Brenda Cooper

Brenda’s work as a Futurist

We are living in a time of great change, a time when we are surrounded by unexpected and generous opportunity, and also by danger.  This is an important time to talk amongst ourselves so that we can share, see, and understand the promise and peril of our times.  And even more importantly, so that we can create a future full of health, opportunity, and options.

Really, that’s the basic reason I’m a futurist.

Here’s what I do about it:

Obviously, first and foremost, I’m a science fiction writer.  Yes, that is a futurist task – not for every story or even every book, but often.  Many of our true visionaries have been science fiction writers.  Ursula LeGuin.  Jules Verne. George Orwell.  Ray Bradbury.  David Brin.  Arthur C. Clark.  I could expand this list easily.   Yes, I want to be as good as they are!  I write fiction almost every day, and I’m up to forty or fifty published stories and six novels.  One of my favorite places to write for is Nature Magazine.  They publish short shorts on the last page of the magazine.  Here are links to my stories there:

I’ve been talking with, learning from, and writing for noted futurist Glen Hiemstra for over a decade.  I admire Glen because he is both positive and realistic.  Consider dropping by to learn more about Glen’s work.

I’m a member of the Futurist Board at the LifeBoat Foundation, which seeks to assure that we survive as a species.  It is a wild and crazy place full of brilliant people.  I won’t pretend to agree with them all for even a moment, but I’m often learning by association.

There are a number of ways I work to contribute to the public dialogue about the future.  I  keynote business events and talk to schools.  I only do a few talks a year, solely because of time, although I can regularly be found at science fiction conventions talking about the future on panels.  Some of my next appearances will be at the World Science Fiction Convention in Texas and at Orycon in Orgeon.  The next place you can catch me giving a solo talk about the future in a public forum will be at the World Future Society meeting in Chicago in the summer of 2013.

If you’d like to find out if I’m available for a specific event, please use the contact form.

Lastly, I am a technology professional.  That is also a tangentially futurist profession.  I work for the City of Kirkland as the CIO, which means that I spend some time looking forward at how technology can help citizens.

Recent Posts on Futurism


Fire and Water…Musings on Climate and Governance

This post is a lightly-edited version of one that went out in my newsletter.  If you like it, please consider signing up.  I send out about ten newsletters a year.  They include posts like this, reading recommendations, and sometimes some of my writing.

My son just came home from fighting wildfires in Washington State. The smoke from those same fires gave us the worst air quality ever recorded in the Puget Sound this week. A local weatherman in our Seattle area, Cliff Maas, is calling this week a “smokestorm.”  The air is dangerous for all of us to breathe, not just the weak and young and old (not that that isn’t bad enough!). Someone I work with has family in Kerala, India where record rains have killed hundreds. So pick your element. Too much fire? Too much water?  Unsafe Air?

As my father and I were walking the dogs last night, we discussed how we might all benefit if things get bad quickly with the world economy, so we can establish planet-wide governance that can handle problems like climate. I’m not sure how how to make that happen or what that government looks like. I used to think that the American model could work worldwide, but at the moment the American model has been gamed and is deeply cracked, if not broken. If we were still leaders and still function well, we might have partnered with the world to fix this. But now I don’t see the leadership we need.

In the future world I create with Wilders and Keepers, a strong federal government rips people from land to save them from dangers and re-wild the land. But then they lose power as it spreads through cities. I can imagine that future, but it may not be one that humans survive in the long run.

It does appear that even clear and obvious climate change challenges that have been predicted for years are not enough to make us act. This year I have protested and collected signatures. I’ve written about justice. And yet I feel like I haven’t done enough. All around, there are signs that we all must do more.

There is a pod of Orcas in Alaska that has not had children since they were near the Valdez oil spill.  There is another pod of Orcas dying in the Puget Sound. A mother carried her dead calf for days, and most of us who live here cried for her. When I am out walking in our local forest, it feels like I am walking through a beautiful place that we have already doomed. I want that feeling to be wrong. But I expect us to spend this week choking on the ash of buirning trees, and to still act like everything is normal.

