Nov 19, 2015 | By George Gantz
What Can We Learn From Fire: Ecology, Economics and Spiritual Growth
Modern humans tend to be afraid of fire, as it can be such an uncontrollable and destructive force. At the same time, our modern comforts all depend on the energy of controlled fire, and we retain a romantic fascination with fire, whether it’s a cozy fire in the living room, a campfire in the woods, or the pyrotechnic display of fireworks on July 4th. Only rarely do we think about fire as a creative, inspirational and transformational force. Yet that may be its ultimate, defining characteristic in nature, in economics and in human spirituality.
Fire in Nature
My wife and I traveled recently in the Rocky Mountains in both Canada and the US, and we learned about some of the ecological lessons gleaned from the attempts to “manage” the ecosystems of the national parks. For example, managers, and the public, made the judgment more than a hundred years ago that fire was bad for our national forests, and we embarked on a broad program of fire suppression. More recently, we have learned that this program had negative consequences for the ecosystem. (The same can be said for the practice of eliminating predators.)
One of those consequences has been the accumulation of combustible material. Without the normal and periodic reduction of such materials through fire, it has accumulated, with the result that the fires that do break out have become much more dangerous and destructive than in prior centuries. In addition, the forest landscape had become less hospitable to certain species – biological health and diversity suffered. For example, it turns out that the lodgepole pine produces seeds that will only germinate after being subjected to fire. In this case, fire is required to renew and rejuvenate the forest. Moreover, the lack of fire is thought to a contributing factor (as is global warming) in the devastation wrought by beetles in western forests. Without the transformational effects of fire, lodgepole pine forests get older and decline. Many now seem to be dying.
In many forest management areas such as national parks, fire policy has changed in response to this knowledge. In addition to some limited use of controlled fire, it is now common to let naturally occurring fires burn themselves out – except when settlements or other specific targets need to be protected.
For residents or visitors in these areas, the new policies can be disconcerting, to say the least. In our travels, we saw some areas that had been burned out earlier this summer. The charred and blackened landscape was a horrifying and depressing sight – and yet some resurgence of green ground cover was already evident. We also saw areas that had been burned over 25 years ago – while the old blackened sticks of pine trees were still pointed skyward (and to our minds were quite ugly), the undergrowth was lively and green.
The simple lesson is twofold: First, our expectations and aesthetics do not always reveal what is “best” for the natural landscape. Second, our efforts to control that landscape by imposing our ideas of “what is best” can have disastrous consequences.
Fire in Our Economies
The Schumpeter column in the Economist Magazine on 10-3-2015 contained a short essay that noted that anti-capitalist sentiment is arising from both positive features of free market capitalism as well as negative features. It is easy to see the negative features — and they tend to arise for a simple reason. The accumulation of capital can lead to an accumulation of power, and the temptations of power are numerous. Cartels, monopolies, cronyism, excessive influence on politics and regulation, manipulative or deceitful practices towards employees and consumers — these behaviors are all contrary to the public interest, and they all exist in capitalist systems. In addition to reducing the public benefits from capitalism, these practices contribute to a breakdown in the trust people feel toward capitalism. This gives rise to anti-capitalist sentiment.
Yet free market capitalism also offers a solution to at least some of these problems. Creative innovation and the rise of new firms, products and services, in a process referred to as creative destruction, can dismantle undesirable, inflexible or inefficient firms and industries. Just as fire renews the lodgepole pine forest by allowing new seeds to germinate, creative destruction brings new life, new products and increased competition to capitalist economies, and the end result is a benefit to the overall public interest. The entrenched interests evolve or are swept away and the new, innovative and creative enterprises thrive.
Yet this process is not without casualties – employees and owners of firms or in industries that fail or are restructured experience significant losses and dislocation (just as existing trees and animals suffer as a consequence of fire). If the economic pain is diffused and modest it may be unnoticed in light of the positive benefits of innovation and growth. People who lose their jobs can quickly find another. However, if the pain is severe and sustained it can lead to antipathy and a loss of trust for the capitalism that caused it.
