Vegetation fires are astonishing in their severity.1 Temperatures are painfully intense along the fire’s ember-strewn edges even before the white-heat heart of the blaze arrives. Their smoke is dense, choking, acrid and debilitating. Their 5 kilometres per hour speed of spread outpaces the human gait even when fanned by only the slightest self-generating breeze—a rate that counterintuitively doubles to 10 kilometres per hour when they are driven upwards by rising ground.2 They overleap natural or human-made “firebreaks” such as rivers and urban infrastructure by sending burning twigs and embers ahead of the main fire to start more blazes beyond its fringes. They can roar through woodland canopy and burn downward through the trees to the forest floor, trapping everything beneath. They may die down in the face of rain or firefighters’ efforts only to re-emerge later as “zombie” fires when dry conditions return. Their complex patterns and behaviours are relentlessly exhausting to manage and fight. Irrespective of technological knowhow, their control requires stamina, concentration, teamwork and skills that can only come through practice and investment in resources.
When conditions and fuel loads allow, large fires shift easily beyond the control of humans into terrifying and raw elemental states. These runaway “wildfires” can spread across hundreds of acres of land, producing flames that reach heights and lengths measured in tens of metres. Such conflagrations are horrifying to contemplate when witnessed from the safety of our armchairs through television screens and newsreels. When they are running rampant through your landscapes and communities, destroying lives, belongings, homes and habitats, they must feel apocalyptic. In media images the firefighters on the ground trying to douse these megafires—either directly or through the creation of controlled burns and firebreaks—wear their trauma and fatigue on their faces while they wait, as one facing the flames in France this year put it, “for rain, for snow, for winter, for God”.3
2022 and the rise of the megafire
From London to California, from the Mediterranean to Siberia, the northern hemisphere’s summer of 2022 witnessed unprecedented levels of traumatic wildfires. In Europe, this was closely linked to the record-breaking heatwave across the continent in July of this year. Based on the year so far, it looks as though 2022 fires in Europe will be worse than average in terms of area burnt (figure 1). Indeed, by mid-August 2022, Britain had already experienced around 500 more wildfires than the previous year’s total.4
Figure 1: Comparative cumulative burn areas across EU countries (hectares)
Source: Kirk, Blood and Gutiérrez, 2022.
The historical significance of these wildfires was mirrored by the societal response. In just a few days of tackling the fires across South East England, London Fire Brigade went through its busiest call out period since the “Blitz” during the Second World War. Thousands of firefighters in France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Spain were out working for weeks on end in daily temperatures that exceeded 40°C throughout July’s heatwave.
Elsewhere across the world the first half of 2022 saw fires of extreme intensity spread in vast numbers. In the United States, Texas and California recorded severe firestorms leading to the evacuation of thousands of residents; California suffered “explosive” fires, with behaviour described as “unprecedented” by some of the world’s most experienced wildfire fighters.5 In the Global South, fire records were also broken in the first half of the year. Brazil recorded its highest levels of June fires for 15 years, linked to the highest rates of Amazon rainforest destruction on record. Ominously, such wildfire records have been tumbling even before the Global South’s traditional burning season unfolds in August and September.6
These annual patterns of conflagration are becoming all too familiar. Just like drought, floods, severe weather events and melting ice, the global rise in megafires is being increasingly attributed to climate change. Throughout the mainstream media, these huge fires are often framed as nature’s reaction to humanity’s use of fossil fuels and resulting climate chaos.7 Within broader environmental narratives they are described as testament to the awesome power of nature and confirmation, if it were needed, that humanity’s control of it can prove fleeting and illusionary.
At one level, this growing public awareness of links between wildfires and a warming world is politically encouraging because these infernos are indeed stark evidence of environmental chaos from which even climate change deniers cannot hide. However, as with other environmental issues, mainstream interpretations of wildfires are framed through a simplistic narrative that sets a generalised “humanity” against nature—stripping out the links between catastrophic fires and our dominant social system.
A more radical interpretation of our burning world is badly needed if we are to avoid environmental fatalism and develop approaches that will confine and control the infernos that threaten us all. Wildfires may appear to be natural consequences of climate change, but their severity, frequency and traumatic human impacts are set by the socio-ecological and historical contexts in which they arise. The terrifying, dramatic and spectacular characteristics of today’s wildfires are being shaped almost exclusively by global capitalism’s elitist social priorities and their dysfunctional ecological consequences.
