Friday, January 17, 2014

Fire and Risk:

Environmental Impact Assessments in the Stone Age

One of my not-so-enjoyable tasks over the recent holiday period was trying to tackle some of the accumulation of an entire career that I have stashed haphazardly in the dark recesses of my basement over the years.  My husband will be quick to tell you that I did not make as much progress as he hoped I would, but I did unearth one forgotten gem that I'd long since forgotten about.  To my utter amazement, the piece I found, which was written--well, let's just say several decades ago--reflects the same sentiment that has been the theme of a number of my blogspots--that is, everything has some impacts.

The piece was an outline purporting to be the table of contents of a report by none other than Dr. A. Troglodyte, the man or woman who had first discovered how to control fire and who now had the unenviable task of documenting its environmental impacts.

The outline for A. Troglodyte's report included the following chapters:

Chapter 1.  Accidental burns:  Especially to those who regularly handle fire, and to children or others who are unable to heed instructions to maintain a safe distance from the heat source.

Chapter 2.  Conflagrations:  The uncontrolled spread of fire can potentially result in large-scale loss of human life, and/or of human or animal habitat.  Potential impacts include loss of hunting or gathering grounds.

Chapter 3.  Air Pollution:  The emissions from controlled fire can cause respiratory illness in those who stay too close to sources for too long.  On a larger scale, with widespread use, the air pollution can have as yet unknown weather and climatic effects, as well as widespread incidence of respiratory diseases.

Chapter 4.  Carcinogens in Cooked Food:  Recent evidence points to the existence of potential carcinogens in the charred exterior layer of meats barbequed over open fires.

Chapter 5.  Physical Impacts on Members of the Genus:  Over several generations, the reliance on cooked food, which is softer and therefore easier to chew and digest, may lead to natural selection for physiognomic characteristics that would make it difficult for members of the community to survive without fire.  Furthermore, accustoming the body to warmer environments could reduce the ability of the species to endure without the constant availability of heat, thus potentially reducing the combat effectiveness of warriors, who might not be able to use fires on battlefronts without revealing their locations.

Chapter 6.  Socioeconomic Impacts:  One can envision the control of fire leading to the emergence of a "fire priesthood" which could potentially have unprecedented levels of control over fellow members of their tribes.  In addition, it would exacerbate class distinctions, with the privileged class having the ability to barter for fire and the less privileged having to do without.  Furthermore, the existence of fires is likely to lead to family units spending more time in their caves interacting only with their own members, and to reduced athletic activity, thus leading to more societal isolation and a more passive culture.

Chapter 7.  Depletion of Resources:  While the current need for fuel is limited and there appear to be adequate amounts, widespread use of fire could lead to depletion of forests, resulting in both the economic consequences of resource scarcity and the environmental consequences of widespread forest destruction.

Now, the casual reader may think I was poking fun at the excesses of environmental impact statements (EIS), but the truth is, my intentions were to demonstrate that, if we knew then what we know now, even something as basic to the story of human life as controlled fire might have been viewed with suspicion and alarm.

The message should not be that fire is evil, but by the same token, neither is nuclear power, and neither are any of the other energy sources, even though I have written a number of blogposts about various risks from each energy source as I learn of them.  We are no longer troglodytes (I hope!).  The real message is that we need to take this environmental impact statement to the next step to determine 1) what is the relative significance of each of these impacts, 2) how does it compare to the impacts of other competing sources, and 3) how might we reduce the impacts. 


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