It may take a political break/fix to solve this. It will certainly take change.  We also need technology and science and engineerings. We need support for smart young companies who are creating new sources of power, new materials, and new business models. Most importantly, we need to get past ourselves and care more about the dying orcas and the burning trees and the drowning world than we do about our next moment. We need to become bigger and more empathic.

Cover of After the Orange taken on an old tableSorry to run a bit preachy, but its hard to breathe in Seattle this week, and our orcas are dying. We can solve for this, but longer we wait, the harder the job will be.

In other news, I have a new story out this month. All of the stories in After the Orange are about what the world might be like after the Trump presidency.  Mine is a precursor to the world in Wilders. It’s called “Maybe the Monarchs.”

I think it’s one of my better – if bleaker – short stories.  I hope you buy a copy of the book, and that you like the story.  There are a lot of good stories in the book. If the anthology makes money, a portion of the profit will be donated to the ACLU.


Reading Recommendation: Dark Money, by Jane Mayer

Jane Mayer’s Dark Money uses our recent political past to illuminate the off-kilter present. Reading it made made me very angry.  While our country has never been perfect, fair, or completely free of the influence of the rich, the events described in this book chronicle a slow, insidious, and nearly complete take-over the Republican Party by the ultra-rich, much of it in hidden donations.  The book is not about how everyday Republicans are evil, or about how liberals are not evil (there’s some dark money there as well). It convincingly describes the systematic dismantling of the laws that protected us from government by the rich, and the subsequent purchase of our politicians.

Everyone should read this book.

I recently read the science fiction book (R)evolution, by P.J. Manney. I loved the book, which a page-turning thriller and a discussion of transhumanism that rises above the simplistic story that we’ll be perfect after we get more digital abilities. But (R)evolution involves a conspiracy theory among the very rich, and I thought Manney went a bit overboard on that.  I’m not a conspiracy theory-type.  Now I believe that what (R)evolution and Dark Money describe are possible.

Dark Money is hard to read. It’s relentless.  But all of us who care about the collective, the commons, the environment, biodiversity, or just about any other cause that doesn’t directly support making the rich richer should read it.  If we want to take back our future, we need to understand what and who we are fighting.

Of note – Dark Money has over a thousand reviews, and it’s 5 stars all the way.

In case you want to learn more, here is a longer review of the book from the New York Times.


The Importance of Science to SF

I am writing this from a coffee shop in DC.  One of the reasons I came here at this time was to participate in the March for Science right here in the capital.

The March

I ran into three friends, fellow writer Brenda Clough and her husband Larry Clough, and another fellow writer, Chris Cevasco. What a small world. Brenda introduced me to Michelle Lighton (who they had just met), and she and Larry gifted me and Michelle with their signs as they attended the rally but had to leave before the march started. Here are the signs and some quotes from me and Michelle in the New York Times.

We were wet and cold and yet everyone was smiles and enthusiasm. The signs were great. The march was quiet (I suspect it’s easier for many scientists to think of and create great signs than to scream loudly). It touched me to do the walk here, in the seat of so many debates and decisions.

We walked past the EPA building, and people chanted “Save the EPA!”  I can’t believe that phrase should even make sense, much less that we might have to fight tooth and nail for it.  That’s like saying “Save the blue in the sky” to me.  But then, I’m old enough to recall the bad smog days in California, and I read enough to know what China’s air looks like.  Air should, of course, look like nothing.  And the EPA does so much more than that. We need them. But end rant, for the moment.

Why I Showed Up

I’m not a scientist.  Some SF writers are actual scientists, but I understand science at the level of an informed reader. I do read a lot. As an SF writer, I’m dependent on the work of scientists. The world building in my next book, Wilders, was partly based on Half Earth by biologist E.O. Wilson and the sequel is informed by Carl Safina’s book How Animals Think and Feel.  There’s more, but it could take a page to list all of the research I’ve done for these two books, about half of which is straight science reading.