Fire, life and labour
Although anthropogenic (human-made) fires are always burning somewhere on Earth, there is a “natural” rate of fires that would occur even if it were not for the advent of the so-called Anthropocene—the current geological epoch in which human activity has fundamentally disrupted the Earth system.8 This background level is the result of stochastic (unpredictable) weather conditions, natural climatic cycles such as the Pacific’s episodes of ocean warming (El Niño), and the lightning strikes that accompany the more than 2,000 thunderstorms that roll across the planet at any one time. These naturally occurring fires have shaped ecosystems and informed evolution throughout our biosphere’s history. For example, some of today’s species of tropical, sub-tropical and Mediterranean plants, such as acacias and eucalyptus, are co-dependent on fire for seed germination and successful competition against other species during ecological succession.9
Species such as eucalyptus can be said to “encourage” fire—having evolved flammable sap oils and strategies of fuel build-up via bark shredding and leaf litter—but humans are the only species in the planet’s history that has managed to capture, manipulate and apply fire and its properties in the explicit service of our biological and social continuities.
Humanity’s pre-capitalist use of fire involved a wide range of practices: from grassland fires to manipulate habitats for hunter gathering to the burning of woodlands to open land up for farming or settlement; from cooking and preserving food through smoke to using fire to heat or store energy for seasonal release through open fires and charcoal; from strengthening building materials through charring and massaging wood into shape using fire and steam to directly heating homes and ceremonial or communal buildings using hearths. These applications and others required all humans—regardless of age, gender, class or culture—to develop intimate and confident relationships with fire and its material needs: fuels, flames and airflow.
Fire plays a central role in our labour processes and their history, but industrial capitalism has forced a profound change in humanity’s relationship with the flame and, in the process, has removed direct application and control of it from many of us. It has positioned the machine and technology as intermediaries between the naked flame and our lives at every level from domestic to social metabolisms. Although this dialectical shift away from the “naked” to the “contained” flame is associated with capitalist industrialisation, its roots can be found across thousands of years of primitive artisanal practices in metal ore processing, ceramics, charcoal production and boat building. In these practices traditional methods were applied to regulate fire’s temperature and burn intensity to create the favoured qualities of the desired processed materials.
The methods of enclosure and regulation of combustion advanced and diversified under the industrial revolution from the mid-18th century onwards. The displacement of water power by steam power and its associated fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) accelerated the mechanical control of fire across industry.10 Post-war capitalism extended that process into our domestic lives—into our cooking as well as our heating—largely removing the naked flame from our hands and hearths. The flames that heat many of our homes and food in today’s industrial world are contained within complex fireboxes (boilers, wood burners and stoves) in which every element of fuel consumption is regulated through our manipulation of the machine. Alongside that, the post-war rise of the internal combustion engine has taken our manipulation of fire higher; we drive around our roads behind engines that create movement through explosive combustion. Of course, this further enhances our dependency on fossil fuels.11
Industrial capitalism hides our fires from us, creating the illusion of soot-free energy. In reality, the electricity that is used to power everything from the personal laptop to the domestic boiler is primarily generated by enormous furnaces held within vast power stations. A process of distant and controlled fire manipulation enables us, if we choose, to ignore the fact that we are still essentially heated by flames even if these are industrial in scale and geographically dispersed. Thus, advanced industrial society has granted humanity the apparent convenience and relative safety of instantaneous heat, light and movement, but the fundamental elements of combustion are still firmly fixed and dominant within the technical innovations of our prevailing social system.
This industrial “taming” of fire and the simultaneous reduction in our exposure to both firesides and conflagrations is disorientating. Urbanised unfamiliarity, combined with our alienation—deriving from capitalism’s broader metabolic rift with nature—lead us to view large fires and other elements of nature as external to broader human affairs or purely reactive to individual human behaviours such as arson.12 The occasions that we are witness to, or unlucky enough to be affected by, large catastrophic fires are traumatic partly because we have become so distanced from the flames that nonetheless still regulate our social metabolism and lives. Indeed, the term “wildfire” itself reflects our alienation insofar as it suggests a power that is out of our hands.
