Tag Archives: North America

Eco-Awareness: The fires in North America

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The fires in North America, and the recent one in Hawaii, absorb the attention of most of us. They are the imagined Earth-on-fire apocalypse of the distant future brought rudely into our present.

The roaring red flames, thick smoke blanketing entire landscapes, burnt buildings, scattered skeletons of motor vehicles, the tales of frantic escapes and the tragic deaths chime with some of our deepest fears of what might befall us, our children, grandchildren, friends, neighbours, civilization and the very fabric of the world. Cormac McCarthy in his novel The Road, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, gives us a glimpse of what trying to survive in a burnt-out ecosystem might mean.

Thankfully, as a global community, we are not living in the very scary world described by McCarthy and if we listen to the scientists and heed what our collective experiences are telling us, we probably don’t have to.

There is little doubt, as the World Weather Attribution initiative tells us, that the heatwaves in North America and Europe this summer, as well as the melting of the ice sheets in Antarctic, would have been “virtually impossible” without human induced global warming. If we want to live in a predictable, benign climate we know what to do to address global warming which is to act on two fronts simultaneously.

One of these is to persuade our government to work in unison with other governments to change the economic framework in which the transnational corporations and financial institutions operate. The mechanisms that enable this to happen already exist. We also, metaphorically, have to leap out of our warm beds on a cold night and close the windows that are letting in the storm. In other words, we have, without delay, to live a less fossil fuel intensive life-style which means eating less meat, dairy and travelling when feasible by public transport as well as walking and cycling. All of which, it is satisfying to know, will improve our physical health, emotional wellbeing and enrich our sense of place.

Another thing that we need to do is restore our seriously degraded ecosystems.

One reason why the fire in Hawaii was so intense and spread so fast is because much of the original forests had been clear-felled and turned into sugarcane and pineapple plantations. When these crops could be produced and harvested more cheaply elsewhere the companies abandoned the land which was colonised by highly flammable grasses and shrubs which had been brought to Hawaii to provide livestock foliage and for decorative purposes as early as 1793. Today almost a quarter of the land area of the Hawaii chain of islands is covered with these grasses and shrubs. The Pacific Fire Exchange organization say that this situation can be reversed by planting native trees.

This year, as of the 28 August, the wildfires in Canada have burnt more than 151,615 sq. kilometers or nearly 59,000 sq. miles of forest. A cause, in addition to global warming, is that the timber companies replaced the bio-diverse, multi-aged, damp forests with monocrops. These are single species, single age trees, readily seen in Fermanagh, and were planted in regimented lines across the landscape. These tree plantations are not only more susceptible to fire than the native forests but also enable the rapid spread of diseases.

Another factor is that the Indigenous people in North America managed the forests in such a way that their fuel load was reduced, which meant that forests were less combustible and when they did catch fire were less likely to burn for weeks on end.

The recent wildfires in Hawaii, in southern Europe and the massive ones presently burning in Canada are a wake-up call for us to regard our local ecosystem as something very precious which we need to take care of and restore to good health. Equally, we need to be concerned about the Earth as a whole and educate ourselves about where what we consume comes from, how it is processed, how it gets to us and if the workers along the line are paid a decent wage and treated with dignity.

We live in an age when it is imperative that we recognize that Nature has no borders, that there is no us and them, and all things are connected, including the present and the future.