As a writer I take what I learn from science and engineering and expand and extend it, and wrap character and feelings around it. When I’m done, it’s not science. But it’s based there.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Scientists sometimes take our ideas and make them happen.  Many inventions have been attributed to Star Trek.  Second Life talks out loud about its based on concepts in Neal Stephenson’s excellent book, Snow Crash. I could make a list.  But mostly I want to make the point that there is a loose but valuable circle of ideas that moves from scientist to science fiction writer to scientist to science fiction writer….

It felt important to march. It’s a way to be counted.  There are so many ways we can all show our resistance to backward policies, and it’s so important to do so. We cannot get tired or confused or give up. Politics has never mattered as much as it does now, and moving forward with policies based firmly on peer-reviewed science has never been more important.  The lives of many plants and animals, many people, and maybe even of all of us are at stake.


Reading Recommendation: Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life

E. O. Wilson’s Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life is one of the best books I’ve read on the future of Earth.

He states the problem clearly….after beginning with an apt description of what we (mankind) are like and then stating that we have little time to spend on the wrong trajectory, he says:

“Meanwhile, we thrash about, appallingly led, with no particular goal in mind than economic growth, unfettered consumption, good health, and personal happiness. The impact on the rest of the biosphere is everywhere negative, the environment becoming unstable and less pleasant, our long-term future less certain.”

Yet even though Wilson pulls no punches throughout the book (which is frightening on many levels), he is hopeful. He sets a huge goal. He means exactly what is in the title. Set aside half of Earth (landmass) for biodiversity. Leave it alone. Let it recover and grow. This is the moonshot solution for biodiversity.

It’s not impossible.

Unlike many authors with roots in the environmental wHalf Earth Coverorld, Wilson embraces technology and progress. He sees innovation as enhancing our ability to save the world. In short, in the future, we will know more about the other beings inhabiting the biosphere beside us, we will be able to monitor and understand them better, and we will have tools to build an economy that is not based heavily on the destruction of natural resources. He clearly understands the connected future we are moving into and the positives and challenges of the increasing rate of change. In chapter 16, he writes:

“The collective human mind, hyperconnected and digitized, will flow through the entirely of the life we have inherited far more quickly than was possible before. We will then understand the full meaning of extinction, and we will come to regret deeply every species humanity will have carelessly thrown away.”

In many ways, this is a futurist’s book about the ongoing loss of biodiversity. That doesn’t mean we need to (or can!) wait for the future before we act. Rather, we must do more of the conservation we are already doing. Much more.

We also need to spend a lot more time and resources on practical field science – I did not for example, realize how many species we haven’t even discovered yet (there is a great case made for this in the book).  I felt like I learned something, which is a reader cookie for me if I’m going to spend hours on a science book.  Note that it pairs well with The Sixth Extinction, which I read and recommended already, but which I intend to re-read this month.

I highly recommend that everyone read Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. It is readable – Wilson wrote this book for all of us to understand. His style is accessible and conversational.

Even if you think you understand the problem, and the solutions, the book should be owned by us all for the beautiful descriptions of the best places in the world that fill the center of book, in chapter 15. It reads like poetry. I listened to parts of it three times (chapter 15 and the last few chapters).  Yes, it’s a research book for my current novel, and I’m getting to use it as part of my MFA, but more importantly, it’s a very good book.


100 Year StarShip: Space for all of us

symposium_15I’m currently at the 100 Year Starship Symposium.  This symposium was started by DARPA and is now run by Mae Jemison, who was the first black female astronaut to go into space. At the moment, I’m hearing about the 1400 planets that have been found.  That’s only in the last twenty years – it was roughly twenty years ago that we found the first one. Once more, what a lovely time to be alive.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences about space.  This one is different in a few important ways:

Most importantly, that audience (the few hundred scientists and enthusiasts and sci fi writers and students) is focused on one thing — getting out into the solar system in a human-powered ship in such a way that the journey is for everyone in humanity.  In other words, rather than being about defense or war or even pure science, they are interested in peaceful, inclusive exploration and expansion.  Here is the exact statement from them:

We exist to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years. We unreservedly dedicate ourselves to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight, while pioneering and transforming breakthrough applications that enhance the quality of life for all on Earth. We actively seek to include the broadest swath of people and human experience in understanding, shaping and implementing this global aspiration.