“Wildfire” is the word increasingly used for the large, sudden and cataclysmic infernos that ravage human settlements, forests and grasslands across the world with an undeniably growing frequency. These traumatic events do take on the appearance of “wild”, uncontrollable firestorms—the blaze unleashed—but it is a mistake to assign all such events to nature’s untrammelled forces. As with patterns of biodiversity and living nature under the Anthropocene, elemental fire does not act in isolation from humanity’s dominant capitalist social relations.13 Rather, it expresses itself through the prism of a social system that has altered and enhanced the conditions needed to create these vast and devastating fires. Even where we assign the start of such fires to humans—the individual arsonist or the clumsy barbecue chef—we miss that it is in fact capitalism that generates these wildfires through its own accelerant mix of fuel and flame then fans that potent blend with its climatic chaos.
Capitalism’s fuel: torching nature’s library
Controlled fire has been used for millennia to clear land for agriculture and manage soil fertility across the tropics through rotational farming—so-called “slash and burn” agriculture. However, the destructive fires that have been unleashed across regions such as Amazonia under neoliberalism have little to do with shifting agriculturalists trying to maintain food production, except where these farmers have been pushed into the margins through land inequality. Instead, they have everything to do with capitalist landowners and land-grabbers torching the rainforest to make way for intensive beef production as well as monoculture plantations of soy, palm and other crops.
Across tropical and sub-tropical latitudes, few major habitats have escaped conflagration over the last few decades. The area of rainforest cleared through fire has risen dramatically; Brazil’s rates of annual fire-born deforestation doubled from 579 square kilometres in April 2021 to 1,012 square kilometres in April 2022. That shocking acceleration follows the carnage of the devastating fires that ravaged the drought-hit Pantanal wetlands elsewhere in Brazil during the depths of the global Covid-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2021.14 While the world focused on climate change at the United Nation’s COP26 summit in Glasgow during autumn 2021, the laissez-faire policies of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, the intensification of agriculture and the dismantling of forest protection measures were playing out on the ground through cattle ranchers’ Zippo lighters.15
Media anecdotes painted the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns as beneficial for nature. Yet, this period was auspicious for those promoting habitat burning and destruction across the globe from Siberia to California, from Australia to the South Wales Valleys, and beyond. In some habitats, rates of loss and destruction between 2020 and 2022 had few historical precedents. For example, Australia’s devastating bushfires of 2019-20 affected 3 billion animals (including 60,000 endangered koalas).16 Unfortunately, there is every chance that such trends will continue across the world as governments and the media shift their attention away from our ecological catastrophe towards the latest global economic crisis, resurgent geopolitical rivalries and consequent wars.17
Landscapes, ecosystems and habitats that offer little or no profit to capital in their current form—because they are embedded in the livelihoods of competing but less powerful class actors such as small farmers, indigenous groups or the peasantry—provide much of the fuel for capitalism’s “wildfires”. There are other causes and types of fire underneath that general pattern that flow from capitalism’s disjointed ecology, but before exploring those it is important to be clear on what threats to the biosphere these infernos bring.
The increasing frequency of catastrophic fires both mirrors and accelerates another pernicious trend in capitalism’s ecology: the extinction crisis. Straightforward destruction of biodiversity by deliberate fire is becoming irreversible. Catastrophic fires, as US researcher Mike Davis has noted, are becoming extinction episodes in their own right.18 The wanton destruction of the rainforests, where over half of Earth’s biodiversity is concentrated on two percent of its total area (roughly six percent of its landmass), is particularly barbaric. Not only is it resulting in the loss of known species, but it is destroying thousands of those yet to be identified by taxonomists or even collected by field biologists. It is also tipping the vast global belt of equatorial rainforest towards the point of irreversible ecological change or even collapse (especially as climate change introduces other existential challenges to its flora and fauna). Away from the tropics, the fires that have been burning in other habitats—from the peat uplands of England and Wales to the Jericho Tree forests of California—are threatening countless isolated species that have lost much of their range through land use change already.
