Distraction Free Reading

The Memory of Fire: Burning Backwards into the Future

Fire breathes oxygen. Fire consumes organic material. Fire ages and dies. Fire runs, jumps, and simmers. Fire responds differentially to external irritants. Fire has moods. Among many of its seeming affinities with metabolizing life, fire also has an excellent, perhaps perfect, memory. As such, wildfires have one inviolable rule: never backtrack. Fire never goes backwards, never rewinds. Because of this stubborn refusal one of the most successful and widely practiced approaches to halting the progress of wildfires is to pre-burn swaths of land toward which a fire is raging. Once fire comes upon a burnt landscape it cannot proceed, it starves to death. When employed indirectly to create a control line, this strategy is called burnout. However, this strategy can also be employed to directly attack a fire by igniting a blaze and propelling it into the path of a wildfire. This is called backburning. Conclusively, you can fight fire with fire.

The chemistry of this strategy is not negotiable, and it may indeed be the most effective approach to halting some forest fires. It is reminiscent of the scorched-earth practice in warfare of incinerating your own resources to prevent the enemy from making use of them—without provisions the encroaching fire is stopped in its tracks. Indeed, wildfires are often framed as enemy combatants (many working on the frontlines of the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire prevention efforts are former soldiers). Backburning and the vocational appellation “firefighter” suggest that, like any enemy, fire is to be attacked, beaten, defeated, and overcome.

Fire, unlike many organisms with which humans have had to share resources and space, cannot be totally eradicated. Fire doesn’t go extinct. The only way to “win” the battle against undomesticated fire would be to incinerate all organic material. To create a world with nothing left to burn. By rapidly transforming the combusted heat of the planet’s biomass into cement, glass, and forged metals, it sometimes feels as though the industrialized world is becoming unburnable—a landscape of scarred memories with no viable future trajectories.

Fighting Fire with Future

Using a flamethrower with U.S. Forest Service

Testing out wildfire prevention tools with the U.S. Forest Service.

A world with nothing left to burn is a world without a future—an adurational, atemporal, static, momentary world. It is more than allegorical to read politics into such a world. As wildfires rage, eco-nationalism and eco-imperialism rage back. “Burning backwards” would be a fitting description for the eco-racist sentiments espoused in El Paso and Christchurch, which view environmental degradation as a justification for neoliberal resource hoarding and exclusionary politics—“immigration is destroying the environment.” The retrogressive temporality that underlies the program of nationalism burns backwards until the future is starved—colonization through combustion. Future trajectories (be they of raging wildfires, trans-rights, refugees fleeing starvation) are dismantled not in an effort to maintain stasis (because static homeostasis is an illusion), but in order to manifest stasis—to pause a favorable status quo. Conservative movements from neo-nationalists to eco-fascists are fueled by a resistance to future threats to their position within society. More simply (and alliteratively), conservatives fear the flux that futures forebode.

As Naomi Klein (2014) has discussed, for some, climate change discourse is a far more menacing threat than climate change itself. Climate change discourse (more than the actual transformation of the climate) demands change (of the status quo), a rejection of current distributions of power and people. Those that advocate for inaction on climate change are less afraid of a dead sterile (burnt) world than a world without colonial circuits of power. This includes the active climate change deniers as well as the policy-makers at climate conferences such as the recent COP25. Klein posits that the admission of climate catastrophe rebukes the colonial narrative of dominance over nature, and further implies that the world system constructed out of European nationalism has not only been morally dubious but also suicidally ignorant.

While fire remembers perfectly the course it has taken, the memory of the raging nationalist-conservative movement is somewhat suspect. While fire always knows where it comes from and never returns, nationalism is built on a denial of its history and a desire to return to imagined conditions of atemporal social relations. The threat posed by wildfires particularly and global warming broadly is thus disarming because it records the illusory narratives of colonial and crypto-colonial ideology with an all-too-precise fidelity.

