Fire is the Best Medicine
The ominous orange skies over California this week put a damper on my usual optimism. You don’t have to be a doomsayer to see that things are going get worse before they get better. Is there a silver lining to the smoky grey clouds overhead?
First, the bad news: With an air quality index of “Very Unhealthy,” those who weren’t already staying indoors out of excessive fear of COVID are now self-quarantining.
The smoke is second in toxicity only to our hyper-polarized political climate. During a crisis, it’s tempting to look for someone to blame – whether it’s CO2-driven climate change, or meddling environmentalists who have campaigned against sensible forest management. However, the search for a scapegoat always clouds the search for a solution.
If Californians assume that the solution requires us to fix global warming or give up on protecting our forests altogether, progress will remain impossible. However, a realistic appraisal of the nature of the problem lends itself to finding reasonable solutions.
First, Cato Institute scholar Randal O’Toole notes that, “[b]oth the historic and prehistoric record (using things like soil profiles and tree ring analysis) indicate that an average of about 1 percent of the West has burned every year for thousands of years.”
European explorers called the Los Angeles Basin “the bay of the smokes,” and the geological record confirms that Mother Nature “let it burn” long before humans began to intervene. Native Americans appear to have actually found a happy medium by intentionally burning some of the land each year. It’s only in the last 100 years that European peoples have attempted to prevent fires, both to protect property and under the banner of environmentalism to preserve allegedly “pristine” forests.
The impulse to shield the land from vital, periodic stress — while noble — has made it more fragile. Extreme droughts and flooding are part of the natural ecosystem in the western United States. An article from a 2015 issue of the Quaternary International finds evidence for “the occurrence of several multi‐year droughts in the past 100 years while tree ring records show that 20‐year and 70‐year droughts occurred during the last 300 years.”
Some desert plants can only grow when transported by extreme flood waters, and many trees only germinate after being fire-scarred.
When it comes to land management, Native Americans understood that letting the occasional fire burn was the best medicine. Although it now makes for a bitter pill, mega-fires provide a necessary mega-dose when annual “maintenance” is neglected or prevented.
The concept of hormesis, i.e., optimal stress, suggests a dose-response curve: Too much fire and smoke can be fatal, whereas the smoke from more frequent but less intense burns would hardly be noticed in the big cities. As Paracelsus said, the dose makes the poison.
Elizabeth Weil at ProPublica documents the conflicts of interest that have prevented us from implementing the thousands-of-years-old solution that we know to be effective. It will take years of above-average controlled burns to return to a baseline, and until then we can expect annual smoky Septembers.
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The mismanagement dates back in part to the genocide of Native Americans and the loss of their local knowledge. According to Weil, however, the trend was accelerated in the early 1900s when philosopher William James penned an essay titled, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” calling for a shift in resources away from combat with each other toward a battle against nature.
The result: overly aggressive fire-fighting efforts and a spin-off of the military-industrial complex comprising the government agencies tasked with controlling the increasingly uncontrollable. Cal Fire has (intentionally or otherwise) created a lucrative feedback loop in which fires lead bigger budgets, additional suppression, and worsening conditions.
There’s a fitting analogy to COVID: We’ve shielded ourselves from stress for too long. The medical system can suppress death, but it can never eliminate it. In the long run, suppression makes black swans like pandemics more devastating to vulnerable populations.
Cures for wildfires and COVID-19 are often worse than the disease. Fire prevention makes the land more fragile, as social distancing and staying indoors for months on end have made people more vulnerable to infectious disease.
Meanwhile, the struggle to preserve the illusion of control diverts our attention from the things we can actually control.
Regardless of whether warmer temperatures are a temporary anomaly or the new normal, we don’t need to solve climate change to start cleaning up excess fuels in our forests, replacing flammable building materials with fireproof ones, and protecting our property with better landscaping following “defensible space principles.”
There are also promising proposals to increase grazing on lands prone to fires. In addition to the trope about introducing a million-goat army, the Sacramento Bee reports the cattle may be a “secret weapon.” While it makes clear sense to restore levels of grazing cattle to their 1980s levels, perhaps we can dispense with the militaristic metaphors.
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“There’s also room for more cows to join the feast. The team learned that 1.8 million beef cattle grazed California lands in 2017, yet the number of cows there today ‘are only about 57% of their peak numbers in the 1980s.’”
In the case of both COVID and wildfires, we need not give up the fight altogether to reframe and combat the crisis altogether. Eradication is the wrong goal. However, we can address the underlying weaknesses by restoring the hormetic practices that made our ancestors resilient. COVID, like warm temperatures or lightning storms, is merely the spark. The fuel is the accumulated junk in our bodies from years of neglect.
In 2016, Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the mechanisms of autophagy — the beneficial “self-eating” that takes place within our cells when they are subjected to stresses like starvation, heat, and cold. Autophagy recycles old, dysfunctional organelles and optimizes cell functioning — slowing the aging process and preventing a variety of diseases.
Fasting is the prime method for inducing autophagy in a world that has eliminated most natural stresses through apparent mastery over our environment. But nature bats last, revealing how little we truly understand about what we imagine we can control.
Somehow, the ancient practice of fasting has become “This One Weird Trick to Lose Weight!” However, the most powerful results of fasting, such as autophagy, are largely invisible.
Perhaps the best reason to fast during this season is less for the benefits in confers than the fact that it is the appropriate response to a grievous situation, such as a sickness spreading through the community — physical or spiritual — or an environmental crisis like mismanagement of the land and resulting wildfires.
There will always be a fine line between the foolish endeavor to bring nature under our complete control and necessary task of being good stewards — both of our bodies and of the land. Native Americans likely used controlled burns to mitigate the mega-fires that are a natural product of California’s extreme ecosystem — alternating between periods of drought and flood.
The difference is found in Hormetics — the art of beneficial stress — which is the secret to good medicine and good governance alike.
Finally, fasting stokes the fires within. It sharpens our minds and brings us back in touch with our nature. It forces us to delve inward, purify our intentions, and take responsibility rather than point the finger.
We can blame COVID on China, Trump, or super-spreader events. We can blame lockdowns on cowardly politicians. We can blame the air quality on public or private forest managers, gender reveal parties, or the oil and gas industries. Or, we can clean up our own literal and figurative houses and prepare for the next wave of whatever disasters are heading our way.
After so much scapegoating, simply taking responsibility feels like a breath of fresh air.