Aside from the obvious barbarity and the fact that these huge habitat fires act to force greater climate change, the loss of genetic biodiversity is of huge significance for future generations and their ecological futures. When we see images of mass book-burning we are rightly appalled. When we witness so-called “wildfires”—on our screens if we are fortunate—we should be equally so. We are witnessing the arsonist that is the capitalist system burning nature’s library to the ground.
In addition to fuelling its fires with non-commoditised and “low-value” habitats, capitalism has added to the fuel load through its unregulated and unplanned impacts on regional biodiversity. The movement of species around the world on the coat-tails of colonialism, trade and migration has resulted in significant ecological disruption over the last half millennium. Whether deliberate or accidental, the settlement of new species has sometimes acted to enhance the fuel load for wildfires. For instance, brome grasses have been translocated across the world by intensive farming and lawn seeds. Their ability to recover more quickly than native plants means that they thrive under fire conditions, and the build-up of their spent leaves (“thatch”) provides higher fuel loads, creating more intensive wildfires than native ecosystems. These exotic grasses effectively “use” wildfires to outcompete native species and habitats.
The global spread of fast growing and heat-tolerant eucalyptus has also proved problematic. In Australia the eucalyptus family plays a central role in the fires that have shaped continental ecology for millions of years. Aboriginal practices enhanced the species’ fire-prone qualities to support hunter-gathering for millennia before European colonisation. The planting of eucalypts across the Mediterranean basin and similar habitats in California may have enhanced tree cover, but it has also brought greater threats of wildfires. Blending with brome grass success, this creates a vicious cycle of wildfire fire and species invasion. Across northern Europe intensive pine plantations have similar impacts and fire enhancing qualities.
In many ways the rise of the wildfire regime has reflected the ecological disruption of capitalism. The fuel load of translocated species and the use of fire to clear natural vegetation for intensive agriculture both reflect the systems’ preference for profit-friendly ecological uniformity. Biodiversity represents a messy obstacle to profit, but it is good fuel for the fires that clear the way for simplified industrial ecologies.
Capitalism’s flames: the arsonist bourgeoisie
Although the fuel load is important, all fires need a spark or ignition source to start. In a direct and physical sense, and under the right conditions, that can come from lightning storms as easily as it comes from a Zippo lighter. The mainstream media focuses on individual behaviour as the spark—typically blaming arsonists (especially disaffected young people), farmers, ranchers and blundering barbeque users. Such narratives may add drama to news stories and leave us shaking our heads at the personal motivations of the individual fire starter, but they fail to illuminate the broader context. In the case of the wildfires we are experiencing, the fire starter is the same social form that generates fire-favouring habitat changes, invasive species and the destruction of biodiversity. All are co-symptomatic with the class dynamics of capitalism playing out now at global levels.
The ruling capitalist class, as the chief benefactors of global capitalism, has established a societal context that favours wildfire development. Capitalism has destroyed the long-standing, traditional fire management regimes of indigenous cultures. Deliberate fires have been set to clear land for capitalist cultivation, justified with chauvinistic concepts such as “terra nullius” (no man’s land). The resulting removal of human interactions with biodiversity at rates left land colonisers with no ecological understanding of fire beyond that supplied by a profit-orientated rationale. Under colonialism, wildfires in places like Australia became mystified rather than revered, and we are only now—in the face of climate catastrophe—starting to seek out Aboriginal cultures for advice.19
The destruction of traditional fire management regimes is strongly associated with the misanthropic removal of humanity from habitats. Even where this has not been explicit policy it has occurred through rural outmigration as well as strategies of primitive accumulation and dispossession. Land abandonment around the Mediterranean Sea has enhanced wildfire conditions, with fire-prone woodland growing across the region on abandoned and marginal farmsteads.20
In other instances, the role of capitalism in wildfire ignition has been nuanced, expressing itself through the cultural fallout of class struggles. In the crossover British habitats of upland and post-industrial settlement, individual arsonists are often blamed for causing moorland wildfires. In particular, children and adolescents are singled out for their supposed pyromaniacal behaviours. Yet, arsonism—as an expression of individualism through a fetish for inferno—is a symptom of alienation. In areas of high post-industrial deprivation such as the South Wales Valleys, the arson linked to school holidays is a hallmark of boredom and alienation. Indeed, it is possible that moorland wildfires are started through anger as much as despondency and alienation. Perhaps the burning of the uplands that surround many post-industrial parts of Britain could be a symptom of a sense that nature is recovering better than the marginalised working-class human communities.
