An Eternal Flame: The Elemental Governance of Wildfire’s Pasts, Presents and Futures

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Timothy Neale
Alex Zahara
Will Smith


Views of fire in the contemporary physical sciences arguably accord with Heraclitus’ proposal that ‘all things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.’ Fire is a media, as John Durham Peters has stated, a species of transformative biochemical reactions between the flammable gases found in air, such as oxygen, and those found in fuels, such as plants. Inspired by an ignition source, these materials react and transform themselves and their surrounds into light and heat energy, carbon dioxide, water vapour, char and much else besides. Fire is conjunctural, durational and transformative. Fire is a dialectician, at once consuming living and dead organic matter and providing both the space and ingredients for new and renewed organic life. In this article, we draw upon our experience of combustible contexts—Australia, Canada and the Philippines—to consider the diverse ways in which fire is today framed as a social problem, an ecological process, an ancient tool, a natural disaster, a source of economic wealth and much more. In this way, we seek to explore the value and limits of ‘elemental thinking’ in relation to the planetary predicaments described by ‘the Anthropocene’.

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An Elemental Anthropocene