2020 Lecture

"The Pyrocene: How Humanity Created a Fire Age"

by Stephen J. Pyne

Acclaimed fire historian and author Dr. Stephen J. Pyne delivered the 2020 Lynn W. Day Distinguished Lectureship in Forest and Conservation History on October 28, 2020. In his talk “The Pyrocene: How Humanity Created a Fire Age,” he discussed how we are living in a Fire Age of comparable scale to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene, and whether our relationship with fire is a mutual assistance pact or a Faustian bargain. The free, one-hour presentation was given on Zoom and was hosted by FHS historian Jamie Lewis. You can watch the presentation video on our YouTube channel. Dr. Pyne answered questions he was unable to get to during the presentation in writing. You can find those questions and responses here.

Writes Dr. Pyne, “The Earth is a uniquely fire planet, humans a uniquely fire creature, and how they have interacted has been shaping our world throughout the Holocene. First through the control over ignition, and then by adding some control over living biomass, people have been reshaping biogeography and even climate. The process went on afterburners when humanity’s quest for more firepower led to the burning of fossil biomass. This pyric transition has passed over every environment that humans inhabit. It upset fire regimes in living landscapes, leading to fire crises. Its impact on the atmosphere has globalized that effect, quickening a fire epoch. We are creating a fire age, the Pyrocene, the fire-informed equivalent to an ice age.”

Dr. Stephen Pyne is an emeritus professor at Arizona State University. He has published 35 books, most of them dealing with fire, but others on Antarctica, the Grand Canyon, and the Voyager mission. His fire histories include surveys of America, Australia, Canada, Europe (including Russia), and the Earth. He's the author of the FHS Issues Series book America’s Fires: A Historical Context for Policy and Practice and a frequent contributor to Forest History Today. He recently completed “To the Last Smoke,” a ten-volume survey of fire in the United States published by the University of Arizona Press.

The Lynn W. Day Distinguished Lectureship in Forest and Conservation History is sponsored by the Forest History Society, and Duke University's Department of History and Nicholas School of the Environment.