Introduction: Earth Aflame
From the Series: Firestorm: Critical Approaches to Forest Death and Life
We are now, once again, in the annual burning season across the forests of Amazonia, Indonesia, Australia, the United States’ West Coast, and beyond. All the fire, smoke, and forest death demand that we stop and pay attention. These are firestorms: synergies of power, economy, technology, and ecology that are increasing the intensity and size of forest fires. They are sign and signal of a damaged world. They are an outcome of some humans’ profligacy—now storm-like, out of control. Simultaneously, other forests survive, with and without human help, including through the use of fire.
Critical attention to human-forest relations is one way to examine this current moment and what it may mean to live in it. This attention can also help us to understand how we might (re)create landscapes of care. With contributions on forests and fire in five continents, the essays in this series explore how seemingly disparate realms of this moment—such as climate change, Indigenous sovereignty, surveillance satellites, and the pandemic, to take only four of the topics considered—are inexorably linked through forests and the firescapes they sometimes become.
The fundamental and, some would say, sacred act of breathing brings humans and other life into a mutual relationship with forests. As Potawatomi ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013, 344) writes, “Respiration—the source of energy that lets us farm and dance and speak. The breath of plants gives life to animals and the breath of animals gives life to plants.”
Humans’ use of the life found in forests for food, construction material, and medicine, for example, can also be nondestructive, even mutualistic. Yet frequently forests, or the spaces they occupy, are turned into resources demanded and distributed via global capitalist supply chains, often causing profound harm to humans and nonhumans. Indeed, the most devastating fires spark as part of the settler-colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples and other rural folks from their land to make way for industrial agriculture, logging, and mining. As long as these practices of extraction and exploitation continue, forests’ capacity for provisioning and renewal will be dangerously diminished.
Looking to forests can also reveal some of the broader human and nonhuman consequences of these systems of use and exploitation. Forests are not passive objects from which humans can extract resources without consequence. As they are killed and damaged, forests can reach an ecological limit that, once surpassed, can result in ruin—including of the fiery sort. And this ruin can be monstrous, as Michael Taussig (2018, 215) explores. Ruin is also a process, Ann Laura Stoler (2013) reminds us; it goes on.
This is particularly true as the climate changes. Forests take in and store carbon, making them central to the global climate regime. Rapid shifts in the way these forests live and die are unfolding. Fires now kill the canopy trees of tropical and temperate rain forests in ways they never evolved to survive. In more arid, fire-adapted landscapes, once nurturing seasonal fires now often burn too hot, killing dry forests and shrublands. As these forests die, they release ever-more carbon into the atmosphere, creating a pernicious feedback loop of forest fire and climate destabilization.
Refracted through these fires and forests, multiple layers of inequality and injustice become apparent. For humans neither destroy forests nor suffer from their destruction equally. It is certain that the global North’s historical carbon emissions are making today’s firestorms in the global South worse. Too often, already marginalized rural people end up as undeserving targets of fire-related surveillance and criminalization even as agricultural workers and other rural peoples suffer disproportionate harm in firescapes, both from conflagration and smoke. Meanwhile, the cities’ privileged few can afford to live and work in their own homes with air filters and N95 masks, (seemingly) sealed off from the suffering. In these unequal ways, forest fires’ toxic particulates and climate-changing carbon envelop tens of millions of people in smoke and woe, making air and breathing issues of global import.
Apart from the destruction, dispossession, and surveillance, some forests do nevertheless survive and expand through multispecies relations. From disturbance other life may grow (Tsing 2015). Fires can be part of these relations. Where Indigenous peoples, family farmers, and other forest communities are able to control their own territories, fires often nourish landscapes as part of life-giving relations of care. Many peoples use fires to create pulses of nutrients and open understories that provide food, fuel, and fiber while controlling other, more destructive fires. The survival of forest landscapes may depend upon the restoration of Indigenous and agrarian peoples’ land control and lifeways, an objective that in turn requires a fundamental reorienting of the political economy away from neo-colonial practices and toward new Indigenous and peasant sovereignties.
Toward these emancipatory futures, it is worth recalling that there are many already existing forests that thrive apart from, or in opposition to, capitalist exploitation and related structures of rule and domination. Forests can be places from which not to be governed (Scott 2009) or enslaved (Andrade 1980). They can also be places to enact different ideas of freedom (Tsing 2015), conceptions of well-being (Gudynas 2011), and spiritual cosmology and praxis, particularly for Indigenous peoples (Kopenawa and Albert 2013). From Latin America to Southeast Asia, agrarian peoples mobilize to grow new agricultural forests as part of their efforts to overturn the dispossession and enclosures of settler capitalism (Afiff et al. 2005; Altieri and Toledo 2011).
Living through the last one hundred and fifty years of industrialization, the forests that remain are forever changed. But humans are far from in control. And the new firestorms make it apparent that more and more, forests also change how many of us live. In some lifeworlds, fire ends and upends human and nonhuman life. In others, fire nurtures it. Both can also happen in the same place. Recognizing all that has changed and has been lost while ending the marginalization of Indigenous peoples, forest farmers, and other rural communities might help us enact new forms of life that can survive the burning seasons still to come.
Afiff, Suraya, Noer Fauzi, Gillian Hart, Lungisile Nitsebeza, and Nancy Peluso. 2005. Redefining Agrarian Power: Resurgent Agrarian Movements in West Java, Indonesia. Berkeley, Calif.: Center for Southeast Asia Studies, UC Berkeley.
Altieri, Miguel A., and Victor Manuel Toledo. 2011. “The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America: Rescuing Nature, Ensuring Food Sovereignty, and Empowering Peasants.” Journal of Peasant Studies 38, no. 3: 587–612.
Andrade, Manuel Correia de Oliveira. 1980. The Land and People of Northeast Brazil. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Gudynas, Eduardo. 2011. “Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow.” Development 54, no. 4: 441–47.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed Editions.
Kopenawa, Davi, and Bruce Albert. 2013. The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Translated by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 2013. “‘The Rot Remains’: From Ruins to Ruination.” In Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, edited by Ann Laura Stoler, 1–35. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Taussig, Michael. 2018. Palma Africana. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.