“It went so fast,” said a resident of a German village that was destroyed by floods that overwhelmed the country’s flood alert system in 2021. “You tried to do something, and it was already too late.”1 Rapid shifts in long-established patterns, baselines, or historical trends are more than an amalgam of ecological surprises—they are rendering the very concept of projection ineffectual. In the United States, well-defined wildfire seasons are starting to just be called ‘fire years.’ California had seen the first ever wintertime megafires in December 2017, during what should have been the peak of the state’s rainy season.2 Where freezing snow should cover mountains, mountains are now being pummeled by wildfires that demolish everything in their path.
Expectations about the environment and how it should act are being undone. In an idealized world, scientific projections hold; natural disasters can be contained; and knowledge, assumed to be cumulative, can be relied upon to maintain some semblance of predictability. In world 2, nature refuses to submit to that kind of control; the gulf between what is predictable and what occurs grows too large, and we fall into a chronic state in which only disastrous surprises emerge. Indeed, climate models have accurately predicted how temperature changes will keep wreaking havoc across the globe. But these models are imprecise in terms of forecasting when or where the next megafire or superstorm will be. If in world 1, projections hold, in world 2, projections “degrade.” Circumstances “run away” from received explanations and models, validating the idea of climate change as a race against time.
In the space of rapid change, my inquiries took me to two interconnected fields. The first concerns ecological theorists and experimentalists who, over the last decades, have reckoned with large-scale ecosystem shifts, and are attempting to define varieties of critical thresholds—also known as ecological tipping points—that, if crossed, may entail irreversible change. They are characterizing, if possible, early warning signals that can portend such change, which, at first, can appear anomalous (‘that wildfire season was long’), but quickly settle into a new state of ecosystem organization (‘wildfire seasons are getting longer’). Something happens that shouldn’t be happening. Changes start to be observable at a region-specific scale (‘that mountain that should be soaked in rain or covered in snow, and thus resistant to fire, is burning’). What leads from one stage to the next– in which the mountain burns in winter– is, in fact, an amalgam of missed signals, an “invisible present,”3 reflected in what scientists call an ecological regime shift—or a rapid modification in ecosystem dynamics, potentially leading to different ecosystems or at times unfathomable worlds.
The apparent “suddenness” of such shifts highlights problems of projection into futures to come. As questions of stabilization grow ever-more urgent, asking how far, close, or beyond we are with respect to abstract tipping points may seem fruitless. Even so, many would argue that knowledge of such points, however imprecise, is useful because it underscores an ever-higher cost of inaction. Or, as the late Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, two prominent climate scientists, put it, “[there] is no point in discovering the precise tipping point, by tipping it.”4 Twenty percent of the Brazilian Amazon has been deforested since 1970. Logging and rancher-set forest fires burning out of control in changing climate conditions are threatening another 20 percent. At 40 percent, the “forest will be lost forever and replaced by savannahs” as precipitation decreases. 5
The loss of the Amazonian rainforest, coral reefs, and Arctic ice is no longer hypothetical. Nor is the loss of the vast Pantanal, the planet’s largest tropical wetland, a quarter of which cattle rancher-set fires torched in 2021, hypothetical for Sandra Guató Silva, a community leader and healer. She told a journalist that she mourns the loss of nature itself…. “It makes me sick. The birds don’t sing anymore. I no longer hear the song of the Chaco chachalaca bird. Even the jaguar that once scared me is suffering. That hurts me. I suffer from depression because of this. Now there is a hollow silence. I feel as though our freedom has left us….”6
In the United States, the question of how far, close, or beyond we are with respect to thresholds took me to a second field of inquiry, where I focused on ground-level specialists, specifically, front-line emergency workers, who are spending their time going back to the basics of phenomena—like fire—they thought they knew. Wildfires are obliging firefighting organizations to revise knowledge calibrated to conditions that no longer exist. They now find themselves in what one fire researcher simply called “the upper limits of bad.” In these upper limits, ecological regime shifts test, and often overwhelm, given paradigms of emergency response, predicated on the idea that wildfires can be something that humans can control. Reflecting on this paradigm, one wildfire scientist put it to me this way, “we need to get out from under the notion that [people], like us, can be used to control nature; to suppress it, or tip it back.” In the meantime, as expectations about how the environment should act are being shattered, meaningful baselines from which to improve knowledge or gauge progress in a fight against fire become fewer and fewer.
