Moscato on Darian-Smith, 'Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis'
Eve Darian-Smith. Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022. Illustrations. xvi + 212 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5036-3108-3.
Reviewed by Derek Moscato (Western Washington University) Published on H-Environment (November, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57985
As the summer of 2022 drew to a close, the US Pacific Northwest found itself in straits remarkably similar to years previous. Wildfires burned on both sides of the Cascade Range, derailing the best-laid plans of vacationers but also creating a blanket of smoke that sprawled across much of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington State. That noxious mix of particle and gaseous pollutants, a gray haze that turned the sky eerily apocalyptic, saw residents of major cities, such as Portland and Seattle, holed up in their homes and offices with windows closed and air purifiers set to max.
The American West is experiencing its driest twenty-two-year period, thus rendering the Northwest’s forestland as a tinderbox on an annual basis. Not surprisingly, the new regularity of wildfire season has ushered in unprecedented government attention. With thirty-two active wildfires resulting in the evacuation of thousands of citizens in her state, Oregon’s governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency and implored President Joe Biden to do the same.
The same scene of panic, public health threat, and ecological devastation has played out far too often internationally. And in some cases, the situation has turned truly catastrophic. Last summer, the Canadian village of Lytton in British Columbia burned to the ground during another summer wildfire season. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to North America, however. Alongside the disastrous environmental-social impacts of fires have emerged a series of questionable policy positions and partisan discourses pertaining to wildfire response and mitigation but also the root causes of this ecological challenge.
Indeed, the cantankerous dialogue surrounding wildfires serves as a metaphor for the disruptive information wars undermining the potential for more productive action on this seemingly bipartisan issue. To this end, Eve Darian-Smith’s Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis arrives at a crucial juncture. Darian-Smith, a professor and chair in the Department of Global and International Studies at the University of California Irvine, reminds us that the years between 2018 and 2021 were especially bad for fires not only in the United States but also in Brazil and Australia. What is shocking about the scope and scale of fires in these places is that all three nations exist as liberal democratic societies. Yet, Smith argues, these countries are experiencing a shift toward antidemocratic norms, which she connects to ideologies of nativism and ultranationalism. Thus, Darian-Smith invites the reader to consider wildfires as the catalyst for political disruption and as the end result of parallel political movements and themes that are occurring globally.
Darian-Smith does not mince words when placing the blame for this crisis on right-of-center leaders, such as former US president Donald Trump, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, and former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison. She points to their policies and their warm relations with the corporate sector and the extractive industries in particular. According to Smith, “it is not a coincidence that antidemocratic leaders supporting ecologically destructive industries also bring them, and their business partners, a great deal of power and money” (p. 6).
Even as Darian-Smith emphasizes the roles of politics and the economy in furthering the damage of wildfires, her argument is diminished somewhat by their durability in the face of changing governments with differing ideologies and political positions. Wildfires, of course, continue to occur on the watches of both conservative and liberal governments globally. This includes more recent wildfire seasons happening during the tenure of US president Biden. Yet Darian-Smith argues that Trump’s reign has left the Biden administration’s hands tied on account of Trump-appointed judges at the federal and state levels, a Republican Party that is increasingly dominated by Trump loyalists, and the challenge of reinstating “the approximately one hundred environmental protection regulations that were dismantled during Trump’s four-year term” (p. 51).
Some readers, mindful of the devastation caused by wildfires in the decades leading up to the current political climate, might ask if Smith is fashionably (or conveniently) attaching ongoing ecological crisis to the one-term presidential legacy of Trump. Afterall, the administrations of Trump, Biden, Morrison, and Bolsonaro represent mere blips in the centuries-long natural histories of the countries they represent. Political administrations come and go, yet wildfires persist across decades and indeed centuries.
To her credit, the author softens the coarseness of this meta-thesis with an articulation of how crisis-level fire events have been the outgrowth of much more complex social and economic trends. For example, California’s record fires of 2018 are connected to not only the state’s regulatory environmental and economic activities but also the mostly apolitical ethos of the state’s land developers who are incentivized to build homes with larger footprints in increasingly larger developments. And California’s fires, like those in the Amazon and Australia, have left a horrible fallout of destroyed ecosystems and wildlife habitat. But Darian-Smith also draws from historian Mike Davis, who points to wildfires throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that were exacerbated by prohibitions of controlled burns by white settlers. Wildfires in this sense are the inevitable outcome of decades of social trends, economic policy, urban-suburban expansionism, and political irresponsibility.
