27 min read

One Trillion Fires

Science writer John Vaillant tells us why we're thinking of fossil fuels all wrong
One Trillion Fires

There was a time on earth before fire. 2.4 billion years ago there were volcanic eruptions, full of dust and ash and lightning; there was the liquid flame of lava belching from open wounds in the crust.

But fire? Flickering, consuming, catalyzing? Not yet. In the long cold time before the oxygen revolution terraformed the surface of the planet, and before multicellular life grew and spread and catalyzed across the world, the rocks lay barren under the sun. There was nothing to burn, and little air with which to burn it.

Then the algae came. Over vast eons, they poisoned the world with explosive oxygen, and with that corrosive gas came new and alien forms of life that used it to kickstart their strange metabolisms.

By 428 million years ago, the land was made up of strange fungal landscapes. By 360 million years ago, plants had spread across the landscape, fueling themselves by the light — the stolen fires of the sun. Storing energy to burn.

Up crept the oxygen levels in the air, and up. By 300 million years ago, dense forests of tall quillwort trees packed the floodplains, in oxygen levels 12 percent higher than today. Until over those black swamps full of wallowing amphibians and giant insects swirled a near-permanent haze of smoke. The fires had come, wildfires — megafires — that swept back and forth across the monsoonal continents. Supercharged by oxygen and fed by plants, our world had plunged into an age of fire.

We have never left it.

We call that period the Carboniferous, and the coal and oil sludge generated by those distant, burning swamps now powers our own explosive society. Rocks that burn; rocks that want to burn.

For hundreds of years, we’ve burned them. And in one place, the scale and cost of that burning is particularly dramatic — the vast open-pit mines of the Alberta tar sands. These are ancient graveyards where the corpses of single-celled organisms piled up over eons, until their very weight — and the crushing pressure of the earth — pressed them into crude oil.

Over past 50 million years, that oil — once as light and sweet as what runs beneath Saudi Arabia — was burned up; consumed by armies of hungry bacteria, who left behind only the chewed up rinds.

These sat below the surface of what would become Alberta; covered by clear rivers and tall spruce forests. Until the new colonial nation of Canada surveyed them in the late 19th Century and — by the 20th — decided that they offered the country a near limitless supply of oil. With that oil came something else: a harsh new age of fire.

Welcome to Heat Death, the newsletter that knows existence — like love — is a burning thing. We’ve been on a quiet hiatus for a few months, with both Elbein Brothers buried in that most wonderful and annoying of things: paying work. Asher’s finished several assignments that — due to long lead times — still haven’t seen the light of day, but did make a debut in New York Magazine in a piece arguing that cinematic dinosaurs need to move on from Jurassic Park, as well as a New York Times science feature about Texas paleontology. (Much, much more of that sort of thing coming.)

Saul meanwhile (and to his own great surprise), has gotten way into UFOs for The Hill. Here’s his take on what scientists say about the recent allegations by a Pentagon whistleblower that the Defense Department as a secret UFO crash-retrieval program; on how Congressional interest in UFOs went mainstream; and on what elements of those allegations the whistleblower says he can back up (spoiler: not much, but not nothing).

(And for a weird dose of Congress in action, here’s the live blog he put out with other Hill writers on the strange claims made during the proceedings.)

Today, however, we aren’t talking about aliens. Saul recently had the opportunity to speak with American-Canadian journalist John Vaillant, author of The Golden Spruce, The Tiger, and several other excellent works on the intersection of culture, economics and natural history. At the time of the interview — carried out as part of an article for The Hill — Canada was already well into its worst fire season in history. Since then, U.S. cities across the country’s entire eastern half have received a choking crash course on the cost of fire, as the wind-borne detritus of those burns clogged their lungs and eyes.

The story of our new age of flame is the subject of Vaillant’s new book, Fire Weather. It begins with a bang, though one Americans largely missed: the apocalyptic 2016 fires that nearly wiped out Fort McMurray, the capital of the tar sands mining region. As Vaillant explains here, that disaster was a crucible in itself, which forged a powerful and unavoidable conclusion: that the world is burning because we ourselves cannot stop.

In this wide-ranging interview, Vaillant — a self-described slow-thinker who is one of North America’s great science writers — explains why his craft must thread a line between revelation and tedium; why we’re thinking about fossil fuels all wrong; and of the positive identity that can be reclaimed from the idea of European-Americans as “settlers.”

It’s Heat Death. Stay with us.

I've been reading your work for pretty much as long as I've been doing this kind of work; since my ex-girlfriend handed me a copy of the Golden Spruce and I was living in Vancouver. (It took me a while to get into it because I thought: “I don't want to read about this fucking tree.” It turned out I did!)

It struck me — as I was grappling for a connecting thread between that and this fire book — that you find these people who are on the sort of the frontier between these big, big forces, and who are drawn  to something that ultimately eats them.

Yeah, pretty much. That's exactly it. And you remember we corresponded, right? You did a really great piece about those fires in southern Europe. You're in the acknowledgments. I mean, that was an important connection for me.

I was just sort of at one of those little junctures right. And you helped me through that. That article really helped me just get a bigger picture and move forward. So I have to thank you: that was really good. And it was great writing —  just really, really good science writing. I thought: Holy shit. This is how it's done.  It had the power and visceral energy and the science, and it's hard to blend those together. The science — so often just stops us in our tracks, you know. It kills the momentum. I struggle with that all the time and I felt like you really finessed it with that piece.

Tell me about that juncture that we’re at, that that piece specifically helped you through. Because that gets to something that’s core to what we both do, which is try to make science writing gripping.

Yeah. Which is thrilling, but  the learning curve to get a grip on it is steep. It's a new language. And so the pyrocumulonimbus cloud, nobody knows about those unless you read about it. And most of the people who are writing about it are atmospheric scientists, and they have a language that they communicate in, and it's not our language. They are, in a way, trying to do a different thing than we're trying to do. We're trying to drive a narrative. They're trying to break down the anatomy of this mercurial entity, and they're also trying to be really, really precise. They get hammered every time they take a liberty. And so they're being very disciplined and careful, whereas we are able to be a little bit looser and more fluid and take some liberties with the language.

Because our problem is different: how do you take the discipline of good science and very specific information and keep it moving in a way that a lay person — which is who I imagined myself to be — will stay with? Why would I want to read about a tree? Why would I want to read about this giant cloud? The giant cloud is little more interesting if it's producing lightning and is, you know, something that would ordinarily come out of a volcano — and it's now coming out of a forest in Portugal.

What energizes me in all my stories is the “Holy shit” factor. I had no idea such forces were being exerted in the world. To be able to find people who are encountering them, nose to nose, whether it's a tiger, whether it's the depredations of a logging industry, whether it's a rank six boil fire coming into your town on your doorstep. It's a rare privilege to find those people — first of all, alive, and second of all, willing to talk to you. It’s really important to the rest of us who are behind those lines, as it were.

Because we're closer than we think to those thresholds.  I'm here in this  lovely house and there's flowers and gardens outside, and summer’s here, and ain’t it great? But, you know, there are major evacuations taking place in Alberta right now, because of fires. Alberta is not that far away from me. We’re in the same general part of the country. And so we're bringing dispatches back from the future, or from a possible future.

That's really what motivated me with Fire Weather. I saw Fort McMurray catch on fire when there were car-sized blocks of ice sitting on the riverbanks, on a day when the temperature record for that date was broken by 10 degrees Fahrenheit. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. That's what I thought it was.

I am really getting interested in these sort of invisible thresholds where if you tweak the temperature a few degrees this way, you tweak the humidity a few percentage points down that way, you change the quality of what happens — and combustion becomes much easier, much more explosive. To the point where people are describing how quickly the fire moves, and they said it's almost like people just sprayed gasoline around. Because everything was so dry that the fire had no work to do. The conditions were perfect for combustion. 91 degrees and 11% humidity, it's like Southern California or Australia, except it's in northern Alberta.

I mean, when it happened, I remember because it was like well, this little on the nose, like forest fires in Fort Mac.

But what should people in the rest of North America — by which I really mean the United States — know about this disaster? You sort of make the case that this is like a fire Katrina: a disaster you should know about on its own terms.

They should know that fire is now capable of behaviors on a regular basis that would have been considered anomalous in the 1990s. And the co2 and methane enriched atmosphere that human and industry has created has empowered  the combustion capabilities of our planet in the same way that fossil fuels have empowered us.

So in other words, we have been supercharged by fossil fuels, you know? We can fly in jets, we can drive in cars, we've become enormously powerful. But in so doing, we have also inadvertently empowered the atmosphere in an analogous way.

2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. Large flames and heavy smoke surround congested Highway 63 South. CC License DarrenRD

And this is really important, and it took me two years to get through this. We need to stop thinking about it as "fossil fuels," stop thinking about it as "oil and gas," stop thinking about it as "coal." Those are the inert states. Instead we should ask, 'What is it doing?' And the answer is: 'It's burning. It's fire.'

The only reason we are interested in those things at all — fossil fuels, oil and gas, coal, methane, propane — is because they burn. They are fire.  

When you look at our entire society, our entire civilization — it is totally fire driven, to the extent that we've become numbed to it. In part that’s because of the genius of engineering, and partly because familiarity breeds a kind of indifference. But think of the violence of what's actually going on in a car engine. If you took a car engine and just set it up in your living room, you'd be driven out of that room in minutes. Between the noise and the emissions, it would be intolerable. It would kill you, and it would kill everyone else in the room, and relatively quickly too. Like in an hour you'd be dead.

That's another climate disaster thing. That happened to hundreds of people during the ice storm here in Austin a couple of years ago. They were running diesel generators in or to close to their houses to keep warm, which is exactly that violence you're talking about.

Another kind of frontline.

Some of what's lulled us into this strange — and really quite dangerous — complacency around combustion is engineering. Some of that is duplicitous advertising. Some of it is our own sort of willful blindness. Because if you grow up in an automotive culture — which is to say, if you grow up in a combustive culture, a fire-driven culture as we have — it's normal. It's like if you grow up around guns.It feels normal, but if you step back and look at what a gun is, and what it does, more objectively — it's like wow, that's really intense.

This is the reckoning that we're having now. In the book, but I counted the number of fires that human beings make every day. And we make trillions of fires, especially when you add in each combustion inside a car engine right? In terms of the RPM, each piston — every push and pull, each explosion, each one of those makes a fire. Each one of those makes energy. Each one of those empowers us, and each one of those creates its own emission.

And when you multiply that literally times billions, and then trillions, then human activity collectively is a supervolcano erupting constantly, day after day after day, year after year ,and now century after century.

And it adds up, because our atmosphere is absolutely finite. It's like Las Vegas. You know, what happens in our atmosphere stays in our atmosphere. The only way you're getting something out of [the Earth system] is on a rocket. That's the only way to get something out of our atmosphere. Otherwise, it's all going to stay in here with us.

But that is to so abstract for people, you know, that's again, the challenge of the layperson trying to convey science. And I think a fairly easy step to take is to every time you use the word 'oil' and 'gas,’ or, 'petroleum energy,’ or 'fossil fuel,' just throw 'fire' in there, Madlib style. It might change the way you think about what we're doing here, right now.

Walk me through how this works in practice.

It's not the price of oil — it's the price of fire. It's like, you see a phrase like "The price of oil is down." No. The price of fire, the price of burning — that’s what’s down.

That's what the British Thermal Unit is..

Just call it fire. It's sort of easier to get because, if you get into thermal units, you've already lost 90 percent of readers. You've practically lost me already.

And I'm a very good guinea pig for these things. Because my eyes roll back really quick. You know, I'm a slow processor. I'm kind of restless. And you know, I just know when I'm writing and I start boring myself. It's like, "Okay, the reader's gone, I lost the reader!"— and I know because I lose myself.

So you're saying: if you're in a combustion culture, you don't see it in a way that you might if you had grown up in a fully electrified culture. Where everything came from solar panels, and all cooking was done on an induction stove. And it's striking to me that the metaphor we always use for this kind of embedded, invisible phenomenon is "a fish in water."

But it's more like: you're a human around fire.

Here's the other thing: we've literally evolved in tandem with fire. So we have no memory that doesn't have fire somewhere. And it may not necessarily be around a hearth, but the presence of fire — even as a wildfire — is a presence that has always been there with us, just like animals have always been with us. We don't know a world without it.

So for most of us, fire has been a companion for probably hundreds of millennia, at least, in a semi-domesticated way. Even if we didn't have a fire every night, there were ways we could see the utility of fire and make it serve us.

And so when you have again, no memory without useful fire, it feels right. As we speak, I've got the gas stove going in my kitchen. It feels right. Fire feels right.

And ... it's obviously dangerous and explosive, and houses burned down and you know, people's hair catches on fire all kinds of scary, dangerous thing happened. But it's like how it is with us with cars. You know, you tell people about the 40,000 Americans are killed every year in car accidents, right? You think 'There ought to be a law. We got to do something about this.' It's a hideous way to die; something you never want to see. But do you think twice about tat when you jump in your car? Probably not. You put on your seatbelt, and off you go.

And so you know, that's sort of our superpower, as well as our curse — that adaptability and that malleability, and how we can get comfortable with anything. How would anybody try to attack a wooly mammoth or a cave bear? Well, if you lived with them your whole life, if Grandpa So-and-So told you about "The time when I did it," and it's your rite of passage to adulthood. But think about Benjamin Franklin on a bicycle cycling in New York City traffic. I think he'd be really really frightened, and he would say this isn't a sane or a safe to do. These things are huge. They're turning radically. It would be really jarring for him. And yet, you know, we're relatively inured to it.

You know, come to think of it: I did have a rite of passage when I was 16. I became a man ... because I got access to my own automobile. Access to this powerful and destructive force.

Yeah, yeah, you can kill people and get laid in the backseat.

I mean, it's the power of life and death.

So let's take another step, though. Like what does that do for you to be able to say "fire" instead of "emissions," fire instead of "oil and gas?" It's deliberately demystifying, but other than that?

It makes it all less abstract, you know? There's well over a billion cars in the world and then all these other machines, all of them are doing the same thing, that's going to add up. Imagine if there were a million open fires burning in Austin, Texas. You’d have a serious smoke problem.

It's a way to get back to what's really happening. And so it's not just demystifying, it's kind of clarifying. It's taking this veil off. sing  "gas and oil" is almost like saying "euthanasia," when what you mean is killing somebody before their time. You can have do that for any number of reasons, but you're still killing them before they would naturally die.

And it's much nicer to say euthanasia. It's a beautiful word. And, you know, "gas" and "oil," you know, they they are almost meaningless to us because we've, we've said them so many times and seen them so many times. And they're talked about in this glib way. In a way, it's a great disrespect to the power that they represent. And so I'm sort of trying to get back to the ... essence. Which is the French name for gasoline. To get back to this kind of baseline reality.

And it makes it easier for me to understand, why we little tiny human beings are able to actually change the chemistry of a planetary atmosphere. "Oh, it's because we burn trillions of fires every day." That's literally millions of times more than any natural fire process. You know, lightning strikes the Earth millions of times every day, it lights 1000s and 1000s of fires. And it's not a patch on what humans do.

In a sense, that's how amazing we are. You know, that's how far we've come. There's a lot to celebrate about it, you know? It's not, "Oh, we're a terrible and morally bankrupt, evil species." We have this incredible ingenuity. And what's amazing is that so many people now have access to it. It isn't just pharaohs and kings anymore — you and I have the power of pharaohs and kings.

You know, when you get in your car, imagine how many enslaved people or draft animals it would take to give you that much power. And you just hop in there and go get a jug of milk or whatever it is you need.

Like I'm commanding the wealth of a medium sized Mongol chieftain, in terms of the horsepower at my disposal when I get behind the wheel of my SUV.

It's awesome, and it's been made ordinary. Like, Oh, everybody should have one of these. And there's this tension between sharing the wealth and the power, which is quite beautiful, and promoting a business model which says, "let's max this out, like there's no tomorrow."

And there you know, there's a real tension there. And we've arrived at the point where those energies and intentions are colliding in basically disastrous ways.

You mention this "max it out" business model, which leads us to the other major character in your book aside from fire, which is the Canadian tar sands, which are the source of extraordinarily low grade oil dregs that can, with a great deal of time and effort, be turned into something like crude oil.

You have this really nice image of squeezing oil from the tar sands as like trying to mine the asphalt from a highway exit ramp as a source of fuel rock and dirt and you know, everything. That seems so fundamentally absurd from the outside. So what's keeping it afloat?

Subsidies really help. I think, obviously, when when you have a barrel price over 100 bucks for oil, it becomes economical. But I really struggled with this, too — I had to approach this like a third grader.

There are these basic conditions that have to be in place for the bitumen industry to be profitable. One of the big ones is there's no exploration cost. Most oil companies are searching and searching — often unsuccessfully — for profitable new wells because they exhausted the old one. But we know where the bitumen is, so they just set up over the top of it.