In a now (seemingly futile) race against time, method and circumstance become misaligned. Rather than resigning themselves to either hopelessness or despair, I tracked communities of experts, including climate and wildfire scientists, first-line responders, and Indigenous knowledge holders who are looking for options. The expansion of this deliberative space of action becomes all the more crucial—or, as one wildfire scientist put the problem to me, “We need to acquire a horizon.” Striking, as if this were a thing, a kind of lever to pry time from the onrush of disaster or, “for deciding what we are going to do over the next week, not like the next hour… but what I really mean is that, we need to act in a way that we are not cutting off options for future generations”—options that include the option to adapt and to mitigate the harms of the climate emergency; the option of decreasing the chance of being continually blindsided by the frequency and scope of disasters; and the option to act, before the circumstances for doing so disappear.
As a cascade of extreme events start to deny these options, at each step in the disintegration of our projections, there is other work to do. Response cannot be left to one set of experts, but must be undertaken by an array of interdependent knowledge holders who, in their partial comprehension of patterns and shifts and how they occur, can expand the breadth of resources with which chances for stabilization can be preserved. In the aftermath of a wildfire that consumed a mountain ridgetop in California in 2020, the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe noted that it “cost $100 million to fight the Castle fire. What if we dedicated that $ to restoring our forests to reduce fires in the first place?”7 Indigenous practitioners’ biophysical stewardship8 sets a standard for non-Indigenous fire management. It suggests that even as climate change is a foregone conclusion for the foreseeable future, the conditions that make wildfires but catastrophically are not.
Feeding unrealistic assumptions about wildfires and how they can be “fought” is becoming less feasible. The settler colonial legacies that have forcefully excluded fire from the landscape haunt the very same landscapes that are now ready to ignite. As billions of tons of carbon dioxide are being pumped into the atmosphere, assumptions that tomorrow will look like today will perpetuate ecological shifts that may refuse solutions. Rather than capitulating or running toward fear, one might ask: what would it mean to break from this path with our forests, oceans, and lives intact? Here horizoning becomes a wayfinding tool that plumbs the lines of a durable world. Such lines run through violent histories, misguided policies, and ongoing structural inequalities. They run through the extractive fossil fuel regimes that generate massive transfers of risk that overdetermine who is protected and who is sacrificed in environmental regime shifts, placing Indigenous communities on the frontlines of climate change and unjust forms of disaster response.9 Only in reckoning with these concerns can agreed-upon benchmarks for concerted action be effective, and further damage on a planetary level be stopped. Along the way, it won’t just be target-setting for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, as imperative as that is, but coordinated acts of stabilization that can stop the drift toward an inhospitable planet. Where projections falter, horizon work begins.
Adriana Petryna is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her award-winning books include When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects and Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (both Princeton). She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Bonilla, Yarimar, and Marisol LeBrón, eds. 2019. Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico before and after the Storm. New York: Haymarket.
Callison, Candis. 2020. “The Twelve-Year Warning.” Isis 111(1):129–137.
Eddy, Melissa, Jack Ewing, Megan Specia and Steven Erlanger. 2021. “European Floods Are Latest Sign of a Global Warming Crisis.” New York Times, July 18.
Einhorn, Catrin, Maria Magdalena Arrellaga, Blacki Migliozzi, and Scott Reinhard. 2020. “The World’s Largest Tropical Wetland Has Become an Inferno.” New York Times, October 13.
Holthaus, Eric. 2017 “The First Wintertime Megafire in California History is Here.” Grist, December 8.
Lake, Frank Kanawha. 2021. “Indigenous Fire Stewardship: Federal/Tribal Partnerships for Wildland Fire Research and Management.” Fire Management Today 79(1):30–39.
Lovejoy, Thomas E., and Carlos Nobre. 2018. “Amazon Tipping Point.” Science Advances 5(12).
Magnuson, J. J. 1995. “The Invisible Present.” In Ecological Time Series, edited by T. M. Powell and J. H. Steele, 448–464. Boston: Springer.
1. Eddy, et al. 2021.
2. Holthaus 2017.
3. Magnuson 1995.
4. Lovejoy and Nobre 2018.
5. Beto Verrissimo, cited in Amazonia Undercover (documentary film). Ciavatta 2019.
6. Einhorn et al. 2020.
7. Bill Tripp@CulturalFire. Twitter, Dec. 2, 2020. https://twitter.com/CulturalFire/status/1334269600234491904
8. On Indigenous fire stewardship as “biophysical stewardship,” see Lake 2021:31.
9. Bonilla and LeBrón 2019.