How do I know they mean it?  Usually the audience at a conference with similar slides on the dais would be 80% white male.  Not here.  The single largest group of people in the audience is white males, but if I added all the rest of us up, one would have to actually count to determine whether or not the numbers (collectively) of people of any-color-or-type-other-than-white-male is greater.  But it might be.  This is, in fact, very unusual. 

This is a very cool place to be.  None of us in this room are likely to be on this starship when it is created.  But in many ways this place and time represents the early generations of this multi-generation starship.


Reading Recommendation: Apex, by Ramez Naam

I’m currently at the the World Future Society meeting in San Francisco, and one of the highlights will be getting to ask science fiction author Ramez Naam some questions tomorrow afternoon.  I just finished the last book in his trilogy (Nexus, Crux, and Apex) on the plane on the way down. I was really just blown away, not just by Apex but by the whole series.

Ramez has taken one of the core questions that interests me – what might a transhumanist future look like – and he’s pushed the boundaries both on exactly how wrong and how right such a future could be for the humans involved.  Many transhumanist stories are songs of risk and warning, and this series does that, but it also flies high and clear. As I read, I glimpsed a fabulous future that I want to be part of, and a way to solve some of our myriad problems that’s deeper than technological Nirvana alone.APEX Cover

Most importantly to me, the series includes science, spirit, and politics.  In SF, we usually only look at two of those. When we leave off the spiritual dimension, we sell ourselves short.

For the best reading experience, enjoy all three together, back to back.  Even though I mentioned that these books include spirit (in this case primarily via buddhist monks in Thailand), make no mistake; these books are thrillers.  You might be up late turning pages.




Backing into Eden: Akumal and the Sea Turtles

Photo Credit Local Quickies

Turtle in Akumal Bay, photo credit Local Quickies

I spent the last week vacationing in the Mexican Riviera Maya, which runs from Cancun west along the Caribbean sea. The first time I came here, in 1998, a long somewhat sleepy highway ran along the coast and hand-made signs led to beach locations. We stayed in a small hotel, the Blue Parrot Inn in Playa Del Carmen. There was only one large resort in Playa, and another under construction at that time, and the tourist road, 5th avenue, was somewhat sleepy.  The population of Playa was under 40,000 people. Playa has since grown so that it resembles a smaller and lower version of Cancun, which is a nightmare of a place where humans ruined a beautiful, ecologically critical location by scattering bits of Las Vegas across a pristine beach, no offense if you are a “Vegas Guy” but this is unacceptable. In Playa there is some city planning and locals are proud of the three story height limit.  Today there over 150,000 residents. That’s almost 200% growth in less than twenty years. Almost all of this growth is fed by the tourist industry.

On this trip, I stayed in the Princess Riviera Maya, which is one of a long string of resorts that follows the coast, as if someone had taken a hundred cruise ships or more, split them open, and folded them out flat. Huge busses show up in lines every morning and take people to Mayan theme parks, snorkeling locations, and ruins like Chitzen Itza and Tulum.

One of my best memories from the first trip was when my son (who turned eighteen that year) and I went to hike the Na Pali coast and snorkeling in Akumal. At the time, it was a sleepy seaside Mexican town only a little swelled by ex-pats and dive shops. I remember that it had a large tourist hotel.  Essentially, we simply drove up near the beach, parked, and walked across blazing white sand to the ocean. We were immediately surrounded by huge sparkling schools of multicolored fish, so many that it looked like a river of fins. The reef below us was full of purple and red and orange and brown. Colorful life  blossomed and swam and moved everywhere we looked. Sea turtles and angelfish and parrotfish, barracuda and a hundred other species we had no names for. The ocean was full to bursting. We were enchanted.

I believe there were no more than about ten others snorkeling the beach the day we were there.