Here is a strength of Darian-Smith’s tome. Not merely the manifestation of a particular president, prime minister, or ecological policy, wildfire season is carefully contextualized through lenses of sociology, environmental history, and political economy. This approach allows for a smoother toggling between the locations of wildfire focus and the root causes underpinning their existence. In California, the power utility company PG&E comes under the microscope for its suboptimal practices, including the maintenance of power equipment. In Australia, the focus is on the powerful mining industry and its relationship to national politicians. According to Darian-Smith, devastating fire events are the inevitable outgrowth of moneyed political interests, encroaching economic ambitions, and lazy environmental oversight. They collectively show how politicians “are collaborating with big businesses, presenting in turn a new set of political conditions that challenge resistance to climate change by ordinary, and increasingly disempowered, citizens” (p. 18).
This description offers a reasonable synopsis of how runaway industrial capitalism and neoliberal policies in the post-World War II environment have placed humankind on such a tenuous environmental path. In particular, the author is concerned with free-market governments that pursue power for themselves and profit for their corporate sectors, by embracing anti-environmental policies like climate change skepticism and environmental deregulation.
Yet, somewhat worryingly, Darian-Smith has much less to say about the massive political shift globally that has seen the intertwined interests of the political left and progressive think tanks with big business, including global energy companies and their shareholder activists. This more recent marriage raises questions about whether the wild swings between left and right political ideologies in global democracies induce the long-lasting change that is necessary to tackle environmental problems that play out over the course of centuries as opposed to years.
As Darian-Smith charges into a central theme of the book—the amalgamation of fire and climate change—this blind spot has to be taken into account. Here, the author returns to a deft handling of environmental history, parsing out the key connection between weather instability and recurrent extremes in fires as well as droughts and flooding. Global warming, notes Smith, is creating a future of catastrophic fires by “drastically altering the planet’s atmosphere and making its landscapes and forested regions hotter, drier, and ultimately more flammable” (p. 23).
Yet Darian-Smith offers a framework later on that, whether intentionally or not, addresses her earlier oversight of macro-political shifts and the changing face of corporate governance. Drawing from environmental justice and ecological philosophy, the author offers a helpful concept of “thinking through fire” that moves beyond the social frames of business, finance, and politics (p. 28). Darian-Smith ponders the growing sentiment for an environmental future that seeks out technological answers to ecological and climate challenges without addressing the underpinning economic, political, and social systems that gave rise to extractive capitalism in the first place. This search for quick-fix technological innovations parallels the growing concern from scholars and environmentalists over an ecological modernization paradigm that bridges certain forms of climate action and environmental change with corporate growth, financial markets, and green marketing. The irony is that technological innovation and industrialization are situated by ecological modernization as helping the planet to avoid various environmental crises even as they ignore root causes and also exacerbate existing problems.
Wildfires, as a prominent form of environmental catastrophe, are described by Darian-Smith as the inevitable outgrowth of our breakdown in liberal democratic principles and the corresponding erosion of our natural world. Yet, as technological modernization marches on in the names of climate change mitigation, clean energy, and sustainability, the same mistakes that fuel wildfires globally seem sadly inevitable. Wildfires are indeed natural and social phenomena that symbolically represent the culmination of environmental practice, economic activity, and resources policy across the globe. Yet their near-certain regularity in the coming years reminds us that ecological degradation or even catastrophe is hardly the domain of one political camp or partisan ideology.
. Mike Davis, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” Environmental History Review 19, no. 2 (1995): 1-36.
. See, for example, Frank Fischer, Climate Crisis and the Democratic Prospect: Participatory Governance in Sustainable Communities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
. John Bellamy Foster, “The Planetary Rift and the New Human Exemptionalism: A Political-Economic Critique of Ecological Modernization Theory,” Organization & Environment 25, no. 3 (2012): 211-37.
Citation: Derek Moscato. Review of Darian-Smith, Eve, Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57985This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.