Design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli
A Bright and Burning Future
Over the last years, each summer, tsunamis of fire surge in North America, Russia, Africa, South Asia, and Europe. Each year, they break former records and spread wider, while becoming much more intense.
These fires define the parts of the world that are going to become a place apart, i.e the “Burning World”. These mega wildfires are already pushing modern emergency services to the limits of their response capabilities.
In California, since 2017, those fire monsters have been directly endangering urban life (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Global Apocalypse Now, The California Way”, The Red Team Analysis Society, October 12, 2020).
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However, these mega wildfires are not only devastating the world. They also reveal the capabilities of societies to answer, or not, to the near future state of environmental incineration.
As a result, a question arises: are modern societies able to adapt to this new state of affairs? And is a new “geopolitics of a “burning world” emerging from the capabilities to adapt, or not (Hélène Lavoix, “When Denial and Passivity Verge on Stupidity” – The Red Team Analysis Weekly – 9 January 2020)?
One of the main challenges we face in answering these questions is the utter lack of baseline or historic frame of reference. Indeed, there are no recordings of such a long series of extreme burning events. Indeed, the Burning World is the present reality; it is also the “shadow of the future” (Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984).
That is why we must include in our reflection and our scenario-building effort scenarii ideas found in fiction. Furthermore, waiting for proper and in-depth scenario-building, fiction can be useful to outline what the future could look like, if we read it through a strategic foresight framework.
What is at stake here is of the utmost importance, because our modern societies have to answer with the utmost haste to the question: how can we adapt to the Burning World?
In order to explore this hypothesis, we shall use disaster movies and science fiction as materials for strategic foresight. In a first part, we shall use The Towering Inferno in order to anticipate the consequence of the domination of human future by fire.
Then, we shall use the movie Reign of Fire as a thought experience. Through this film, we shall look at the future of societies in a world where resources become fuel.
Then, we shall re-read the novel Sunstorm by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clark, to propose alternate ways to orient the future of the Burning World in a sustainable way.
Anticipating our Burning World and the “End of (known) History“
In order to anticipate how societies may, or not, adapt to the Burning World, it is important to identify the main features of a fire saturating a large scale inhabited and developed area.
Indeed, a fire destroys buildings, infrastructure, the vegetation cover, part of wildlife and people. But more than that, it can consume huge amounts of resources (Jean-Michel Valantin, (“The Global Wildfire (1)“, The Red Team Analysis Society, September 27,2020).
When there is no past
The problem is that using historic examples is going to be very misleading. For example, the bombing and burning of European cities during WWII, or of the jungle during the Vietnam war, were followed by an end of the “war burning era” (Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 and John Dower, Cultures of war, Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima, 9/11/ Iraq, 2010). Thus, it was followed by rebuilding through the injection of financial and building materials as well as thanks to natural regrowth.
However, the very problem of the opening era of mega wildfires is that there will be no end to it. On the contrary, the singularity of the Burning World relates to something very difficult to accept about climate change.
Climate events are not becoming extreme because we are far from the extremes; they are becoming extreme because of the sheer scale of their geography and because their intensity is changing (Ed Struzik, “The Age of Megafires: The World Hits a Climate Tipping Point”, Yale 360, September 17, 2020).
The Towering Inferno and the flight up to survival … for a few chosen
Thus, we need to use the “thought experiments” literature, movies and series offer as they are extrapolating from these kinds of issues. For example, The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974) is quite interesting in anticipating what could happen in California and Australia over the coming years.
As it happens, the movie shows characters trapped in a burning skyscraper. As the fire starts in the middle of the skyscraper, it is too high for the fire department to intervene. From there, the fire spreads towards the roof. The inhabitants of the building are cut off from the ground by the raging fire. They have no other choice than to flee higher and higher, while mass dying.
We must understand that, for these characters, the time-scale of their future is totally determined by the fire and the rhythm of its inexorable extension. Their only hope to survive is to reach the water stored in reservoirs on the roof and to release it, in order to save some of the people.
In other words, the “inferno” is a fire that spreads at the scale of a whole habitat. It forces the remaining population to gather around water, knowing that there is not enough of that very water to save everybody.
The Reign of Fire and a world of ash
Towards a world of ash and soot
Normally, in ecosystems such as forests, wildfires can literally be “biological kickstarters”. However, mega wildfires are now signals as well as drivers of the “new abnormal”, i.e climate change (Mark Lynas, Our Last Warning: 6 Degrees of Climate Emergency, 2020). Indeed, we have to remember that fire is a chemical reaction. So, a fire only lasts as long as the fuel that feeds the chemical reaction.