The class dynamics that favour wildfires also include the capitalists’ usurpation of competing socio-ecologies in the pursuit of profit. They play out through the system’s extreme inequalities and alienation that disconnect communities from their landscapes. Those general class dimensions are compounded by neoliberal disdain and systematic erosion of public services. Seemingly endless cycles of austerity, public expenditure cuts, outsourcing, privatisation, and erosion of pay and conditions have combined to ensure that firefighting services around the world have become woefully inadequate to deal with wildfires. Perhaps the most revealing example of the class contexts of these conflagrations comes from the use of prison labour to fight fires across the US. In exchange for the possibility of parole, hundreds of California’s prisoners have “volunteered” for wildfire fighting with only two weeks of training in exchange for less than $3 per day.21 Capitalism not only produces wildfire but is willing to throw its “surplus” populations against the flames in a failed strategy of control.
Fanning the flames: the accelerant of climate chaos
Fire starting needs fuel and ignition. Capitalism enhances its flames through the socio-ecology of its fuel load—it positively encourages the incineration of the habitats and biodiversity that are associated with other classes and cultures. Its ignition preferences, meanwhile, are sown through its class dynamics; the lighter and matchbox are used as a weapon in the class war or used irresponsibly as a result of alienation, whether by individual arsonists or misguided farmers.
Once ignited, the intensity of a fire is enhanced through the application of accelerants: directly fanned air or other highly flammable materials. In the case of capitalism, fires started by the system’s application of fuel loads and ignition sources are enhanced into mega-conflagrations by climate change. Extreme weather events such as droughts, heatwaves and strong winds are all increasing in frequency and severity. They comprise favourable conditions for wildfires.
The rise of the megafire demonstrates the importance of holistic perspectives and a focus on the totality when considering environmental “issues”; wildfires are fed by, and symptomatic of, both biodiversity loss and climate change. Yet, they are also illustrative of the ironies that flow from capitalism’s dysfunctional ecology. Carbon dioxide’s normal association with fire is as a flame retardant, and it is used as such in domestic and industrial fire extinguishers. In contrast, and with dialectical grace, capitalism has effectively turned it into a fire accelerant. As a fossil-fuelled system, capitalism’s pump-priming of Earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is laying the basis for wildfires to rage across nearly every region on Earth—even in the sub-Arctic permafrost.
The remedies for wildfires thus lie in investment in the same technologies and services that are needed to fight climate change and decarbonise industrial economies. Given the very serious carbon emissions implications of wildfires themselves, we need to pull wildfire fighting into our decarbonisation efforts at every level.22 This requires careful reassessment of the simplistic solutions encouraged at COP26 such as carbon offsetting. In this Pyrocene, as Stephen Pyne labels it, of climate chaos we must be wary of corporate-friendly “net-zero” approaches to decarbonisation that encourage the proliferation of fire-prone monoculture plantations made up of fast-growing tree species such as pine and eucalyptus.23 Apart from these approaches’ extremely dubious accounting and trading methods, woodland carbon offsetting schemes will prove problematic in an age of heatwaves and megafires. Indeed, a century’s worth of carbon trading credits was recently wiped out by wildfires in California.24
Wildfires also create an urgent need to unite firefighting services with explicit land management practices that will dampen vegetation fuel loads across the world’s habitats without destroying biodiversity. The potential for creating green jobs through such holistic approaches is enormous, particularly if comprehensive wildfire management services are expanded to include fire information and education. Outreach services that inform about the dangers of accidental or deliberate fires rather than moralising and criminalising will help us to tackle the root causes of wildfires as a social issue. Failure to include wildfire fighting within the necessary comprehensive steps towards decarbonisation, and resource it accordingly, threatens human civilisation with a vicious cycle of fire, extreme weather and ecological collapse.25
Conclusion: socialism as wildfire retardation
Capitalism is a historically recent fossil-fuelled system that we rightly view as earth-shattering. Within the core of this social system’s ecologically dysfunctional metabolism, it must still manipulate combustion as a human innovation that has been central to our labour processes for roughly half a million years. However, the system’s control of fire is an illusion; the punctuation of our summers by wildfires are testament to that fact. Alienated from the central function of fire within our social metabolism, we contemptuously miss the fact that the so-called wildfire is the direct product of a social system that treats our partnership with nature with reckless abandon. Capitalism is the arsonist absolute.
