Pyro-reproduction: Keeping life on the boil

Pyro-reproduction: Keeping life on the boil
Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash
Thursday 12 October 2023

In July this year, amid a shocking array of Northern hemisphere heatwaves and wildfires, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterras, stated that ‘the era of climate boiling has arrived’. The Pyrocene is upon us.

Fire historian, Stephen Pyne, would doubtless agree. He calls our times the Pyrocene: an era of out-of-control fires (both wildfires and the burning of fossil fuels) where humans’ profound entanglements with fire no longer take place within ecologically sustainable constraints (as they did, as both Pyne and First Nations scholars argue, in pre-settlement Australia) but are constantly sparking new catastrophes.

With regard to fire at least, Australians have been relatively lucky recently – since the record-breaking 2019–20 bushfires, we have had wet and cool summers due to La Niña Southern Oscillation weather patterns. (It is important to note that such conditions bring their own pain: severe flooding has occurred in many parts of the country during this period.) Almost certainly, experts warn, this summer will be different. With weather patterns returning to an El Niño cycle, we are expecting another hot summer, but this time with the extensive plant growth that the three years of wetter weather has fostered, at least in those places not utterly devasted in 2019–20. Over 700 Australian firefighters are currently working in Europe and North America to help contain catastrophic fires. At some point soon they will be brought home to continue their relentless endeavours here. The mental and physical health costs of this work are vast.

Across the world, fire ‘seasons’ are elongating. Although Autumn has arrived, southern Europe continues to experience extreme heat. As Winter ends in the southern hemisphere, Australians are being urged to prepare their homes, and to make bushfire plans, deciding in advance whether they will stay to defend their homes if given that choice, or leave for (relative) safety. Research shows the psychological costs of staying to defend are extensive: most people only ever do it once. How can those involved directly impacted by the 2019–20 fires face this again?

Contemporary reports of wildfires – at least in liberal newspapers like the Guardian – almost always mention climate change, either as a cause of the fires or in describing the fires as an important indicator of the wider unfolding crisis. Experts and leaders urge us to act – usually with little specificity – arguing that we must decrease our reliance on fossil fuels to bring down the temperature increases implicated in droughts and wildfire events. Although arsonists are often also implicated, there is a sense that the intensity and duration of fires indicates something bigger, that we are in an emergency of huge proportion that demands concerted action.

The concept of the Pyrocene succinctly encapsulates our global situation and should, we suggest, be more widely deployed. In contrast to the more generic ‘Anthropocene’, it helps us to understand the historical unfolding of human experiments with fire that have led us to the current predicament, while also reminding us that First Nations peoples hold important knowledge about how to use fire to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. Indigenous Australian fire rangers are exemplary here. Settler governments must urgently learn to pay attention to this wisdom, and to collaborate in thinking how it might be used even when climate conditions are rapidly changing. What the Pyrocene concept potentially elides, however, is a more sociological attention to issues of difference that matter: to ethnicity, sex/gender and social class among many others. Disasters – both immediate and long term – always have differentiated effects. A heartbreaking recent example comes from the August fires in northern Greece, where 20 people died: 19 of these were asylum seekers hiding in a forest and the other an older shepherd. Here, as Amnesty International has pointed out, we see the collision of ‘two great injustices of our times’. People’s capacity to escape fire is bio-social: asylum seekers may be unwilling to risk moving to refuges, or unable to access necessary information; a shepherd may be unwilling to leave his flock; pregnant women may need to stay in their local area to access medical care, or be unwilling to take newborns or small children to crowded evacuation centres.

A more sociological take on the Pyrocene focuses on the basic fact that life, in all its complexities, continues in its face. While major wildfire events may bring everyday practices to a crashing halt – schools and workplaces are closed, houses, nursing homes and hospitals are evacuated – lives go on. People walk into the sea, carrying babies, or are loaded into cars or boats, dogs in arms, and taken somewhere safer – the beach, another town, sometimes only a central building in a village or town that has more chance of being successfully defended. Some of these people are sick, and some about to give birth. Some are very old and some very young; some confused and most experiencing panic. All must devise ways to survive this experience; to keep going. When the particular event subsides, years of work must be undertaken to clean up, rebuild and get work and school life going again, and to deal with the ongoing emotional effects. During all this, the seasonal cycles keep turning, and changing.

In our research on the 2019–20 Australian bushfires, we wanted to give this ongoingness a name. Building on feminist and queer accounts of the caring work that makes life possible, we have called it Pyro-reproduction. We use this term to focus on what people do in the face of climate crisis to keep things going, including having and taking care of babies and children. Living in the Pyrocene queers many norms, producing material and emotional challenges for kin- and care-related work, as well as new opportunities. As climate crisis unfolds, social scientists will increasingly need to pay attention to the ways in which human lives are entangled with physical environments. Extreme events such as wildfires and floods give us important insight into what we are capable of, and what we need to keep going.

Celia Roberts is Professor at the Australian National University. Mary Lou Rasmussen is Professor at the Australian National University. Louisa Allen is Professor at the University of Auckland. Rebecca Williamson is Researcher at the Australian National University.

Access the blog article here.


Updated:  12 October 2023/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications