Rethinking Fire and Climate Change through Environmental Engineering Solutions
By Anpo Jensen
You can’t tell me engineering
is not the place for Indigenous issues.
As long as you live with us
and as long as we drink
from the same watersheds
my Indigenous issues are yours.
So when I say include our voices,
I am not asking for permission.
I am telling you to listen.
And yet I am still met with isolating silence.
Does it make you uncomfortable?
Do your hands sweat
and does your seat start to shake?
Does your worldview tremble?
Good. It’s about time.
I have been made uncomfortable for over 130 years.
You’ll be just fine.
So listen carefully as the words of
my grandmothers and grandfathers
roll off my tongue
in a language your soul will hear.
From Australia to the Amazon to the United States, wildfires are sweeping the globe, forcing societies to rethink fire amid climate change. Within the United States, the state of California has been affected by wildfires the most. Since 2017, approximately 23.5 million acres have burned in California due to wildfires. With the increase in global temperature, as well as the exacerbating influence of statewide drought, California is poised to have more frequent and severe fires. Why is it that we are seeing more of this occurring now than at any other point in our history? The answer begins with anti-Indigenous policy.
In the mid-20th century, Smokey the Bear became the symbol of wildfire suppression in the United States. Wood was a vital industrial resource thus a geopolitical asset for the U.S. military. Influenced by wartime propaganda, many U.S. citizens took wildfire suppression seriously, associating Smokey with patriotism. In turn, mainstream societal attitudes branded fire as unequivocally harmful and destructive for all life forms in the environment. This black-and-white perspective further aggravated the consequences we see today.
As an environmental engineering student, I have observed that the most common solution to the rise of wildfires calls for the use of controlled burns, as well as the need for an extensive paradigm shift on the way that we view fire. As an Oglala Lakota woman, I am appalled.
I am appalled that I sat in a 10-week course discussing wildfire prevention and adaptation plans in the context of climate change without any substantive mention of Indigenous people. I got the impression that as future engineers, policy makers and leaders, we are collectively planning for a future without Indigenous people. Australia, the Amazon, California, and countless other places on the globe, have sovereign Indigenous nations. To demand a paradigm shift without so much as a passing mention of the Indigenous view on climate change, far from introducing positive change, is to engender our descent into colonialism and scientific backwardness.
Turning the tables against climate change and wildfires cannot be done without involving Indigenous people. It will never work.
On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, plunging California into a gold rush that lasted over five years. In 1855, toward the conclusion of the Gold Rush, two businessmen began the chain of events that led to the establishment of Yosemite as a National Park in 1890. Both of these events in California history were equally sinister in setting into inexorable motion the propagation of anti-Indigenous rhetoric and policy in the state.
Yosemite National Park is known to millions for its breathtaking, seemingly magical scenery. Yet for it to become accessible to millions of tourists, the Miwok were forcibly removed from Ahwahnee—now known as Yosemite —and excluded from federal recognition, leaving Yosemite without its original caretakers. As a result, the overgrowth of ground-level debris and increase in forest density created the perfect formula for wildfires to run amok. Yosemite, once stewarded by Indigenous knowledge, is now a modern-day wildfire hazard of unspeakable proportions. Today, many scientists suggest treatments such as mechanical removal of debris and lumber, and prescribe controlled burns. Yet these very management methods originally derive from traditional cultural practices that Indigenous peoples put into practice thousands of years ago, especially in Australia and California. It was precisely their consistent application by Indigenous peoples that prevented Yosemite and other beautiful places from deteriorating into a massive wildfire risk.
The topographical regime of the Western United States is fire-dependent, and fire suppression coupled with anti-Indigenous policy have created devastating outcomes for everyone. All across North America, Indigenous peoples were not allowed to practice their culture and their traditions, many of which were meant to steward the land and included practices such as controlled burns and farming. Only in recent times have these solutions and their centrality in addressing the modern-day wildfire crises even been mentioned in mainstream scientific and academic literature.
The impact of colonization haunts the entire globe. Indigenous peoples past and present have been neglected as scientists, engineers, and innovators of every kind. In many Indigenous philosophies, fire, like all elements in nature, is not considered inherently bad or destructive but rather as a force to be respected. This core Indigenous belief was strategically ignored throughout the twentieth century as anti-Indigenous racism and policy spread unchecked, merely exacerbated by the advent of Smokey the Bear and fire suppression efforts. Again, the perfect formula for wildfires and the climate change consequences we see today. Simply put, by removing Indigenous peoples from their land, one invariably extracts a vital vein from the ecosystem. We cannot let another century pass before we finally begin to listen to Indigenous people and to substantively apply their teachings.
As an engineering student, I spend much of my time considering solutions to the most difficult environmental problems, and my reflection has only strengthened my deeply-held conviction that an immediate and large-scale investment in the elevation of Indigenous voices is not simply an option, but a necessary step of the highest urgency.
When we, as engineers, policy makers and leaders, invest in Indigenous solutions and allyship, and when we think about helping Indigenous rural communities, we are positively changing the course of the collective global future. In order to ensure a viable and sustainable solution to any problem, we must involve Indigenous rural communities, and we must do so not out of a desire to build a positive image, but out of a profound understanding that the path to sustainability lies only through the direct involvement of Indigenous voices and philosophy. That involvement is the nature of empowerment.
As an Oglala Lakota woman, I am empowered by my homelands and by my people. I am shaped by my community, and everything I do and study will be given back to it. But I have realized that I cannot afford to be quiet on these matters. Climate change is impacting everyone, and the situation is getting more disturbing with every passing day. Even now, COVID-19 is showing us how much our current systems —traditional higher education, health care systems, and yes, capitalism in its current configuration—are not resilient, sustainable or viable.
Going forward we must ask ourselves what we have in mind for our grandchildren. What kind of world do we want our children to have? What kind of ancestor do we want to be remembered as? The future is Indigenous but it’s going to include all of us.
As Indigenous people, our love travels across and for the globe. Indigenous peoples are more than our reservations, and our connections extend to everything outside of us. Whether we are included or not, we will prevail as Indigenous scientists, doctors, and engineers, powered by our cultural practices and languages. The real question is, will the rest of society choose to join us?
Anpo Jensen is a masters student at Stanford’s Environmental and Civil Engineering Program Art credit: NOAA