The other is the price of oil. A lot of what they do is relatively inexpensive. Subsidies are a piece of it, but the other piece of who's really subsidizing this.  Who's subsidizing this current economic and energy experiment that we're involved with, that will not last, that cannot last? Who's subsidizing that?

It's the natural world. We are getting so much for free right now. Particularly the ability of the atmosphere is ability to contain the number one waste product of a fire-driven civilization, which are CO2 and methane. Right now we get that storage space for free, but it's getting really expensive. There was a $10 billion bill for the Fort McMurray fire, you know? So that's not free anymore.

And so, going back to the tar sands, they get their water for free. They get the forest for free. They get their natural gas for a pittance — and they burn colossal quantities of perfectly good natural gas, just to turn the bitumen into something that's vaguely usable, which starts with releasing the bitumen from the sand. It sounds insane, but it's not if the gas is cheap enough.

There is an 18th-century inefficiency to that industry, and that is the Canadian legacy. It was a fur colony, and it still thinks and acts that way. I don't think Canada knows how to do anything beyond using up the resource literally until it's gone, and they don't know how to stop themselves. It's really stuck in this worldview that I think people had in 1800. There's no end to nature, and nature is also kind of an enemy. It's so big. It's so powerful. We struggle so hard. It kills us so often. So subduing it is a good thing.

And maybe it maybe it owes us, you know? There's an element of that too. Read Genesis, which motivates a lot of people in the oil business, I'll tell you. There’s  a real kind of Old Testament evangelical Christian underpinning to a lot of people who have been driving forces in the petroleum industry in particular: people like Sunoco president J. Howard Pew, or [former presidents] George Bush. Or Stephen Harper: a former Prime Minister of Canada, who is another evangelical.

You're really seeing that in the United States right now, front and center: this sense that we have dominion over nature. That it's a virtue to exploit it, because that's why we're here. We wouldn't be able to do it if God didn't enable us to do it; if God didn't want us to do it. But there's also this like 'you owe me': a kind of hostile exploitation. If you transpose that to the abuse of another person — it's like the treatment of an enslaved person or you know, the way women are viewed sometimes. This kind of exploitative quality is pernicious and subtle and very damaging. Though I'm kind of getting off into borderline metaphysics here.

But the tar sands are the most egregious example of a pervasive mindset, especially in colonial and capitalist society.

You open The Golden Spruce a book about late 20th Century logging with this really vivid dive into the sea otter and broader fur booms. Which at first out of place and then, but really set up the themes of the book. And I think that's sort of the analogy you are drawing here.

But for a more American audience, what should they understand about that legacy? We have a narrative here that Canada is 'the nice country,' where everybody respects the law and environmental regulations are strict?

It's a little bit like "clean coal" or "clean natural gas:" it's marketing and wishful thinking kind of joining together. Canada is really quite a rapacious place. You have to remember: Canada is physically bigger than the United States, the population of Canada is one-tenth that of the United States. So when you consider that you have this very small, almost Australia-sized population, exerting itself on this gigantic country, it's incredible what Canadians have accomplished. If you want to call it that.

I mean, the amount of the degree of exploitation that has been perpetrated on the landscapes, waters, subterranean regions of Canada is astounding, given the small population. People have been very, very busy up here.

And because it's so big, I think it's easy to it's still easy to find wilderness, there is real wilderness there in large quantities. And so you can kind of point to that and you know, you look at Banff National Park in Alberta, or something like that, and 'my God, look at those mountains! Look at those forests!'

But if you kind of scratch away at it, there's a whole other story there.

And again, there is this funny tendency for human beings to go only so far into this story and stop there. Just like we were talking about with cars, you know, you can barely hear the car, you can sit in it for hours, it doesn't feel like there's fires and explosions going on. Cars are friendly. They feel friendly to us, and they're marketed in that way. And so we go with that.

And maybe Canada's another version of that. It looks good. It feels good to be there. But if you look at the underpinnings of it, if you look at the energy that drives them, it's a different story. It's more toxic. And who wants to look at that? You know, what a bummer, what a downer, to dwell on that. And you know, it can feel unpatriotic, it can be mean-spirited. "What about jobs?" Or: "Easy for you to say, you latte-sucking Vancouverite."

