Fire as a Simplified Model of Today's World

JJ England

All human-caused environmental impacts stem from the nature of humanity and from technology. Thus, the task of determining environmental impacts on today’s way of human life, why we allow them to occur, and how they happen can be immense. This is especially true considering the complexities of our wants and needs and the even more complex tools that we use to fulfill these. For these reasons, it makes sense to turn to a more simplified scenario by jumping back in history several hundred thousand years to the era of pre-history, when the first humans (homo-sapiens) roamed the earth. Modern archaeology tells us that the first truly important technology that these humans developed was the use of fire. Because human wants and needs at this time period were drastically reduced from the expectations of people in today’s world, and because the costs and benefits of this technology can be analyzed relatively simply, this technology will provide an excellent example for answering the questions posed above.

The first clear evidence of the controlled use of fire dates to around 200,000 BCE. These fires would have made it possible for homo-sapiens (and possibly homo-erectus) to migrate to colder climates, increase the growth of “crops” by fertilizing and seeding the land, cook meals in order to make them more digestible, hunt more efficiently, and, eventually, provide metal tools. Considering that the work time of nearly all early humans would have been consumed entirely with hunting or gathering, the advent of fire was a huge step forward for homo-sapiens. In other words, in a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of fire for homo-sapiens were drastic. However, at what cost? If a human-centric point of view is taken, then the costs to humans of using fire would have included: reduction of wood supplies for future fires (if the concept of sustainability was not utilized), the death of many animals when only a few were required for food, selectively changing the wildlife and plant life in the fired region, and ultimately deforestation of local areas.

At this point, we should be able to complete a cost-benefit analysis. However, the problem is that a quantitative value cannot be placed on these types of impacts. Nonetheless, this can still be boiled down qualitatively to: an increase in food supply at the cost of deforestation. This information can be used to answer the original questions. We allow environmental impacts to occur when present needs and wants outweigh what we believe to be the cost of fulfilling these needs. Technically, this is probably what the basis should be for answering environmental questions in today’s more complex world. The problem with this, however, seems to be that even in the past, we have only taken into account the present costs of an environmental impact on the present generation. The homo-sapiens of 200,000 years ago had no idea that they would be destroying entire species and driving them to extinction, merely with fire. Likewise, the people of more recent generations do not take into account the hundreds of environmental impacts that they can accrue just in one day (i.e. destroying a river that a future generation might have found useful).

It seems to me that the biggest difference between the homo-sapiens and the people of today is that the homo-sapiens changed their environment in order to survive, while the people of today change their environment for comfort. Therefore, the biggest question of all really is: is such a degree of comfort worthwhile when humanity has such a history of only taking into account present costs? For me, the answer would have to be “no.” Things of the greatest importance (food, water) should be allowed to have the greatest environmental impact, and everything else should be on some sort of a diminishing scale that is based upon usefulness. Of course, this requires a useful definition of “usefulness,” which can only be based on personal opinion. Nonetheless, the point is that the environmental impact of making and using an air conditioning unit or television is weighed in much the same way as that of food and water in a cost benefit scenario. This logic, to me, seems flawed.

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last updated 2/8/06