Fire and Stone

Bridging the gap between the incipient separation of pre-human biology and the relatively recent invention of agriculture are earlier technologies of stone and fire, language, counting, religion, time, and representational art. By objectifying Nature and humanizing the Wild, by converting the world into an object of management and control, and by interposing representational systems between observer and reality, the above technologies initiated the process of separation hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years ago.

In a remarkable series of essays, John Zerzan makes a compelling argument for the pre-agricultural origins of separation. He sees the institution of linear time measurement, language, number, art and so on as elements of a kind of original crime, seeds from which have sprouted forth all the noxious weeds of the ecocidal, genocidal, suicidal modern world. Addressed primarily to Marxists and anarchists who see in the overthrow of capitalism the solution to the world’s problems, his book Elements of Refusal establishes that the Revolution must go much deeper than that, for the root of civilization’s ruin goes as deeply as the all the devices which enable our conceptual separation from the world.[10] Along with related ideas of Daniel Quinn and Derrick Jensen, Zerzan’s critique demands to be addressed by any serious philosopher of civilization.

I will recast the phenomena Zerzan describes as a natural progression of an imperative of separation going back even further to deep prehuman times. Separation was not a crime or a blunder, but an inevitability. The age of separation whose apogee we are experiencing today was, as we have seen, written into the laws of biology, even into the laws of physics, from the very beginning, just as the widening of separation that came with agriculture grew naturally from who we were before that.

Let us first ask, in what sense does the use of the first technology—the stone tools that date back over two million years—represent a distancing from nature? Stones, after all, are natural objects (as is petroleum). What separates the tool-making H. habilis from the non-tool making Australopithecus that preceded him? What separates them from other animals? For that matter, what separates us from other animals?

The key distinguishing factor between human and animal technology is innovation—not just tool use, but cumulative improvements in tools. And even this is a quantitative, not a qualitative, distinction. Animals do learn and pass on new “technologies”. With humanity, the accumulation of new technologies has greatly accelerated, but it is nothing new.

Whether human or animal, each new or improved tool changes that species’ relationship with the environment by altering its ecological niche. For early humans, inventions like digging sticks gave access to new food sources and raised the effective carrying capacity of the land. Each improvement or invention was a step away from the “natural” state preceding it, and, foreshadowing the present addiction to technology, each step was irreversible once the population rose to the new carrying capacity.

With the accumulation of technology, human beings became increasingly dependent on skills that had to be learned, not genetically programmed. This does not constitute a qualitative difference between humans and other mammals and birds. All rely on knowledge transmitted through extragenetic channels. Early tool-using humans merely took an earlier step of separation to a new level.

Tool innovation was slow at first. Hundreds of thousands of years would pass without significant improvements. But as the culturally-transmitted knowledge accumulated, its sum total came to comprise a separate human realm. The difference between an acculturated human and a feral human widened. A new stage in our conceptual distancing from nature was underway.

Soon, the emergence of a separate human realm manifested in our physiology. Each technological innovation represents an alteration in the environment that exerts new selection pressures. Technological evolution thus feeds back into biological evolution. The post-tool H. habilis was no longer the same species as before; by changing his environment he changed himself. Hands, eyes, and postures all changed to facilitate tool use. Each great leap in protohuman evolution was precipitated or accompanied by a leap in technology. Homo erectus emerged from the very outset with marked improvements in technology over Homo habilis. Perhaps, indeed, such improvements were a key part of the speciation process. If so, we may view the early stages of technological development not as a series of inventions by a single species, but as a coupled biological/technological evolution of a phenotype extending farther than ever before out into the realm of inorganic matter. We would also then expect that as the pace of technological development has accelerated, that speciation would accelerate as well. We might also speculate on whether a new speciation is in the offing, or perhaps even underway.

As the human realm grew and separated off from the natural, technology came to represent the manipulation and control of the world, the subordination of nature to human intentions and purposes. A self manipulates that which is outside the self. Inherent in technology is the division of the world into self and other, me and environment.

Perhaps no other technology exemplifies this division better than fire, the next great step toward separation. Like the other steps, mastery of fire came about gradually, not as a distinct, deluded human decision to choose technology instead of trusting in Nature to provide. Homo erectus probably used it without knowing how to make it for hundreds of thousands of years. Eventually fire came to define human beings as unique among animals. Its use in cooking changed the human digestive system forever. Its use for warmth and protection allowed the habitation of whole new ecosystems. Ultimately, of course, fire led to ceramics and metals, engines and factories, chemistry and electronics, and the whole edifice of the artificial modern world. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

From the very beginning, fire reinforced the concept of a separate human realm. The circle of the campfire divided the world into two parts: the safe, domestic part, and the Wild. Here was the hearth, the center of the circle of domesticity. Here was warmth, keeping the cold world at a distance. Here was safety, keeping predators at bay. Here was light, defining a human realm but making the night beyond all the deeper, all the more alien. Outside the circle of firelight was the other, the wild, the unknown.

Today, as fire-based technology covers the globe and the lights of civilization penetrate into the planet’s few remaining dark places, we easily imagine that our conquest of the world is nearly complete: the domestication of all the wild, the bringing of the world under human control. Similarly, we imagine the light of science illuminating the few remaining mysteries of the universe, converting the unknown into the known, and subjecting the mysterious to the structures of human understanding and measurement. Consider though, that just as a campfire deepens the shadows beyond its circle of light, perhaps our science succeeds in illuminating only that which is within its purview, which we have deluded ourselves into thinking is the whole of reality, while making the vast beyond even more impenetrable. We have convinced ourselves that the world outside the campfire’s circle does not even exist, or is not important, or will succumb to light as we build the fire higher and higher, consuming in the process every available bit of fuel.