So, we have to anticipate how to adapt to a world where areas at continental scale are going to become fuel for longer and longer “mega fire season”. This means that they will burn again and again. And these regions will keep on burning until there is nothing left to fuel the fires, and thus until nothing can regrow.
Thus, once the fuel will be exhausted, all that remains after the incineration will be a world of ash and soot. It will have very few resilience capabilities. There are very few research or fiction works that dare to rise to the challenge of “thinking the unthinkable”.
The Reign of Fire
As it happens, the 2002 movie Reign of Fire (Rob Bowman, 2002) explores what comes just after the “Burning world”. At the start of the 21st century a flight of dragons wakes up and escapes from the London underground.
They are quite indestructible and they burn the whole world to the ground. A last community survives by living underground, in the caves of a medieval castle, near a river. Their crops are very fragile, and they must prevent their incineration by dragons.
New characteristics for a Fiery Planet
Towards a Geography of Fire
The movie’s scenario tells us of the quasi-“transplantation” of a 21st century on an “alternate” planet. This “burning Earth” can barely sustain the most fragile form of human existence anymore. Indeed, its habitats and ecosystems are now fuel for the Burning World.
As a result, this helps us to understand the coming new geography of our Burning World.
In a few years time, California, the West Coast of North America, the Amazon Basin, and Australia may risk becoming worlds of ash and soot.
This would entail survival politics (David Wallace Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, Life after Warming, 2019). Those would be based on the mixing of the biological and social imperatives of society while the Earth becomes another planet.
An ethos for a fiery planet
It also tells us that the kind of changes currently occurring has also a drastically important psychological and cognitive dimension. The latter are necessary to allow human beings coping with living through a permanent state of catastrophe, without choosing denial.
On the contrary, a “peasant/warrior/fireman” mentality is going to be a meaningful way to adapt.
Preventing the Firestorm?
These tentative foresight scenarii extracted from fiction about the Burning World are definitely not enticing.
They force us to understand that there will be a drastic degradation of collective sustainability. Habitats and resources are going to turn into fuel, heat, smoke, ash and soot. And what will remain of human life will be “poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes, The Leviathan, 1651).
Given the near-impossibility for a large population to adapt to the Burning World, the sole other alternative seems to be to find ways to mitigate the Firestorm. What is being done to mitigate it through international negotiations and the development of the energy mix is certainly useful.
However, in the same time, the mega wildfires are multiplying. And they are also intensifying and spreading at a larger scale (Michael Klare, All Hell Breaking Loose, The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change, 2019).
Thus, we must explore yet another alternative, mixing mitigation and prevention.
Sunstorm and alternative world politics
The novel “Sunstorm”, by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clark (2006), explores that family of scenarii. In 2037, an astrophysicist and an artificial intelligence (AI) predict that an exceptional sun storm is going to incinerate the Earth in 2042. So, the “ultimate bonfire” becomes the “shadow of the future” for the entire human race (Axelrod, Ibid.).
This triggers an international effort, minus China, to build a giant smart space mirror. It is designed in order to deflect the 24 hours “sun bombing”. The novel describes the political, scientific, industrial, diplomatic and psychological dimensions of this colossal endeavour. It also describes how it transforms world politics.
The book is also a narrative of loss and sadness. Indeed, if the project is largely a success, the damages are immense. Nonetheless, this tremendous effort empowers modern societies to survive the passage of this “sun fire bottleneck”.
From Sunstorm to climate change
Even more interesting is that the authors are clearly developing a metaphor about climate change and the Burning World. Indeed, the “space mirror” is one of the theoretical answers some scientists envision in order to “cool” the planet (Clive Hamilton, Earthmasters: the Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, 2013).
The space mirror, as other geo-engineering speculations, would be deflecting a portion of the sun’s radiations.
A global threat as a common good
The novel says that it is possible to change the current climate and “firestorm” trajectory. However, success would demand to pool and coordinate the present political, scientific, financial and industrial resources.
This would be possible through the collective understanding of a planetary threat recognized as an unintended “common” of the human race (Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 1968).
It does absolutely not promote any kind of “degrowth” or of collapse, quite the opposite. The novel reveals that it is possible to re-orient modern societies. Outer space becomes the new place where they may reach towards sustainability and start searching for new resources.
In other terms, it is time to use current resources and capabilities to mitigate and prevent the “Burning World”. In order to achieve this goal, decision-making needs to use foresight and early warning scenarios.