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Burning things is a quintessential human-flourishing activity.
Humans have been using fire for eons. We have used it to make light and create warmth, to increase the nutritional value of food, and to keep predators at bay. We have used fire to hollow logs to make canoes, to transform landscapes to new purposes, to soften and harden metal. We have also used fire for something even more important: The campfire is a forge for ideas. A place to discuss berries, rivers, and fish. A place to share our experiences, to talk, to laugh, to cry, to deliberate over our challenges and share our successes. From this forge emerge the kinds of ideas that render humans a true superspecies, one that surfs the rules of the universe, kicking up paradoxes in its wake.
At the expense of repeating what has become a cliché over the years, fire is both a creator and a destroyer, but it’s also an evolver.
Humans, that is homo sapien sapiens, are the only species on earth who’ve mastered the use of fire. Chimpanzees are the closest species to “get it” as outlined by anthropologist Jill Pruetz, who in a 2009 study on the subject highlighted three so-called cognitive stages a species must pass in order to master fire in the way humans have done.
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The first stage involves having a conceptualization of what fire is and how it behaves. It can probably be said that nearly every animal on the planet has at least enough of a conceptualization to recognize fire is hot, hot not good, smoke not good either. But this also extends to a basic understanding of its movement and modifying one’s behavior to take something akin to a calculated risk as to how close to approach fire. (Tangent: Our friend over at Fleeting West would probably argue the average American WUI dweller only has this only this basic level of understanding drawing parallels to Smil and Doomberg’s insight that many people have little clue of where things come from.) Pruetz noted in her study by the way, that chimps, only mastered this first stage.
The second stage is the ability to control the fire which includes containment and depriving the fire of the substances it requires for the chemical reaction to continue. Humans are remarkably good at this - most of the time. Any society remotely considered to be civilized has an entire organization dedicated to the art and science of this: firefighting. It’s with good reason we elevate those willing to risk their lives to fight fires as heroes.
Finally the last stage, is the ability to start a fire. To those in the developed world who weren’t in Scouts often find this task exceedingly difficult without the use of modern amenities such as the humble lighter or even match. Nevertheless, nearly every human culture as far as we know eventually figured this out.
Much like how the discovery of cooking food led to bigger brains (sorry vegans and raw foodies), the discovery of burning various things led to more innovation and thus human flourishing. This all led to improved tools, less time hunting and gathering, and more time to think and innovate. In a sense, modern humans, especially in the comfortable developed and empowered world, have lost nearly any sense of what this all means.
This comes up in the energy discussion as well.
It’s typically only the useful energy (or end-use energy) many people, including those who have the strongest opinion on energy actually see.
For tens of thousands of years, the only primary energy source was wood or similar biomass (peat, dung) with useful energy being the heat from said burned wood/biomass. Charcoal came later, providing that secondary energy step. It wasn’t until a few centuries ago that coal would be burned instead for heat and that process led to the first steam engines and eventually the first electric power generation.
To this day, combustion of some substance, is still the source for roughly 82% of global primary energy. Pre-pandemic, in 2018 this figure was 83% and half a decade ago it was 86%3. Renewable energy as a primary energy source4 , via wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass (combustion ironically) use indeed increased but fossil fuel as a primary energy source remained unchanged between 2019 and 2021.
That number (82%) has stubbornly decreased very little over the years despite a vast investment in renewables - particularly wind and solar. At this time renewables in total comprise of approximately 13% of said power5. Wind and solar alone compose of only 6%. This is all in the background of a world where energy use is still increasing as more and more people in developing nations climb the development ladder. These nations are, to the chagrin of those here in the comfortable, developed, empowered world are going to select combustible primary energy sources first due to their abundance, low cost, and energy density. Sorry John Kerry.
Much like with modern fire, we generally only see these end results - the useful energy, and not the in-between. Food doesn’t just come out of a box only to be zapped by a microwave for human consumption, there’s an entire line of steps before that. Energy does not magically appear from somewhere either. Proponents of a zero-carbon, or net-zero world envision getting that number as close to 100% as possible (especially at an unprecedented speed) are falling for such fallacies and broken thinking.
Primary energy on one end and useful energy on the other can also be analogized as primary versus end-use energy.
“bp Statistical Review of World Energy 2022 | 71st edition” Page 3; https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2022-full-report.pdf
The BP Review’s definition includes biofuels and waste combustion but excludes hydroelectric energy.
“bp Statistical Review of World Energy 2022 | 71st edition” Page 2; https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2022-full-report.pdf