Fire Is the Best Medicine

Taking Responsibility in an Age of Scapegoating

Ominous dark orange skies confused California residents earlier this month, as millions of people groggily double-checked their alarm clocks, wondering whether it was morning or still night. Smoke from dozens of wildfires had reached the upper atmosphere and blotted out the sunrise.

The normal relaxed attitude of the West Coast had been replaced with gloom, with dark days bearing all of the marks of apocalypse: a deadly plague, signs in the sun and the moon, and confusion as to whether the spiraling chaos was a result of human folly or an act of God.

You don’t have to be a doomsayer to expect things to get worse before they get better. Yet a utopian optimism pulses thick through the blood of Californians, and if it’s possible to detect a silver lining to the smoky grey clouds and indefinite lockdowns, citizens of the Golden State will find it. 

An apocalypse is, after all, a revelation—an unveiling. The value of such a crisis is that it insists on a confrontation, whereas until recently, the necessary change had been framed as a mere suggestion. Happily, California is finally realizing that it’s time to clean house.

[Read “René Girard’s Map to Meaning: We’re All Victim(izer)s“]

Beneficial Stress: The Old Normal

Before succumbing to self-pitying cries about our “new normal”—post-COVID, post-apocalypse—it’s worth considering how rare uninterrupted comfort and leisure have been throughout the historical struggle between humans and nature. Even when we weren’t fending off disease or natural disasters, people have generally been dealing with some kind of internal strife. Normalcy is the exception. Chaos is the rule. 

Climate change may or may not have sparked some of the recent fires, but weather extremes are not new in California. An article from a 2015 issue of the Quaternary International uses tree ring records to show that there have been 70‐​year-long droughts in the last 300 years—before humans had a chance to alter the climate significantly through CO2 emissions. In fact, many of our ecosystems thrive under such extremes. Some desert plants, for example, can only grow when transported by floodwaters, and many trees only germinate after being scarred by fire. 

Indeed, all life has evolved and continues to adapt within a forcefield of stresses. Pharmacologists have observed that certain kinds of stress produce responses with a J-shaped curve, depending on the quantity. “Hormesis” is the technical term for such processes within living things, which exhibit a biphasic response to increasing amounts of stress—with small doses being harmless or beneficial and only larger doses producing toxic or deadly results. 

“The dose makes the poison,” famously said the Swiss physician Paracelsus. Within the lower “hormetic” zone, some poisons actually function as medicine. The Greek word “pharmakon,” from which pharmacology is derived, means both poison and remedy. Vaccines, for example, operate on the same hormetic principle, as does the diabetes drug Exenatide—a synthetic version of the poisonous component in the saliva of Gila monsters.

Unlike the ancient world of the Greeks, modernity is characterized by its lack of vital stressors, which we have eliminated in the pursuit of comfort and apparent technological mastery over our environment. Only in the last 100 years have we been able to prevent fires, both to protect ourselves and property and to preserve the ostensibly “pristine” forest environment. However, Cato Institute scholar Randal O’Toole notes, “[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 indigenous Californians appear to have found a happy medium in some parts of the state by intentionally burning part of the land each year. Fire prevention is thus an abnormal departure from the natural state of active burns—fire medicine.

[Read “Let a Thousand Green New Deals Bloom”]

Fire and the Myth of Untouched Nature

Native Americans understood that starting fires intentionally was a kind of medicine that could be harnessed to prevent larger uncontrolled burns. Whereas megafires could be devastating, smoky fires from more frequent but less intense burns would sweep out the dry underbrush and simultaneously drive prey out of the woods, where it could be more easily hunted. 

The symbiosis between clever humans and forest ecosystems kept California wildfires at bay for thousands of years, until the genocide of Native Americans erased their local knowledge of land management “best practices.” The modern myth of our separation from an untouched nature neglects the hormetic practices like prescribed burns that keep nature in balance with human aims.

Fortunately, forestry experts have rediscovered excess fuels as the root cause of wildfires, and have been urging policymakers for decades to revive the practice of controlled burns. However, an unholy alliance between naive environmentalists and well-paid firefighters has created the current “dysbiosis.” Elizabeth Weil at ProPublica documents the conflicts of interest that have prevented the state of California from implementing the ancient solution we know to be effective. According to Weil, the pivotal moment came in the early 1900s with the publication of philosopher William James’s essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” In it, the founder of modern psychology called for shifting resources away from combat with other nations toward the battle against nature. The result: overly aggressive fire-fighting efforts and a spin-off of the military-industrial complex comprising government agencies tasked with controlling the increasingly uncontrollable. Cal Fire has (intentionally or otherwise) created a lucrative feedback loop in which fires lead to bigger budgets, additional suppression, and worsening conditions.

According to Weil, it will take years of above-average controlled burns to return to the baseline, and until then Californians can expect smoky Septembers and the occasional apocalyptic orange clouds blotting out the sun. So what about that silver lining? 

[Read “The Mythos of Pandemic”]

Dry Tinder and the COVID-19 Reset

When the Air Quality Index hit levels deemed “very unhealthy” by the EPA, those who weren’t already staying indoors out of fear of COVID began quarantining all over again. The smoke, however, has yet to reach the same level of toxicity as the current political conversation. An already-polarized political climate has been further charged by the high-stakes debate over the appropriate response to the pandemic. Few can agree on the facts, let alone what inferences we should draw from the deluge of data on PCR tests, vaccine trials, and mortality figures.

