Father of Eternal Fire

Arianne Shahvisi

The oilfield at Baba Gurgur, near Kirkuk, has been burning for at least four thousand years. It sits above fissures through which methane escapes from deep within the Earth’s crust, licking through gaps in the rocks and feeding the flames. Its name is Kurdish for ‘Father of Eternal Fire’, and it’s a possible site for the furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar casts Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the Jews who refuse to worship his golden idol, and are saved by divine intervention. Kurdish women used to travel to Baba Gurgur from miles around to pray that their child would be a son.

Elsewhere, incandescent foetal sex rituals are on the rise. In Western cultures, ‘gender reveal’ events often involve setting off fireworks with pink or blue colorants. Last month, a spark from a gender reveal party in El Dorado, California set a neighbouring forest ablaze. Over the course of three weeks, the fire burned through 23,000 acres. A firefighter died tackling the blaze.

So far this year more than 8300 wildfires have burned over four million acres of California. They have two major determinants. One is climate change, which is extending the fire season and pushing temperatures through new records, leaving forests parched to within a spark of disaster. The other is a century-long policy of total fire suppression. Indigenous wisdom prescribes burning off the forest understory every decade or so to eliminate the tinder that foments larger, less predictable blazes. The growth rings of ancient trees show the marks of these precautionary burns, which periodically singed their bark without killing them. If the misguided regime of suppression is abandoned, dendrochronologists of the future will be able to read the marginalisation of Indigenous knowledge in the hundred-year absence of fire scars in the rings of old trees. If not, there may be no trees left to tell the tale.

Being a colder, damper place is no protection against wildfires. Instead of desiccated forests there are dank peat bogs: areas of partly decayed wetland vegetation that formed at the end of the last Ice Age and hold vast stores of carbon. North of the Arctic Circle, the peatlands of Siberia were ablaze this summer. The fires started earlier than usual and burned for longer, exceeding last year’s record-breaking emissions by 63 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (more than the annual emissions of Belarus or Morocco).

Boris Johnson, who has described his love of fox hunting as ‘semi-sexual’, is currently stalling on his government’s promise to ban the intentional burning of peat bogs, which are set alight to stimulate the growth of tender young heather shoots on which red grouse feed. We are now in the middle of the grouse shooting season, during which other predators – foxes, weasels, stoats, birds of prey – are trapped or snared. Burning the moors also destroys ecosystems, increases the risk of wildfires, and contributes to flooding by reducing the ability of the earth to retain water.

The draining and degrading of peatland emits carbon dioxide. On combustion, peat releases more carbon than coal. To add insult to environmental injury, the moorlands used for grouse shooting are eligible for agricultural subsidies, so that taxpayers, most of whom have never seen a grouse, fund the practice to the tune of millions of pounds a year. This freeloading is in keeping with broader trends: new research shows that the world’s richest 1 per cent emit twice as much CO2 as the poorest 50 per cent, hogging the global budget on emissions and dragging everyone into the red. In his conference speech this week, Johnson promised more wind power – ‘far out in the deepest waters we will harvest the gusts’ – but electricity production isn’t the only source of greenhouse gas emissions; land use, including peatland, matters too.

That a ‘gender reveal’ party should be the cause of a catastrophic fire is symbolically fitting. The political scientist Cara Daggett has described the rise of ‘petro-masculinity’: a pining for traditional power dynamics and the economies in which they have thrived. Racism, sexism and climate change denial are buttresses against a crumbling world. At a rally last month, Trump reiterated the slogan he coined when withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement in 2017: ‘I represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris.’ It’s a nonsense statement, but the subtext of nostalgia for dirty industries and their masculine associations rings clear.

In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, Martin Luther King praised the civil disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who acted on their conviction that ‘a higher moral law was at stake.’ Before making the golden idol that they refuse to worship, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great statue, its head made of gold, its torso of silver, its legs of brass and iron, and its feet of iron and clay. Daniel interprets for him:

And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided … And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.


  • 8 October 2020 at 10:35am
    SamC says:
    I agree with most of what you say here about the environment. But it doesn't do this line of argument any favours when you link to Boris Johnson supposedly describing his relationship with foxhunting as semi-sexual, and then when the reader clicks on it, it's nothing of the sort. He was talking about how weird riding a horse seems to a non-hunter (like him).
    Trying to paint the environmental catastrophe as a product of the peculiar out-of-touch upper classes, who do things like shoot grouse and have stupid gender-reveal parties, misses the whole problem. It's a transparent attempt to pin all of the blame on someone else - the toffs, the patriarchy, the Chinese - when really everybody is at fault, and has been for generations.

    • 9 October 2020 at 12:54am
      P Eluard says: @ SamC
      True, that spectator article doesn't bear the reading cited in the post, but yours would also be a slight misreading of the text. He said that riding a horse had a semi-sexual element to it. He is also on the ride along to show support for hunting. (Interesting and somewhat telling, and sad, that he equates a sexual relationship with one in which he says there is no real understanding or control.)

      I think you missed the part in the post where the gender reveal party is shown to not be the sole cause of the wildfires, but rather a flashpoint for the systemic issue of lacking smaller fires going back a century, based on silencing or ignoring the knowledge of the natives. Arianne says that it is a fitting symbol for the 'petra-masculinity' which is a reaction against pro-environmental movements and the need for change. For a good example of this, look up Rolling Coal and see what you make of it.

      And perhaps you missed the part about how approximately 1% of the world's population have roughly the same emissions as about 50% of the least emitting. So it's not really everyone's fault, is it? It turns out the people who most need the changes to happen quickly are in that 50%, and the ones who are stalling (despite there being a general agreement that they need to get on with it) are in that 1%. Also the people who spend shocking amounts of our money subsidising all these various degrading practices, or who have publicity firms to attempt to greenwash all they do, presumably these people are all in that 1% too? Doesn't sound like blaming the toffs to me. Sounds like a good point.

