WORLD FIRE by Stephen J. Pyne


The Culture of Fire on Earth
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 To burn or not to burn--a question repeatedly and vociferously answered in the affirmative by Pyne in this intensive, sometimes densely philosophical examination of the relationship between humans and fire. It is Pyne's thesis that the anthropogenic fires of indigenous peoples prior to European contact mitigated the danger of large conflagrations by controlling the build-up of biomass that fuels wildfires. This ubiquitous human intervention in the natural environment, avers Pyne (Arizona State Univ. West; Fire on the Rim, 1989) is not unnatural; in fact, the biotica adapted to and depended upon it. Conversely, European colonists, averse to ``primitive'' land management, routinely suppressed fires. Pyne documents the consequences of this folly in Australia, South Africa, India, and Brazil. In each place, he says, the suppression of natural fire (including those started by indigenous peoples) and the introduction of foreign species and land-use practices degraded the land, harmed biodiversity, and increased the threat of damaging wildfire. Pyne, who himself has worked as a firefighter, has harsh words for the US fire exclusion policies in general, and for management of fire in the national parks, especially the massive 1988 Yellowstone wildfire, which was allowed to burn because it was set by lightning and was therefore considered ``natural.'' What is natural, Pyne asks, in an environment that had been subjected to fire suppression during the century leading up to the fire, and what is unnatural, given the environment's previous millennia of flourishing in the presence of anthropogenic fire? On the global scale, Pyne warns that biodiversity can be threatened as much by the absence of fire as by fire itself, noting that fire can ``countermand'' some effects of global warming. In a deeper vein, he urges his readers to regard the stewardship of fire as our ``most distinctive trait as a biological organism.'' Not always a ball of fire, but the persevering reader will be treated to a thought-provoking treatise on this most elemental of subjects. (36 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-8050-3247-9
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1995


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