During any crisis, it’s tempting to find someone to blame rather than search for a solution. Coincidentally, the Greek word “pharmakon”—coined to reflect the dual nature of poison/medicine—also means “scapegoat.” We can observe the scapegoating pattern with regard to both COVID and wildfires. Pick your target: Trump or China; climate change or environmentalists; CO2 emissions or incompetent state officials; the Wuhan Lab or the CDC. It’s all fair game as long as the act of venting your anger provides catharsis and a sense of solidarity with your ideological allies. The alternative to scapegoating is to look for effective solutions. 

If Californians assume that the only way to stop wildfires is to fix global warming, progress will remain impossible. However, a realistic appraisal of the nature of the problem suggests reasonable solutions. Regardless of whether warmer temperatures are a temporary anomaly or the “new normal,” property owners in vulnerable areas can start cleaning up (i.e., burning) excess fuels in their own backyard, replacing flammable building materials with fireproof ones, and using better landscaping based on so-called “defensible space principles.”

Additionally, there are 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 that cattle may be a “secret weapon.” To start, we can restore the number of grazing cattle to at least their 1980s levels. 

Although we might also want to dispense with the militaristic metaphors of the War on Nature, we need not give up the fight altogether in order to mitigate future crises—whether COVID or wildfires. However, unless we’re talking about Ebola, eradication is likely the wrong strategy. The lesson to be drawn is that we have shielded ourselves from stress for too long. The medical system can suppress death, but it can never eliminate it. Helicopters and fire crews can put out some fires, but not all of them. In the long run, suppression makes black swans like pandemics and megafires more devastating to vulnerable populations and areas respectively. COVID, like warm temperatures or lightning storms, was merely the spark that lit the fire. The fuel was the accumulated junk in our bodies from years of neglect and technological intervention.

Biochemical engineer Ivor Cummins reports a neglected set of statistics showing that countries with below-average flu deaths in the years leading up to 2020 have had much worse COVID-19 epidemics, and vice versa. This meant that there were many more vulnerable people who had aged far beyond average life expectancy in countries like Sweden, where the presence of so much “dry tinder” in elder care homes made them prone to high mortality early on. It’s worth noting that since the beginning of the outbreak, Sweden has virtually no excess mortality due to COVID. Some believe they are a success story of achieving herd immunity, while other countries that pursued the elimination strategy like New Zealand are just beginning to grapple with an inevitable wave of deaths among their increasingly cooped-up population.

To identify certain populations as dry tinder, ready to go up in flames, may strike some as an insensitive metaphor. Yet it can also be humbling insofar as it reminds us that we cannot ultimately control death, nor is it our responsibility to indefinitely prolong “life” in the abstract. We will never know the number of victims of lockdowns due to drug overdoses, suicides, undiagnosed cancers, or generalized anxiety and depression. All the while the struggle to preserve the illusion of control diverts our attention from the things we can actually control.

[Read “What Earthquakes Teach Us About Embracing Uncertainty”]

Fasting: The Ancient House Cleaning Remedy

There will always be a fine line between the foolish endeavor to bring nature under our complete control and the necessary task of being good stewards—both of our bodies and of the land. The difference is found in hormetics, i.e.,  the art of beneficial stress , which is the secret to good land management and good medicine alike.

We have seen how Native Americans have 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. In an analogous way, virtually every ancient religion prescribed periods of fasting and feasting in response to nature’s cyclical scarcity and abundance. Even after superficial abundance became the norm through enhanced modern agriculture yields, the fasting tradition remains a vital part of most cultures. Perhaps we’ve recognized the value of resilience, or even intuited the health benefits that have more recently been described in scientific terms.

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 . Thus, fasting—i.e., “controlled starvation”—slows the aging process and prevents a variety of diseases, especially metabolic syndrome. This cluster of conditions that includes obesity, type II diabetes, and hypertension, is also the chief co-morbidity of COVID-19, and is primarily the result of eating excessive refined carbohydrates. In small doses, sugars may have been vital and important to our survival and evolution, but at the current levels of production and consumption, they are just more fuel for the fire of metabolic syndrome.

Fasting is the prime method for inducing autophagy in a world that has eliminated most natural stresses through apparent mastery over our environment. Somehow, this ancient practice has become “This One Weird Trick to Lose Weight!” even though the most powerful results of fasting, such as autophagy, are largely invisible.

Beyond the benefits it confers, another reason to fast during this season of crisis is that it is simply the appropriate response to a grievous situation, such as a sickness spreading through the community — physical or spiritual — or an environmental crisis like the wildfires.

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 for our complicity in the crisis rather than point the finger at someone else.

We can blame COVID on China, Trump, or super-spreader events. We can blame lockdowns on politicians, the politicization of science, or on people being overly risk-averse. 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 houses in preparation for whatever revelations are coming next.

After so much scapegoating, just taking responsibility feels like a breath of fresh air.

Charlie Deist

Charlie is a writer, radio producer, and sailor located in Berkeley, California. He is the author of Hormetics: Physical Fitness for Free People (2020) and produces The Bob Zadek Show, a radio program broadcast on AM stations throughout the West Coast.

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