      I think you blur together a complex issue and article so you can relocate the blame into a nebulous original-sin-like space. Unfortunately it's a lot more of a specific problem than that explanation can cope with.

    • 9 October 2020 at 5:05pm
      SamC says: @ P Eluard
      Thanks for the reply.

      I certainly wouldn't want to remove blame from that 1% who are chiefly responsible for large amounts of emissions. And I wouldn't want to shift the blame on to the vast majority who suffer as a result.
      But I'm going to make a leap and suggest that as far as that bottom 50% are concerned, we readers of the LRB are identical to the toffs. To say that we aren't is the vanity of small differences, and any amount of disingenuous inverted snobbery won't change that.

    • 10 October 2020 at 3:46pm
      P Eluard says: @ SamC
      Thanks for yours.

      I guess it would be an understandable leap for people to blame all citizens of the highly emitting societies for the actions of their governments and businesses. But not all of us have been in government, or led highly emitting businesses. It does dishonour to people who are changing their lifestyles and organisations, to say, now, that they are as bad as anyone in this country. There may not be an easy class-cultural division, but there is a division, blurred though it may be.

      The 50%/1% division is more of an colonial/imperial historic division. Maybe figures who defend empire and shore up the domination of the profit motive in the city should come in for a bit of stick. How tangential you think this issue is depends on how you view the responsibilities and driving forces of governments I guess.

      But the environment ministers and prime ministers, and housing ministers, and housing developers, etc. who are carrying on as normal shouldn't be able to think - ah, we are all to blame, it is a terrible thing - and then change nothing.

      I guess it comes down to a pragmatic thing in the end as well - is it more likely to cause a massive societal shift to renewable power and sustainable lifestyles if we strongly believe all of us are to blame, or if we target that blame at high emitters. I agree that the latter could also be a distraction if it becomes the only step we take in high emission economies. Ideally there would be a sweeping change that removes the need for blame.

      Blame is a strange game, it seems like a kind of insecure thing for us to do at this juncture... I think we agree that the govs just need to get on with the steps that are needed. The game only becomes important when we start to worry that the bad thing is going to be laid at our feet, or the right or wrong feet... But we just need to stop the bad thing! Good lord let it be done.

    • 11 October 2020 at 10:59am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ P Eluard
      You cite the fact that the richest 1% contribute as much CO2 to the atmosphere as the poorest 50% to justify the conclusion that “it is not everyone’s fault”.
      Don’t you think that, if they could, the poorest 50% would do exactly the same as the richest 1%?

    • 12 October 2020 at 9:30am
      P Eluard says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Well, that's a question for a historian of civilisation, who could only sketch an answer. My lay guess is to say - not necessarily, given the specific extractivist nature of the civilisations that discovered steam and combustion power. But then I don't know about coal use in pre industrial civilisations. It may be that at some point, a similar situation would have occured given the creeping nature of the thing, no matter who utilised that locked away power. But then speculating on how that civilisation would have responded is even more complicated. Presumably, if the global hegemon wasn't, in fact, in the grip of an imperially ambitious,
      'manifest destiny' driven, climate science denying government for many of the years when decisions were most crucial, who had recently fought various cold and hot wars to maintain their ideological grip on the world, undermining international organisations, then we might have had a better time of it. I admit I'm not super confident that it could have been much better.

      Evidently, in an ethical case, even if someone else might have made the same mistake, given the chance, it doesn't absolve me of now knowingly making it.

    • 12 October 2020 at 7:08pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ P Eluard
      If, instead of roots and vegetables, you can eat great, big juicy steaks, would you?
      If, instead of walking everywhere, you can drive a big car, would you?
      If, instead of staying at home all year, you can fly to multiple holiday destinations each year, would you?
      If, instead of freezing in winter and boiling in summer, you can have multiple homes with touch-button cooling and heating, would you?

      Not sure imperialism or ethics have anything to do with it.

    • 14 October 2020 at 12:26pm
      P Eluard says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Ah yes, because in our societies we can all just choose to have multiple houses, big cars, luxury holidays, and massive steaks. Maybe the question is, why those people who have these things think that their affluence has nothing to do with ethics or imperialism.

    • 14 October 2020 at 10:11pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ P Eluard
      I haven’t made myself clear.
      The 1% consume an awful lot.
      The 50% don’t; but not by choice.
      If they could, they would.
      Yes the 1% may indeed be where they are due to the historic forces of imperialism & capitalism. But that’s the history of humanity and if you think the oppressed wouldn’t, given the chance, rather be the oppressors, then I think you are naïve.
      So don’t stigmatise the 1%; they do what the rest would, given the opportunity.

    • 20 October 2020 at 7:36pm
      ralph wortley says: @ SamC
      Unfortunately I can't click onto the original explanation regarding Johnson, horses and sexuality, and your comment merely uses it to go off on a political tangent. Any farmer's son where I live in S Africa must of necessity ride; I can't see any sexuality in it unless you are a masochist, as it's hard work and even painful after a while.

  • 8 October 2020 at 5:11pm says:

    "There are layers to it all, is what I am saying."
    reminds me of something the late Susan Leigh Star
    wrote (I don't have the cite but it may have been in an article with the title "How Universality Biases Get Started"):
    "There is no such thing, or place, as Underneath It All." I came across that around thirty years ago and it's been in my small collection of unforgettables ever since.

  • 8 October 2020 at 5:11pm says:
    Sorry--that comment was meant for another blog.

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