorist attack, as was the case of those provoked by the inhabitants of Gaza with incendiary devices, balloons and kites, which in 2018 destroyed unique natural reserves in the world. O mega fire raging in Oregon as I write this would also have been started by an arsonist, Michel Jarrod Bakkela, who was arrested. As for the mega fires from the Amazon at the end of summer 2019 and, again, today, we know that they are largely criminal, being commissioned by large landowners and even by certain multinationals.

But all these fires, including those that are accidental, would not have the magnitude that they do if, in addition, they did not benefit, in part, from the conditions created by climate deregulation whose main culprits are known and, in another part, by bad policies of systematic suppression of traditional fires. Deforesting massively, artificializing and fragmenting land, extracting mineral resources without any care for the landscapes or their inhabitants, but also moving peoples, isolating them, destroying their culture, are ecocides duplicated most of the time by ethnocide and the death of countless wild animals. Sociologist Danielle Celermajer of the University of Sydney has rightly called the mega fire Australian term for “omnicide”, the murder of all things.

Two forms of the savage confront each other: the adapted savage that does its job well, with precision and regularity, is unbalanced by the violent savage that transforms forest fires into “murderous monsters”, wild beasts into bloodthirsty predators of the kind portrayed at length. in several animal films designed to provoke great excitement. These are the savages that the extreme right or Minister Gérald Darmanin should think of when they say that society is going wild.

The confrontation between these two aspects of the wild is not a fiction: today, when “nature claims its rights”, according to the expression that has become popular since the experience of confinement, it is not in the cute way demonstrated by some touching ducklings walking on the asphalt that actually live for a long time 50 meters from the place of their “apparition”; it is, in fact, often in the violent manner of a “savage”: tsunamis, earthquakes, record floods, interminable droughts, appalling heat, 'mega-fires', but also pandemic, famine, exodus. It is true, such violence does not exist in itself, but it is inherent to the “anthropocene” that generates it and, in any case, it is devastating in terms of the conditions of existence of many living beings on Earth, including the human species. .

Planet Earth is not at risk. It predates us by 4 billion years and will outlive us. On the other hand, extractivism and the deterioration of ecosystems, which characterized the “rationalization” of nature and the development of industrial civilization held hostage by capitalist systems, private or public, no longer rationalize anything, on the contrary. Devastating fires existed in the distant past, but they were rare. They are not anymore. The hills are bare, the forest is heavily destroyed, entire cities disappear. The “fire season” extends all year round and mega-fires move continuously around the planet, even passing through the poles, to the point that a possible catastrophic scenario prepared by NASA considers that all emerged lands may come to be destroyed. become ember.

Whether it is a forest fire or other events, the balances on which we depend as a species become unattainable and their reconstitution increasingly complex. In this situation, the apology for wilderness that made sense in the XNUMXth century is no longer relevant. Virgin nature, left to itself, intact and therefore at peace, has become a fiction. The exploitation that consists of savagely “doing violence” to our environment and causing violent events cannot be combated by a preservationism that postulates the original integrity of nature and proposes radical policies for the creation of sanctuaries, thus excluding all human activity. If our identification with nature romanticized by virtue of our presumed quality of “noble savage” (lover of nature, tranquility, huts in the forests, freedom) has become absurd, human savagery, on the other hand, is found in the savagery of the natural events caused by climate deregulation and the destruction of ecosystems a serious competitor, whose power reduces us to the state of miserable little things.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a significant part of humanity to its knees. What makes forest fires mega-fires is that they are impossible to contain. On the west coast of the United States, the fires that are currently spreading due to record temperatures, a prolonged drought and violent winds – therefore, due to what they themselves produce – have already devastated 1,2 million hectares. They are inextinguishable. The only way out is escape. In Oregon, half a million people had to save themselves to escape the flames. Regardless of the attack force and sophistication of the “fire industrial complex”, a mega-fire only dies from “natural” causes: rain, less wind, lack of fuel. According to a NASA scenario, if the mega fires decrease, it is only because, with the passage of time, the forest disappears.

In the past, wilderness e wildness, wild world and savagery, were not separate. Fearful of large wild animals and the vastness of nature, the people, as various myths testify, respected them. One did not cross the path of the other. Violence did not generate violence, but adaptation, that represented by prudence. Ritual efforts at self-mastery in line with prevailing cultural mores considered the risk of savagery, human or animal, and channeled it.