Snorkelers politely surrounding a turtle, photo credit Local Quickies

Snorkelers politely surrounding a turtle, photo credit Local Quickies

I didn’t get to Akumal on our middle trip, but I went there on this trip, with our family eighteen-year-old for whom I am a handy extra adult. The large schools of glittering fish were gone. Most of the color had faded, at least if my memory serves me at all. The quiet was certainly gone…the entire bay is ringed with high-end resorts and tourist shopping and restaurants. Most Mexicans can no longer afford to live there. We did see a number of turtles, a single barracuda (very big!), two rays, and some squid. I spotted one parrotfish, a few yellow angels, and a number of smaller and less distinctive fish. The coral was almost all brown and white, with a few pale purple colors.

We shared the water with hundreds of people. Hundreds. I would bet a thousand people snorkeled there the day we did.

It has become wholly unrecognizable as the place which enchanted David and I almost two decades ago. The picture above is what happens to sea turtles when one is spotted: snorkelers float nearby and watch for up to two minutes, being careful not to come too close to the turtles.  Our guide made sure we were careful. In spite of that, I felt intrusive. This must happen to each turtle something like a fifty times a day.

Our guide, Gil, grew up in Akumal. He now lives on the other side of the large, busy highway and yet he can still be found on the Akumal beaches almost every day. He is part of a collective working to save the bay, and to save the turtles. The collective works together to take snorkeling trips out, to monitor people’s behavior and make sure they resect the coral and the turtles. They share any money they make evenly between all of the guides in the collective.

According to Gil, the bay was even worse a few years ago, and it is now rebounding. We watched for turtles who had not yet been tagged – which meant that they were new young ones who appear as juveniles (apparently there is a specific set of juvenile years that the turtles spend in Akumal eating a specific sea grass). We saw at least two, maybe three untagged turtles. Gil reported that the turtle population last year was about fifty-five and that now it may be sixty or more. He is very proud of the work that he and his collective are doing, much of which seems to be managing tourists in such a way as to create a win-win situation. Others in Akumal protect nesting sites, herd baby turtles to the beach, and help educate the tourists.

In spite of how the differences in the reef  saddened me, this was a real and unexpected “Backing in Eden” moment for me. The entire bay is known and mapped. Almost every turtle is tagged, and they get a yearly doctor’s visit. A fragile and nearly–destroyed ecosystem is beginning to bounce back. The locals are in on the preservation efforts, and my be driving them. The turtle’s chances of survival are increasing.


As always, more links for you to follow. Fewer than usual since the connectivity down here is nasty and I didn’t need to go the Internet for the lesson. The one came to me in person.

Centro Ecologico Akumal:

A great tale of the work being done in Akumal

Interesting because it talks about conservation and the reviews, of course, are written by tourists.

The tour company I went with, Local Quickies, which seems reasonably ecologically conscious.


Gaming for Good

I spent Wednesday – Friday of last week working on a far brighter side of gaming than gamergate. In support of its mission to eradicate poverty, the World Bank has been deploying a game called Evoke, which is designed to engage young adults in developing countries with social good issues. They used a hackathon to start the next round of game stories. The Bank gathered science fiction writers, topical experts, curriculum designers, and artists around grey industrial tables with power cords hanging overhead, a maker space right next door, and plentiful moderately bad coffee.

Each team worked on a topical “big” issue from conservation through nuclear disarmament (Remember the nukes? Some of us do. Viscerally. But millennials may not).

The hackathon designers drew authors from the Hieroglyph anthology inspired by Seattle superpower Neal Stephenson, with the apt addition of Kim Stanley Robinson. Participants included Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn (the editors), Kathleen Ann Goonan, Karl Schroeder, James Cambias, and me. Academics and experts came from multiple Universities and from the Bank itself. Every table had an artist; they might have been the most amazing people there. Worlds and characters were drawn into life very quickly.

Artist Jacob Glaser working at the hackathon.  Photo credit Jamais Cascio.

Artist Jacob Glaser working at the hackathon. Photo credit Jamais Cascio.

Each team produced about 8 pages worth of graphic story, and a number of tasks to accompany it. Some groups proposed linking the game to the player’s real world.

Will these games work?

That’s tough to say. But they very well might. It seems that the linkage to the real world will matter. For example, if someone gaming about literacy can read to someone else, there could be an extra win.