With fire, the separate human realm began to take on a new character—linearity. Linearity is at the root of the unsustainability of the present system, which assumes an infinite reservoir of inputs and limitless capacity for waste. Fire is a fitting metaphor for such a system, for it involves a one-way conversion of matter from one form to another, liberating energy—heat and light—in the process. Just as our economy is burning through all forms of stored cultural and natural wealth to liberate energy in the form of money, so does our industry burn up stored fossil fuels to liberate the energy that powers our technology. Both generate heat for awhile, but also increasing amounts of cold, dead, toxic ash and pollution, whether the ash heap of wasted human lives or the strip mine pits and toxic waste dumps of industry.

It is not that fire is unnatural. Fire, along with its biological counterpart of oxidation, is a stage of a natural cycle. Our delusional folly is to act as if that stage of the cycle could exist permanently and independently. Only someone who cannot see the whole of reality would say, “Of course we can keep the fire burning forever. When it burns low we’ll just add more fuel.” To believe that a larger and larger fire can be sustained forever is transparently absurd, ignorant, and delusional. While fuel is plentiful, perhaps the delusion might be sustained. But today it is increasingly evident that we are running out of fuel—both social capital and natural “resources”—even as we suffocate in the ash.

The original technologies of fire mostly employed wood, thereby removing it from the normal biological cycle and preempting the natural flow of matter and energy. No longer did it nourish generations of insects, fungi, and soil. This arrogation of wood’s oxidative energy to human purposes defined very early on the dominating relationship that technology embodies. Today, the same logic sees all the materials of the world as “resources”, classifying them according to their usefulness to man.

The domination of nature that fire represents manifested in two of the earliest fire-based technologies: metalworking and ceramics. Both involve a transformation of the substances of the earth. Fire abetted the development of a separate human realm by converting the substances of nature—clay and ore—into the substances of man—ceramic and metal. Fire, the defining human technology, brings things over from the natural realm into the human.

If fire consumes the basis of oxidative life, then it is no wonder that the modern technologies of fire are themselves life-consuming, both in the literal sense of ecological destruction and in the figurative sense of their depletion of cultural, social, and spiritual wealth. For modern society is based primarily on the technologies of fire. It is fire that powers our automobiles and airplanes at supra-biological speeds; it is fire that enables us to smelt metal and etch silicon; it is fire that powers our electrical grid and communications system; it is fire that allows us to distill or synthesize chemicals that do not exist in pure form in nature; it is fire that powers the quarrying of limestone and the crushing of rock to build roads and skyscrapers. Even objects as “environmental” as a bicycle utilize the technologies of fire. We even, unlike any other animal, apply fire to our food in the process known as “cooking”.

Fire-based technology epitomizes the Technological Program of controlling and improving upon nature, usurping the oxidation of stored energy for purposes we deem superior. Not coincidentally, these purposes themselves involve the further abrogation of natural cycles. The wholesale disruption of nature and reengineering of the physical landscape would be impossible without fire-based technology. From the building of superhighways and dams to the clearcutting of forests, nearly all large-scale domination of nature depends on fire technologies such as the internal combustion engine and the coal- or oil-fired turbine. However, let us not forget that the initial clearcutting of the entire Northeast was accomplished with hand-axes and saws alone (also fire-based insofar as they are made of metal). I doubt a Stone Age culture could accomplish this even if it tried. But as soon as fire-based technology gains ascendency, such projects as clearcutting become not just technologically feasible but morally conceivable, as the Epic of Gilgamesh testifies to as far back as the time of ancient Sumer.

The reader might protest that most fire technology is based on fossil fuels, whose burning does not, strictly speaking, “usurp” stored energy that would otherwise feed life processes (though it does diminish life in other ways). I will offer some speculations on the Gaian significance of such deep-storage of energy in the last chapter. The point for now is that, whether wood or oil, the mentality of burning is the same: the arrogation of stored energy to human purposes of control, accompanied by the degradation of other phases of the cycle in an unsustainable pretense of eternal linear growth.

Our age is so defined by the technologies of fire that we sometimes forget the possibility of other realms of technology. Other humans in other times were actually more highly advanced than ourselves in plant-based, earth-based, body-based, and mind-based technologies. Many of the practices that we dismiss as magic or superstition actually represented modes of mind-body development whose possibility and power we do not even suspect today. Their inaccessibility is not due to historical accident, nor to willful ignorance, nor to any intentional campaign to eradicate competitors to the dominant fire-based technology,[11] but rather to their incompatibility with our fundamental self-definition in a dualistic cosmology of self and other. Today, as our division of ourselves from the universe becomes increasingly untenable, a new understanding of self is beginning to emerge that will naturally foster these near-forgotten or yet-to-be-discovered realms of technology. We cannot understand or utilize them operating from our current dualistic ontology of the discrete, separate self.

 

 

[10] Zerzan, John. Elements of Refusal. CAL Press, 1999.

[11] During the witch hunts of Europe, the primary repositories of plant  knowledge—the female herbalists—were belittled, demonized, and even exterminated. Although these and other crimes against women and indigenous cultures certainly had the effect of eliminating competitors to the dominant fire-based technology, I am referring instead to the deeper imperative underlying and unifying such campaigns.