Burning down the House

As Chehalis elders reminded a visiting anthropologist in 1926, human power strong enough to heal is also power strong enough to kill. It would not have surprised them that the third leading cause of death in the US today, after cancer and heart disease, is undergoing a medical procedure.

Today we are great at developing new technologies– but not so great at considering the results of applying them– or even understanding what those results might be. Thus we sorely need the “precautionary principle” instituted in European Union countries and some municipalities in the U.S. That principle states, “No data, no market” with respect to innovative technologies. That is, we shouldn’t market such new technologies until we have researched their safety. As modern philosopher Andrew Light observed, we look both ways before crossing the street even though we are not one hundred per cent certain a car is coming. We might certainly apply the same basic standard of precaution to the thousands of new chemicals and genetically engineered foods their developers are releasing annually into our shared environment.

Indeed we might apply parallel standards of care to all human technology. Take the example of the wildfires currently burning everywhere in the West. One could hardly find a more basic form of human technology than fire. Learning to set that first fire was an important step for humans. No more cold winters and raw meat. It seems we like this about ourselves. Western culture cheers those who “set the world on fire”. But that does not absolve us of choices. A deed that is “world burning” is only a good thing until we come face to face with global warming. And even a single campfire may spread out of control and set someone else’s house on fire if not properly handled.

We might do well mull over traditional stories told by indigenous Northwesterners such as the Chehalis, which encouraged care in dealing with fire-and by extension, with all human technology. Fires burned on the prairies between the land of the living and the land of the dead in such tales. In one story, Bluejay has to cross these prairies-and learn lessons about how to deal with fire-lest he get himself burned up and relegated to the land of the dead forever.

This story taught pragmatic lessons to those who regularly gathered in inter-tribal groups to set fires to clear out the underbrush in their landscapes that otherwise provided fuel for more dangerous fires. At the same time their fires encouraged habitat for game animals and important food crops. Those fires were essential, and they set then with care.

Without their own stories that helped them deal with fire, pioneers stopped native burning and suppressed fires started by natural causes. Smokey the Bear became our icon. But that didn’t exactly work out as planned. If an area has no small fires, fire fuel builds up there. When that area does burn in the inevitable course of things, it burns with a larger and hotter fire. Today Forest Service policies have put that lesson into effect to allow for controlled burning and/or fires started by natural causes to burn unabated.

Fire is not good or bad in itself. It is not a matter of whether we should laud it or outlaw it. Instead we have to learn how to handle it. And as the example of fire illustrates, in learning how to handle it, we must account for the cumulative and spreading effects of our actions. In parallel fashion, we must assess the health effects of chemicals currently in production before we release new ones into the environment, as stressed in a memo sent recently to the members of Congress crafting the Kid-Safe chemicals Act by the Science and Environmental Health Network.

I am impressed by the compassion for their fellow citizens exhibited under emergency conditions. Last night (July 10) shelters housing those who evacuated because of the fire in Spokane issued a call for donated toys. They were flooded with so many responses, in only a few hours they had to issue a request to stop sending donations.

But on the flip side of our compassion, we have our carelessness. It is true that wildfires may be started by lightning strikes-and these in turn are exaggerated by global warming and its destabilizing weather patterns. But it’s also true that the vast majority of the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California were started not by lightning but by individual humans.

It seems our frontier mentality is still with us. According to the dictum of “full steam ahead” and “dam the torpedoes”. asking an entrepreneur to pause in getting a designer chemical to market is an unpatriotic as throwing a damper on a firecracker on the Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July gave campers in northern California ample opportunity to start the majority of thousands of wildfires there. My neighbor related her own experience celebrating the Fourth of July on the beach where crowds gathered to set off fireworks. She watched a father hand his toddler a lit bottle rocket- I imagine he wanted to share the excitement of shooting it off with him. The toddler, not knowing quite what to do with it, turned around in a circle and finally launched it-into the open door of the family van. Out of the van poured the rest of the family who happened to be lounging there out of the wind to watch the family fireworks. Then someone remembered the rest of their fireworks were still in the van. Back in they went with sand and water and fortunately captured the miscreant firework which miraculously hadn’t lit anything else on fire.