According to the Economist, this is the case today. While creative destruction may have increased efficiency and introduced vibrant and creative firms and industries (e.g. Apple, Google, Skype, Uber and many others), those benefits have not been evenly distributed and significant dislocations continue for many people. Moreover, in this case most people do not distinguish between the good and bad features of capitalism – all of it is seen as bad. The Economist argues that the overall public benefits of our new firms and industries far outweighs the bad, but warns that anti-capitalist sentiment needs to be taken seriously as it can have serious public policy consequences. The analogy to nature is that our desire to protect the forest landscape through fire suppression was, in the longer term, counterproductive, and fundamentally undermined the health of the forest.
Specifically, public policy may be developed that attempts to control the fire of creation destruction in order to mitigate its negative consequences. Some of the examples are policies that seek to protect particular jobs, industries or firms from competition. Just as fire suppression in forests seems to be a reasonable response to the obvious destructiveness of fire, so too do protective tariffs, price controls, limitations on entry of new competitors, and other forms of government intervention. However, the long-term damage to the public interest may far outweigh the short-term benefits to the incumbent interests that the policy provides. Protecting established firms and industries can undermine the natural cycles of destruction and renewal – just as zealously protecting the forests from fire undermined the health of the ecosystem.
In this light it may be interesting to ask — who does the policy known as “too big to fail” serve in the financial industry, and what are the long-term consequences of such a fire suppression strategy?
Fire in Our Lives
Creative destruction in the economic sphere is a painful process by which entrenched and inefficient firms and industries are replaced with creative and innovative ones, resulting in net benefits to society. In the natural world, fire and predation are painful processes that lead to renewal and rejuvenation, resulting in improved health and diversity in the ecology.
In our own lives, we may get stuck in entrenched and inefficient patterns of thought or behavior that do not serve a good purpose. These patterns may be responsive to fear, anger or anxiety, feelings we tend to hang onto as a source of stability and control. We often need to experience a process of creative destruction, painful as it may be, to learn to let go of the illusion of stability and control, and make a transition to more dynamic, affirmative and ultimately positive frame of mind. The very human experience of grief has these qualities. It is a painful letting go of someone we were close to — yet it can also lead us to a sense of bonding and connection with the individual that died and the family and friends with whom we shared that grief.
We have heard stories of life changing transformations among cancer survivors or those who have been close to death — which some even describe as the best thing that ever happened to them. Such experiences can serve as a forceful reminder of the fragility of life, our lack of control and the importance of feeling gratitude. For many, the experience led them to reevaluate their lives and allowed them to refocus on the things that were most important.
The writings of Emanuel Swedenborg shed light on these lessons from a spiritual perspective. Swedenborg teaches that in the spiritual sense, fire corresponds to the good that comes form God’s love. That love fills all of creation and seeks to sweep away evil and immorality and bring joy, peace and gratitude. To benefit from this love, each of us is required to undertake a personal transformation or regeneration, a turning away from self-love and the love of dominion, to the love of God and the love of our fellow humans.
This can be a very painful process. Swedenborg notes “heavenly love seems to wicked people like nothing else than a burning and devouring fire.” (AC934) A self-righteous person who seeks to hold onto their negative thoughts and emotions may experience love (particularly “tough love”) as critical and harsh. The same can be true for each of us — have you ever noticed that when someone you love points out that you are behaving selfishly, you tend to feel angry and ashamed? This is a painful lesson, but the self-reflection and personal commitment to change that hopefully results is beneficial. In this sense, the spiritual fire can lead to the germination of new understanding and new behaviors and a renewing of our spiritual and moral life.
This meditation on the role of fire in nature, the economy and our spiritual life, is an example of the principle of correspondence. There are universal truths that apply across all of the different levels of our lives. By exploring those truths in one level, we can gain understanding about the way those truths work in the different levels.
According to Swedenborg, correspondence always flows from its spiritual source, ultimately from God, to the other levels – downhill, so to speak. Swedenborg also teaches that flowing water in the spiritual sense corresponds to living truth. But water is a topic for a different day.