Those are all true things to say. But it doesn't negate or even alleviate the fact of what's actually happening, and the irreparable harm has been done to the ecosystem — the multiple ecosystems of the continent and by these industries.

So that's this other cost of living, you know? we get very tied up in the "Oh my gosh, there's inflation. Oh my gosh, interest rates are going up. My cost of living is going up."

Well the cost of living — the real cost of living — is our impact on the ecosystems that keep us alive. The real energy is not gas oil, fossil fuels. The real energy is fire, and it's only useful to us when it's burning. That's the only reason we care about it. I'm sorry to keep harping on that. But that feels like a really important point — that we are dead in the water unless the fires are going.

It's the thought that I've had sort of, sort of more like mystic moments: that on a deep level fire is what's keeping us alive? I mean, we get energy from the redox reactions in our mitochondria, right? Like we are, we convert oxygen and carbon into growth.

That was a real revelation to me. I was thinking we are so tied up with fire. We're so connected to it and have been for so long. What's the deal? Humans and dogs have been associated for a long time and you can see why that relationship remains as strong as it is, and how it would have been as strong as it has been for so long.

But fire is not alive ... or is it? And if it's not alive in the sense of, you know, having a brain and intentions like we do — or like a dog does — then might be alive in another way. I went back to where is our common ancestor [with fire]? Oxygen is our common elemental ancestor. And the bottom line is, we are both burners. Human beings are burning; we're heat-generating, and we relate on that level, on the level of appetite and consumption.

Both of us are hungry. Both of us will literally die if we don't keep feeding the fire inside us.

A firefighter tries to extinguish a wildfire burning at the industrial zone of the city of Volos, in central Greece, July 26, 2023. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

And it can feel like: I'm just sitting here, having no temperature at all and just existing. No, you're almost 100 degrees. The room you're in is probably 30 degrees cooler than you are. How do you stay so warm and so comfortable? You're on fire, you know? You're burning at a slower rate.

We're all burners — but what fire does is burn more intensely, more efficiently than we do. And so at an elemental — I meant that literally — level we relate to it.

And its utility, you know, is undeniable. Just the fact that it literally turns night into day and you know. Another tangent I would love to have gone on in the book is what gaslight did for human beings. Instead of just being ruled by the sun — the sun is down so you're going to bed — you can say, "No, the sun is down. I got my kerosene lamp. And I'm going to get off this farm and study to be a lawyer. I'm gonna learn how to read! I didn't have time during the daylight because I was out working. But now animals have been put to bed, I can develop myself."

It's really interesting to consider of how we have how adding extra hours to the to the day have allowed us to amplify us in ourselves internally.

Interior light is interior life. Because before that kerosene lamp, you might have had a hearth going and maybe you could see enough to knit, or somebody could tell a story. But you couldn't go inward — you couldn't read by yourself or write — because that would have required light.

It's harder, you know? [He holds up an old kerosene lamp.]

Like this: it's been electrified now but you know, this was you know, from the 1880s. It was somebody's study lamp, from what back when Standard Oil [ed: now ExxonMobil] was just a start-up and kerosene lighting was becoming ubiquitous. Some earnest young law student, you know, could fire that up and study, and not destroy his eyes. And that's another kind of superpower really.

I want to go back to something you said earlier, about the posture of Canadians toward the vast wilderness of Canada as being analogous to the posture of burning humans to the supposedly infinite capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the remnants of our fire. Does that parallel hold up?

I wouldn't restrict it to Canadians.

Up here now in Canada there's a lot of distinction between settlers and indigenous people. And a lot of people like me are now identifying themselves as "I'm a settler on unceded territory." There was no treaty signed out here, so this is unceded land and I am a settler from some other place living on it. People are really taking that on and identity. It's kind of like stopping calling it gas and calling it fire. Not: "I'm a citizen of Canada and a resident of Vancouver," but "I'm a settler."

And you know, both are true, but it's a very short step from "settler" to "colonist." And "colonist" is a slightly harsher, but I think maybe more honest way of describing a settler. Because you're coming to this place that you are not native to, that you may not even know or understand particularly well, and you are carving a life for yourself out of it.

And it's not a life that has grown up organically over millennia. It's one where you're landing, and it's like, okay, I've got to survive here and presumably make a profit, because those are the values that we brought. So I think that fundamentally changes the way you look at a place and the way you use a place.