Using the tools of ecology, geology, and climatology, Petryna (2018) describes current efforts at horizoning—bringing a runaway future into the present as an object of intervention. She describes this as a “race for (actionable) time.” Who are the contestants in this race for time? Rather than the traditional political belligerents (conservatives v. progressives), perhaps the race for time is between the present and the future. Contrary to the common refrain among environmentalists that the actions taken today are an abandonment or theft of the future in order to appease the present, the situation could be framed in reverse. The future is stealing the resources of the present in order to construct itself—backburning into now to prevent the manifestation of forms of social organization inimical to the future growth of wealth. Capitalism is an operative from the future meant to ensure that societies obediently grow their wealth for the future despite the misery this induces in the present. The history of the industrialized Earth is one of the future enriching itself off the exploitation, inequity, and suffering of the present (see Land 1993). Like all colonial endeavors neo-nationalism is about securing futures conducive to the expansion of wealth.

side by side photo of dust storm from the film Mad Max: Fury Road and 2020 fires in Australia

Mad Max vs. recent dust storms in Australia.

Flame of Life

As Yusoff suggests in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019), what truly (and ironically) denotes the Anthropocene is a mass dehumanization. She discusses how the geologizing of the world transforms life into inert mineral compositions, unanimated bundles of properties. The uncontained raging life of fire then seems a poetic vessel poised to unwrite this geologic imperialism. Far from being a harbinger of death and a void of life, fire appears both metaphorically and physically alive—the antithesis of geology. Where there is fire, there is life. Instead of looking for water on other planets, exobiologists may consider looking for fire.

“What if I am, in some way, only a sophisticated fire that has acquired the ability to regulate its rate of combustion and to hoard its fuel in order to see and walk?” (Eiseley 1978). Many have written about the metabolizing affinities of fire. Much like fire, metabolizing animals “unravel what photosynthesis has brought together” (Clark & Yusoff 2018, 11). That is, fire and animals break up the matter that has been ordered by solar energy. Clark & Yusoff  elucidate a concept of pyrosexuality, wherein our penchant for analogizing lust with combustion (the flames of desire) is inverted. That is, perhaps more than our loins burning with passion, it is metabolic-sexual satisfaction that fire experiences as it spreads uncontrollably. They allude to Bataille in comparing fire to “Sex for its own sake, sex for the pleasure of it—just like any offloading of economic goods that manages to escape the circuit of reinvestment—is pure discharge, non-productive expenditure, a waste of energy” (2018, 10). More disagreeable than its capacity to destroy, is fire’s capacity to waste (in terms of capitalizable utility). Indeed, forestry policies that sought to restrict wildfires in the U.S. for most of the 20th century (thus creating powder kegs of undergrowth) were driven (in part) by destructive logging companies. Destroying the forest is not the concern, wasting the forest is the concern.

Thinking of fire as a lifeform allows capitalizing society’s relationship to incinerating heat to be framed in terms of biopower. Clark (2011) has suggested that it has been the domestication of fire that most distinguishes our species, perhaps our first domesticate. As Scott (2017) argues, the inverse could also be posed for all domesticates—fire domesticated humanity. Certainly, all that dead buried carbon we release into the atmosphere would not have combusted without our patronage. Certainly, the domain and volume of fire has greatly expanded along with hominids. Reminiscent of petroleum in Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, which coerces its terrestrial liberation from a subservient human species (2008), fire could certainly be seen as the top of the planetary food chain. The insatiable appetite of fire has recently been making its own weather and was recently discovered to have turned human brains into glass.

Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Black Feminist Poethics (2014) asks if rather than better the world as we know it, the ethical response to the alienation of today should not strive to end the dehumanized world of the Anthropocene. That is, rather than attempting to “save the future” for subsequent generations, perhaps the focus should be on subduing the capitalized tomorrow. To this end, perhaps backburning can serve to rewire Silva’s oppressive temporality of categories—life/death, sameness/difference. That is, the indelible memory of fire may offer a map for rehumanizing the future.


Clark, Nigel. 2011. Inhuman Nature : Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. London: SAGE.

Clark, Nigel and Kathryn Yusoff. 2018. “Queer Fire: Ecology, Combustion and Pyrosexual Desire.” Feminist Review 11(1): 7-24.

Eiseley, Loren. 1978. “The Last Neanderthal” in The Star Thrower. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Ferreira da Silva, Denise. 2014. “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(Ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World.” The Black Scholar 44(2): 81-97.

Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Land, Nick. 1993. “Machinic Desire.” Textual Practice 7(3): 471-482.

Negarestani, Reza. 2008. Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Melbourne: Re.press.

Petryna, Adrianna. 2018. “Wildfires at the Edges of Science: Horizoning Work amid Runaway Change.” Cultural Anthropology 33(4): 570–595.

Scott, James C. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Yusoff, Kathryn. 2019. A Billion Black Anthropocenes Or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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