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Last Modified: April 19, 2023
Feature Image for March 2023 Sunday Short: Sunday Shorts is written in Red text on an ivory background. To the left of the text is the book cover for “Reimagining Fire” edited by Eveline Kolijn.
Reimagining Fire, Chris Turner

This month’s Sunday Short is Chris Turner’s foreword to Reimagining Fire: The Future of Energy, a collection of writings and art in which environmentally conscientious artists and writers share their perspectives on energy transition. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Durvile & UpRoute Books.

All the basic necessities of life revolve around energy. Acquiring it, harnessing it, using it to cook food or boil water or warm a dwelling against the cold. Fire is the original energy source, the first one that human populations could control, distribute, increase or decrease as needed. And fire remains central to the production of energy, and to the metaphorical lens we use to understand our relationship with energy.

Most of the world’s transport is driven by contained explosions—passenger jets soaring across oceans do so on ribbons of fire, and so does the family car for most of us—and much of the world’s electricity is produced by boiling water through one method or another to spin turbines, a sort of refinement on fire’s ancient role in our lives. Fire, in many senses, remains our primary energy source.

Fire is also the engine of the stories we tell. Stories are a kind of food—the soul’s most vital food, I’d wager, after love—and we first fed each other in this way, gathered around campfires, huddled against the night, its cold and its cloaked dangers, telling stories to explain our place on the land and in the universe. Telling stories to explain what makes us human, what makes us families and clans and tribes. Fires on the savannah, fires in a simple home’s hearth, fires in the furnaces of generations of homes, the fires in the electronic hearth of the TV or computer screen. What makes us human—what makes us singularly so, what unites us as a species apart from all the others—more than our quest for fire and our insatiable need to share our stories, gathered in one sense or another around a fire?

Fire comes at a cost. We’ve only just begun to tally up how great that cost truly is, but we have discovered with grim certainty that fire’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gifts have come at a dire price. The burning of fires in the industrial age—the big ones, the furnaces of industrial scale and power, fuelled mainly by oil and coal and natural gas—have amassed into an existential threat to humanity’s very survival. “The fires have leapt from their furnaces”—this is how Richard Harrison puts it in his poem “And It Bursts with Light,” one of many bracing pieces that wrestle with our complicated relationship with fire and its proxies in the pages that follow. The climate crisis, born of two blazing centuries, is now upon us. Some scientists—the ones tasked with naming and defining geological time—suggest this is in fact a new epoch, wrought by human hands. Wrought, more precisely, by the monumental fires human hands have lit and fed. They call it the Anthropocene—the time made by Anthropos, by people. It might just as well be called the Pyrocene, the time made by fire.

The vital task of this troubling new epoch is to radically reconfigure our relationship with energy—with fire and everything else. Energy transitions of such magnitude have historically happened across centuries, even millennia, as human societies have slowly developed and adapted to new technologies based on new energy sources. This time, we are transitioning deliberately, as fast as possible, to a global energy system that is free of the greenhouse gas emissions driving the climate crisis—a global energy system free of fire, or at least free of fire’s choking smoke. Over the past two decades, as the scope of the climate crisis has become clear, a toolkit has been hastily assembled to accomplish this task. (It might not seem so hasty, not as the daily news fills with reports of disaster, but we are in fact moving very, very fast.) But human societies do not make these transitions on the strength of tools alone—especially not at the speed the crisis obliges.

We need stories by the fire—essays, poems, art, fiction, all of it—to help guide and inspire us. There is a line widely attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that goes like this: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Like so many quotes these days that become memes, it appears not to come directly from the French author’s work—it’s a paraphrase, refined into a kind of slogan. But it’s no less worthwhile for the uncertainty of its origins. It speaks to a deep truth—we are not persuaded to dramatic action or substantial change or great works of collective resolve by our tools, nor by their technical details. Not by the data they generate, not by the concentration of carbon dioxide in parts per million graphed in an accusatory line gone almost straight upward, not even by the cost per kilowatt-hour of solar power in a line gone nearly identically straight downward. Numbers don’t move us to yearning for vast seas. Stories do.

The energy transition now underway needs more stories. We need narratives of escape, survival, salvage, even (maybe especially) triumph. Some of these narratives are gathered here. Many more have yet to be written, painted, sculpted.

I’ve spent twenty years charting the first searching chapters of this energy transition, and I’ve been convinced beyond doubt it is, at its core, an optimistic tale. It is perilous but thrilling, a story not of mere survival but of great opportunity. It is about building a better world. If we succeed—and I believe we will, even though there will be great loss still to come along the path—it will be a story of collaboration and cooperation on a scale and with a speed never before seen in human history. And it is already underway, and it is accelerating. We have already begun to reimagine fire.


Chris Turner: HeadshotChris Turner, foreword writer, is an award-winning author and one of Canada’s leading writers and speakers on climate change solutions and the global energy transition. His latest book is How to Be a Climate Optimist, a survey of the first two decades of progress on solving the climate crisis. His previous books on climate, energy and technology include The Patch (winner of the National Business Book Award), The Leap and The Geography of Hope, and his essay and feature writing have received 10 National Magazine Awards.


Reimagining Fire: The Future Of Energy

Eveline Kolijn (CA), Alice Major (CA), Larry Kapustka (CA)

Published: Apr 30, 2023 by Durvile Publications
ISBN: 9781990735134