And this is where Fort McMurray [and the Alberta tar sands] become really instructive. Because people do not go to Fort McMurray to spend their lives there. They go there to improve their lot to make money to live a better, more prosperous life than their parents did, or than they would be able to in the impoverished place they came from — namely the Maritimes of Canada.

Speaking of resource colonies!

Yes, and one where the resources have already been exhausted. The cod fishing industry was systematically destroyed and it collapsed in 1992. It has not recovered in 30 years. And there are a lot of people living on the dole, there are a lot of people there who are underemployed and that's a third of Fort McMurray population.

But there aren't a lot of old folks' homes in Fort McMurray. You go you extract and then you leave. Many go home. Many make their pile — especially the executives — and they go to some beautiful sunny place, like Arizona or Southern California or the Okanagan in British Columbia or maybe up to the islands here [around Vancouver], and they live on their winnings.

But people aren't going there to connect to the land and put down roots in the same sense that certainly an indigenous person does, or that a longtime resident of many parts of Europe, where people have been living there for thousands of years. It's a very temporary relationship, based on what can I take from this place that will amplify me, and empower me in a way that I can go live where or how  I want to. Because the place where I came from doesn't allow me to do that, so I'm gonna go to this other place and harvest this stuff.

And it doesn't matter what it is. It could be red cedar, it could be cod, it could be bitumen. Whatever the market is offering and paying for at that time. And this is just the moment of bitumen, which I think is a very temporary moment. It's all conditional and temporary.

And if you really scraped the veneer off it — “jobs, jobs, jobs” — really, it's exploitation. And not just of the landscape but also with the workers.

There will never be employment in Fort McMurray like there was in 2006. That will never happen again — partly because the industry is automating as fast as it can. So the industry can say, “we're offering these good paying jobs for Canadians” and but they would be just as happy to automate that task in a heartbeat, hand you your pink slip and send you back to a Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

So a lot of what you're talking about is what in left circles gets pushed together as "settler-colonialism," which makes me wonder if that can be decoupled.

Maybe it looks like: you're from Europe, you move to the early American colonies but you head inland and get adopted by an existing native nation, and you assimilate, marry, whatever.

Now you're a settler, but you're not really a colonist, because you're part of this existing network. It seems like what makes it specifically colonial is that you're settling in the same place, but instead of joining the existing network, you're refusing it, and pulling resources back toward where you came from.

And you're totally ready to leave if those resources dry up.

If I make my money in colonial Massachusetts, I can always move back to East Anglia.

And if things get tough for me here in Vancouver, I can leave and go back to Massachusetts, right? I've thought about that.

But I'm ashamed of that, frankly. It feels very disloyal to Vancouver. The people and the city had been good to me. I had my children here. The medical system, you know, enabled me to stay healthy, took care of my kids. The school system educated my kids, and the university educated my wife. And the experience of living here and the citizenry of this province, educated me.

And what a terrible thing to do to say, "Oh, well, you know, it's getting a little crowded around here." Or, you know, "This isn't the city that I moved into, it's changing." Or in your case, "Austin's changing; I'm gonna move to Marfa."

But when that thought comes up — that I can just move back to New England, where it's safe and familiar — I think: No. This is your place now, and it's given a lot to you, and you should stay. That feels like the right thing to do.

I'd always kind of heard settler — and maybe it's part of who I was hearing it from — as a a kind of breast-beating. Like, "We're guilty, we know, we recognize our role in this great injustice."

Which is important, but something that I'm hearing in you right now is a little bit of like a reclamation of the term. Like, if you are going to settle, you have to settle.

Yes. It's similar to shifting from being a burner, a user, an exploiter, an exhauster — to being a grower, and a nurturer. We can do that. Settlers can do that. You can move into a place and help it be healthier. You can give back to it. You can find a way to relate to it that doesn't deplete it.

And, you know, there are hugely complex issues around the fact that we're a fire driven civilization and there are eight billion of us on Earth and that it's going to take a long time to recalibrate that. But it is totally possible to do, and it's a path we can choose. I think it's clear to most people who are aware of the science, aware of what is happening in our atmosphere and in our oceans right now, that is a path we have to take if we want to survive, or flourish in a way that we have become accustomed to.

That's Heat Death, everybody. We'll be back soon with more interviews and musings on past, future, and all the crises in between. If you enjoy our work, don't forget to subscribe!