The burners

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D27846

What if our purpose, humanity’s purpose, is to burn up the Earth? To take all the burnable materials and burn them up, fast as we can, and reduce the planet to ash, or to a hot burning volcanic rock with a carbon-filled atmosphere, like Venus?

The surface of Venus from Venera 10. source

If you took a step back, looked at all the species on Earth, and tried to conclude what the function of our species, in particular, could be, you might conclude we are the burners. We’re the only species that uses fire. We’ve been using it for let’s say 1.5 mill – 100,000 years. A blip in geological time. We’ve gotten amazing at it, astonishingly advanced, to the point that we can bend fire to our will, dredge up ancient organic matter and refine it and put it to light. We can even invert the heating power of fire. When we want to cool ourselves, we turn a dial that sends signals that leads to the burning of coal, oil, gas. In our dim conscious minds we may be thinking “we’re making ourselves comfortable,” but perhaps on a deeper level we’re fulfilling our galactic mission to burn up planet Earth. Most of us only rarely deal with fire fire, outside of the occasional campfire or fireplace fire (which by the way we are drawn to and love). We don’t even need to. We’ve gotten so good at fire that every house has a refrigerator in it that works from something, somewhere, down the wires and at the end of the pipelines, burning.

Maybe burning is our function, the way the carrying away of dead matter is a function of ants.

What if the use and control of fire goes together with consciousness? As soon as a species becomes conscious, anywhere in the universe, they turn to the passion of burning. Quickly (within a few million years or so) they extinguish themselves and their planet and return it to glowing gas, rock, and dust? From a consciousness perspective, this seems sad, because everything we care about, our history, our arts, it’ll all be “extinguished” (to use a word that resonates with our burner culture, signifying loss). But we already know on a long enough scale it’s all temporary.

What if the light of consciousness is meant to burn hot and then extinguish itself, as stars do in their own time?

Couldn’t that be kind of beautiful? Sure, in the late stages of speciatic consciousness maybe we’d come to contemplate this end, even worry about it or attempt to wish it away. But perhaps after that stage, then we’ll reach a kind of smiling acceptance. In this scenario, all the fuss about climate change and so on is just the panic of an anxious toddler learning about death for the first time. It’s natural to be upset, but we need to progress through it and get back to burning up the Earth as quickly as possible.

Perhaps then Exxon executives, wildcatting frackers, really all of us as consumers and burners, are spiritually whole, leading purpose-driven lives that will lead soon to our ultimate fulfillment, if we can just accept that’s what we’re doing. The more we’re burning and consuming, the better. That’s why we keep doing it, even if neurotically we scream to ourselves that we have to do something about it.

Maybe traveling some rotten stretch of interstate you spy blackened stacks, raveling smoke, and wonder, What’s burning? We ought to ask the same each time we step into a comfortably warmed or cooled room, each time we click on a reading lamp or plug in a phone.

writes Joe Wilkins in a thoughtful essay in High Country News. More or less every article in that publication these days is about burning: natural gas drilling, abandoned oil wells, literal fires, or the first, second, third order effects of burning: changing rivers, drying forests, altered farming patterns. But maybe the fire we fear as demonic is calling to us for a reason.



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