More recently, this form of self-government of passions and impulses through an exposure of oneself to the disturbing wild nature is found at the heart of the naturalist morals of numerous American writers, among which the great thinker of the American “frontier”, Frederick Jackson Turner . He had taken the West and the vast uncultivated expanses as "lands of opportunity," a reserve of infinite experience, a zone of freedom in whose touch, he believed, the American character would be forged and the virtues necessary for flourishing to develop. of democratic values, among them courage, intelligence, independence, attention and observation[ii]. But Turner perceived at the same time the force of nature, its immeasurable energy in relation to human existence, its irrepressible dangers, among them that of sinking oneself into savagery, like the tiger Shere Khan of the Jungle Book of Kipling, who does not obey the Law of the Jungle, being a degenerate; like Beauty Smith, that crazy tamer of the famous White Canines of Jack London who, to dominate the wolf, unleashes his own monstrous violence; like the abominable Kurtz, that Joseph Conrad character who pushes you To the Heart of Darkness.

The environment, Turner recalled, is too strong for man, it is invincible, unpredictable and disobedient. In order not to perish, we must adjust ourselves to circumstances. It is neither through conquest and domination, nor through submission or intimate union that the individual is fulfilled, but through having a place in the world and being well behaved in it. In the same vein, Ralf Waldo Emerson, the first great American philosopher, needed, in relation to the Farmer American that he portrayed the character, that the latter acts in presence of nature, not against or in it. Neither master nor slave. If he was her student, he would also be a landscape creator.

Living in the presence of nature is neither living in terror nor exposing oneself, out of daring, to great risks, much less provoking them. It is to consider its possibility and, on that basis, to consider nature, the independence of phenomena, the world that precedes us and that will persist when we are no longer here, future generations. It is, for example, considering that too much promiscuity with wild animals, whether dictated by empathy or predation, exposes us to viruses capable of jumping the barrier between species. In another order of ideas, it is to avoid an absurd situation like the one that, on the Californian coast, pits rescuers of orphaned baby seals against exterminators who resort to euthanasia to “regulate the population”, which has become epidemic.

Conversely, living in the presence of nature is not preserving the world as we postulate it to exist without us. Since they have existed, the human species, starting with Homo erectus who knew how to conserve the flames and carry them wherever he went, profoundly transformed nature. They practiced, as a result, targeted burning, forest treatment fires, surface fires, knowing, like the Aborigines of Australia who practice cleaning country for more than 65000 years, regulating the flames as we adjust the stove according to our needs: managing the level of dry matter in order to avoid burning leaving enough for composting, sowing biodiversity where it is needed, keeping landscapes open by resorting to herds or crops, driving away certain animals and attracting others, – the same as the Amerindians did with regard to buffaloes, with fires favorable to the growth of pastures appreciated by such ruminants, etc. There would be several analogies between such practices and the “rewashing” [reconversion to wild] of certain territories currently in question.

The savage is neither good nor evil. Neither savagery nor the wild is in itself useful or harmful, desirable or objectionable, necessary or optional. They are, as the “state of nature” and social contract theories had asserted about man, “beyond good and evil”, in Nietzsche's expression. But their dissociation is the problem of our time. It is she who plunges us into the hell of forest fires, at the same time that drives us in a continuous sequence towards ever more serious natural catastrophes, against which, due to an anticipation of the scarcity of resources, the savagery released from the great destroyers of nature is associated with that of the monopolizers of the common goods of humanity and, even more, of living beings.

*Joëlle Zask is a professor of political philosophy at the University of Aix-Marseille (France).

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published on AOC Portal



[I] I developed these aspects in my essay When la fôret brule, 2019 and in Zoocities. Des animauz sauvages dans la ville, 2020, in Premier Parallèle Editions. This text is a new version of an article intended for the magazine Sauvages, to be published.

[ii] In this regard, refer to the chapter “The Significance of The Frontier in American History” in the work of Frederick Jackson Turner The Frontier in American History. It follows that Turner's view is somewhat imposed on the facts. Other visions of Frontier triumphed.

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