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Bill McKibben previsualizes a world without combustion

Bill McKibben previsualizes a world without combustion

In 2015, Bill Nazaroff published an editorial in Indoor Air, where he extended the photographer’s process of visualization and pre-visualization to envision a world in which we “move beyond intentional combustion”:

Ansel Adams wrote about visualization, stressing the photographer’s need to imagine the captured and printed image before attempting an exposure. Minor White named a part of this process previsualization: imagining the outcome while studying the subject. For the purposes of this editorial, I use this term to acknowledge the difficulty to fully imagine a modern, future world that does not rely upon combustion. Nevertheless, I believe that the effort to previsualize can inspire and guide efforts that hold the potential for beneficent outcomes.

Bill McKibben — knowingly or unknowingly — performed a grand act of previsualization and visualization in his recent New Yorker article entitled In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things:

We don’t know when or where humans started building fires; as with all things primordial there are disputes. But there is no question of the moment’s significance. Fire let us cook food, and cooked food delivers far more energy than raw; our brains grew even as our guts, with less processing work to do, shrank. Fire kept us warm, and human enterprise expanded to regions that were otherwise too cold. And, as we gathered around fires, we bonded in ways that set us on the path to forming societies. No wonder Darwin wrote that fire was “the greatest discovery ever made by man, excepting language.”

Darwin was writing in the years following the Industrial Revolution, as we learned how to turn coal into steam power, gas into light, and oil into locomotion, all by way of combustion. Our species depends on combustion; it made us human, and then it made us modern. But, having spent millennia learning to harness fire, and three centuries using it to fashion the world we know, we must spend the next years systematically eradicating it.

Mckibben’s article reminded me of a conversation I had with Danny Wilson, where he asked (paraphrasing here) what actions we think of as normal that our great grandkids might think of as bonkers. I don’t remember my suggestions — perhaps social media or our proclivity for instant gratification — but one of Danny’s has stuck with me – driving, relying on semi-controlled explosions to propel us too fast in hulking plastic and metal boxes on wheels.

That seems right. I might expand Danny’s observation — as McKibben did this month and as Nazaroff did before — to all of our semi-controlled explosions and the punishing short- and long-term consequences of those actions. We nearly universally acknowledge that, as Kirk Smith was fond of saying, the worst thing you can do is stick burning biomass in your mouth. Releasing it into our homes and our communities is just as bad, though less immediately bad.

It took us ~ 300 years, by McKibben’s telling, of wrestling with fire to put us in the pickle we find ourselves in. Activities in recent decades have been an accelerant. 300 years is a long time, but not that long generationally and certainly not that long in terms of the damage we are now causing. Given that, one of McKibben’s imperatives seems right:

Mostly, our job as a species is clear: stop smoking.

You don't get what you expect, you get what you inspect.