Today’s “wildfires” are symptoms of the ecological infantilisation of our species. Where once we utilised fire to manipulate nature with a learned confidence, we now unleash conflagrations with the same immaturity that the media projects onto the young, bored kids of South Wales and other post-industrial deprivation hotspots.
The ecological maturity that we need for an open-ended and historically viable Anthropocene is within our grasp. The alternatives are already here. Tucked into the corners of theoretical and practical radicalism, we already have the scientific and cultural knowledge necessary to control the incidence and severity of wildfires—whether “natural” or born of capitalism’s ecological artifice—just as we already know how to slow and adjust to climate change and replenish our ravaged biosphere. Capitalism, however, through its metabolic rift and treadmill of accumulation, is dismissive of our unprofitable remedies.
The wildfires that we are witnessing and being subjected too are symptoms of capitalism’s deadly contradictions. The system has enhanced our means and methods of production—our ability to transform nature through our labour. Yet, compared with precapitalist ways of life, its processes of alienation have forced us backwards into a state of puerile, and possibly suicidal, ecological prepubescence. The very concept of a “wild” fire indicates just how far we have been pushed away from understanding our own ecology. A devastating symptom of climate chaos is being mystified through environmental fatalism because the causal dynamics of capitalism remain hidden from view. If we are to once more attain ecological adulthood, if we are to bring anthropogenic wildfires under meaningful control, we must reject this arsonist system and replace it with socialism and a viable ecology.
Ian Rappel is a conservation ecologist and member of the Socialist Workers Party. He used and supervised fires for conservation management on British grassland habitats through the 2000s.
1 This article is dedicated to the memory of Neale Williams, firefighter, friend and comrade. Thanks to members of this journal’s editorial board for feedback on earlier drafts.
2 Siegel, 2017.
3 Gunter, 2022.
4 Gregory, 2022.
5 BBC News, 2022; Davies and Wertheimer, 2022.
6 Spring and Kelly, 2022.
7 Igini, 2022.
8 For an account of the Anthropocene, see Royle, 2016.
9 Ecological succession is the process by which a certain mix of species establishes itself in a habitat over time, sometimes after a catastrophic incident such as a fire.
10 Malm, 2016.
11 Historian of fire Stephen Pyne offers a detailed and stimulating discussion of the paradigm shift between traditional and modern applications of fire—Pyne, 2021. With reference to its ability to alter geological and other cycles of nature, Pyne describes the pre-industrial and industrial impacts of anthropogenic fires as, respectively, the “Long Pyrocene” and the “Short Pyrocene”.
12 Karl Marx talks about capitalism producing an “irreparable rift” in the metabolic relationship between humans and nature. For a more detailed explanation of Marx’s theory, see Empson, 2016.
13 The interrelationships between biodiversity and social forms have been discussed previously in this journal—see Rappel, 2021.
14 The Pantanal fires are estimated to have destroyed 30 percent of these tropical wetlands and killed an estimated 17 million animals in 2020 alone—see Gill, 2021.
15 The burning season for the Amazon starts in late April or May each year, after the rainy season has passed. The trajectory for a deforestation rate that doubles each year is exponential loss. The COP26 target to “end” global deforestation by 2030 has probably accelerated the process since Bolsonaro and his ilk may well have returned to their countries and advised their elites to eliminate as much of the worlds’ forests as possible before that date. For a critique of the COP26 process and outcomes, see Empson, 2022a.
16 Reiner, 2020.
17 Vaughan, 2022.
18 Davis, 2020.
19 Massy, 2018.
20 Freund, 2021.
21 Brock, 2020.
22 Vaughan, 2021.
23 Pyne, 2021.
24 Hodgson, 2022.
25 Empson, 2022b.