While my neighbor was laughing, she heard a whoosh and turned around to note that someone from another family group had tossed a sparkler into the backseat of her own car through an open window. After they managed to put it out, her family went home. They had had all the fun they wanted for one night.

Some seem to hold to the idea that if we’re on vacation, nothing bad could happen to us. We’ve entered a realm where none of the cautions we otherwise use in daily life apply. That’s the frontier mentality as well: if we’re pushing the boundaries of human technology, nothing bad will happen as a result.

As a first step in rectifying such abdications of caution, it would help to name things correctly. Just as we can’t rightly call the recent flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa a “natural disaster” (since it was due to the breaking of levies humans built to protect houses situated in a flood plain), we can’t blame the wildfires burning in the West “natural” disaster. There are a number of dams in Oregon with cracks in their infrastructure-dams holding back water from the flood plains where currently reside hundreds of thousands of people. If those dams break under stress, as did the levies in New Orleans and Cedar Rapids, it’s ignoring our own responsibility to label the results a “natural” disaster. And acknowledging our responsibility is the first step to taking care of both ourselves and our environment.

Assuming such responsibility allows us to learn from our mistakes. Forest Service policy aside, things haven’t changed much since pioneer times on the score of our carelessness with fire in the Pacific Northwest. Those who played out the bottle rocket version of keystone cops on the beach were only following precedent. The year before first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens came to announce his unacceptable treaty provisions to the indigenous folks on the Olympic Peninsula, local emigrants accidentally set the forest on fire during their own Fourth of July celebration. That fire raged out of control until the autumn rains finally put it out.

By the time Washington became a state things weren’t going much better. That year was 1889, the same year a Seattle fire consumed two dozen business blocks and all the mills and wharfs on the bay, in spite of the help of volunteer firemen from Victoria to Portland. A similarly devastating fire hit Spokane in late summer of that year, as did fires that took much of downtown Vancouver and destroyed parts of Ellensburg, Goldendale and Roslyn. As a Snohomish County pioneer put it, it seemed “inevitable in all pioneer towns” that fire “virtually destroyed the entire town”.

As smoke pours into the Willamette Valley and hunkers down here from the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California, I am reminded of an historical image relayed to me by venerable Lower Chehalis elder Nina Baumgartner. When the first Scotsman arrived on the Olympic Peninsula with his red hair flying out in all directions, her people joked that they thought his head was on fire. This joke was about more than appearance. Baumgartner went on to relate the tale in which Bluejay crosses those burning prairies– which she emphatically slanted toward the necessity of being careful with fire.

With our heads set on “full steam ahead”, we don’t dwell on the disastrous potential of our power. We forget that what seems adventurous or profitable in the moment might eventually burn down our neighbor’s house-or give our children cancer.

But to balance that dangerous foolishness is the level of community response that brought firefighters from Portland to Victoria on the scene in Seattle in 1889-the same kind of community response that caused those fighting California fires to travel 24 hours and then begin their work without sleep.

Imagine if we could put such community feeling to work on caring for the future of our shared planet, as those in the Science and Environmental Health Network are currently doing.

Olympia Peninsula elder Nina Baumgartner’s people had ten thousand years to learn how to live in partnership with their land–and to observe the effects of their own actions. We don’t have the luxury of such timing. But the precautionary principle, which states that human innovations need to be proved harmless before enacted, is a good place to start. This principle helps compensate for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. It helps protect humans and natural systems from harm as did traditional indigenous stories stressing care in how we use our power.

The Precaution Reporter provides a wealth of information on the movement to institute the precautionary principle globally. And the Science and Environmental Health Network provides an outline of this principle and ways to support it.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden, and if you wish to copy it, please email for permission. Thanks.