Another trick will be creating engaging experiences. Each table might have benefitted from one more person: an actual game designer from a commercially successful game. Perhaps designers from Zynga, Bungee, and Valve.

Some episodes of Evoke are already in use. If the game continues to get better and grow its base, the payoff could be fabulous. Many  target players are in countries with broken education systems. Interactive games could provide a window into a world where players can connect with the global community and global mentors so that they become armed with new knowledge and skills, as well as a feeling of empowerment.

It’s hard to create compelling entertainment with an agenda. But it’s possible. I’m very pleased that the World Bank did this, and that they invited me to play a small part. I wish them all the success in the world.


Stop. Talk. Think.

I’ve been off discussing the future at the World Future Society this month.  It’s a topic I engage in fairly regularly online and other places.  This is the most important conversation we can have a society.  Perhaps telling your family that you love them or walking your dog and chatting with neighbors is more important on some daily soul-building level.  But I believe that dinner and water cooler and political conversations should be at least partly consumed by the tsunami of change we’re riding.  Yet, I’m amazed at how often I am finding mistaken thinking or lack of thought around our future (including, I’m sure, in myself).  I hear us carrying our own false knowledge forward or falling into sound-bite land.  When I catch myself doing this, its usually because I haven’t taken time to stop, talk, and think.

We’re living in a decade when the rate of change is increasing quickly, and as we climb the curves of this change, the things we know become outdated really fast.  Things we “know” become untrue a few years after they were the best truth we had available.  For example, I was just talking to a friend about desalination, and she mentioned that it was very difficult to figure out what to do with the extra salt.  I did some research and in fact, the leftover brine has been (and in some cases is) a problem.  But plants in Tampa have figured out how to return it to the ocean safely, and others have suggested ways to perhaps use that salt on roads in the winter.  This is a rather pedestrian example, but in many cases things that were problems have been turned to opportunity, or had acceptable workarounds created for them.  It’s important to assume our knowledge at any given point is wrong, and to go proof it.  The knowledge we thought we owned may no longer be true.  It’s not new math, it’s a new world.

Two friends enjoying the viewWe spend a lot of time on the Internet, which means we’re bombarded by misinformation constantly. Depending on where we spend that time, the signal to noise ratio can be pretty awful.  I’ve always tried to avoid commercial television because the commercials are created by people who spend a lot of money (a LOT of money) to influence my thinking.  There’s no reason to assume I’m immune to that.  The Internet appears to have MORE advertising than a typical half-hour TV show used to have.  So it’s even more dangerous.  Add the polarized political atmosphere and corporate money flowing into politics like an engorged river of lies, and we probably intake more junk than real information. Let’s take a non-pedestrian example this time. People have conflated a single company’s business practices (much of which I disagree with, but which aren’t actually as evil as they’re made out to be) with a whole technology, and have turned GMO foods and animals into evil, no matter who created them or for what.  Yet we’re almost certainly going to need this tool in the fast-changing adjustable climate-dominated world of tomorrow. The vitriol, hover, is so thick that it’s nearly impossible to have a rational conversation even in places where the audience is generally rational and thoughtful.  On the internet, lies abound, and truths get picked up and exaggerated until they become lies.

Knowledge itself is changing and lies are regularly presented to as facts.  There isn’t much we can do about that – it’s an external reality.  But we can stop and think and talk.  We can take quiet meditative time.  We can make ourselves read whole essays and articles instead of skimming them for titles.  I started this post yesterday, partly in reaction to a sound-bite of mine which has been getting retweeted (“What we grow up knowing and what we will die knowing will be different.”)  Yesterday morning, I read an excellent essay in the New York Times, “No Time to Think,” by Kate Murphy.  She did a nice job of expanding on something that disturbs me.  Often it feels like I get up, give myself half an hour to read or FaceBook over coffee, and then I’m off and running with no real stops until I pass out for the night.  On a good day, I get in an hour of dog walking, which is good thinking time.  Many days, even that is rushed.

The best thing we can do for the the future is to spend some time with it, either in quiet contemplation or in thoughtful conversation.  We have big problems to solve, and running around distracted by someone else’s soundbites isn’t going to solve them.  Stopping and thinking clearly is more likely to help.


Backing into Eden Chapter 20: Fire.

Somewhere around a dozen years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Eastern Washington. It could have been Lake Chelan or Yakima. I really don’t remember. But I do remember meeting two cowboys. Real cowboys (we still have them in the west). They weren’t talking about herds of cows over their beers.  They were talking about fires. I still remember the older of the two describing a fire he’d worked the previous season where the ground had been torched so thoroughly and with so much heat that the the grass wouldn’t re-seed. They explained to me how they had to bring in bales of hay and scatter the hay across acres and acres of seared ground in order to restore the badly-needed grass. Without it, the burnt hills would have washed away during the winter.

I asked him why that fire was so bad.


Now, recall that this man is not a Seattle-area liberal. He’s wearing jeans worn smooth by saddle-leather on the inside of the thighs, he’s chewing tobacco, and if he doesn’t have a gun on him, he almost certainly has one in his truck. He says, “It’s climate change.”

At this point, I was just becoming interested in the topic, and I wanted to know how he came to that conclusion.

“Why, it’s pine beetles. Now that the winters are warmer, they’ve taken to infesting trees that they didn’t used to bother. The trees die, and a forest of dead trees makes a hot fire.”

How did he know it was about climate change? He’d spent every year working the same large farm. He knew change when he saw it, and he knew the difference between a bad year and change that settles in and stays.

I suppose part of why I remember that conversation so clearly is because my son is a wildland firefighter. A fire hot enough to sear the seed from the ground is frightening. It could sear people easily, and take houses and farms.

Multiple recent studies have backed up the cowboys’ story. A Seattle Times article from May of this year reported on the National Climate Assessment. The article said, “Warmer and drier conditions are already blamed for insect infestations and an increase in the number and ferocity of wildfires across the West since the 1970s. By 2080, the amount of forestland that burns every year in the Northwest is expected to quadruple, to 2 million acres.” Just last month, the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, suggested that the extreme wildfires that his state has experienced recently are caused by climate change. In 2013, Super-hot fires raced through Tasmania and New South Wales, Australia, fueled by the hottest and longest heat wave on record.  Valparaiso, Chile, was almost completely razed by wind-whipped forest fire earlier this year.

Climate change is not the only cause of fire activity. Many ecosystems such as our own in the Pacific Northwest, and California chaparral, benefit from regular fires. The cycle of burn/renewal can be disrupted when we fight wildfire so effectively that fuel builds up. Conscious fire management is going to be very important as we work toward a sustainable world.

  • We already occasionally do controlled burns today; it may become the norm to burn through wild lands regularly.  On purpose.  We’ll have accurate enough weather forecasts to be sure the weather helps instead of hurts, and we may even be able to control the weather.  Once more, this will take a different approach to land management and ownership.
  • We’ll have far better tools for firefighting. Technology such as drones and robotic firefighters will have become more widely used. While this may give us extra muscle in a firefight, in reality we may benefit the most from more information. Knowing where and how a fire is likely to spread can provide a lot of information about how – and whether – to fight it.
  • We may use the tools of genetic engineering to design plants that are more fire resistant, perhaps planting these at the wildland/urban boundary or as urban street trees. I couldn’t find any evidence that this is considered feasible yet, but genetic engineering is still in its dangerous infancy and will mature quite a bit over the next few decades.

Fire has always been with us, and without it much of modern human life might not have been possible. Our close relationship with fire has not historically extended to wildfire, but in the more controlled and gardened world of our future we may have to become masters of wildfire, both to adopt healthy wildfire as our friend and to mange the incidence of fire so hot that the seeds are seared from the soil.

We will also be grateful for our firefighters.  This picture was a found object on my bike ride in Bend, Oregon, just a few days ago.  This is a place that knows the danger of fire.

As always, here are some links:

Wikipedia article on the Tasmanian bushfires

Forest fires and warming planet could accelerate deforestation in Amazon, Science News, April 15th, 2014, by Brooks Hays

Climate Change Increasing Massive Wildfires in the West, USA Today, April 19th, 2014, by Doyle Rice.