Why the Age of Fire Is Over—We Know How to Live Without It

We shouldn't just be talking about cars, stoves, or furnaces, but the bigger concept: The age of fire is over.


Dennis Hallinan / Getty Images

Humans relied on fire for the past two million years but that is coming to an end. Or at least, that's the case author Martin Edic makes in his provocatively-titled article, "The Era of Burning Things Is Over," where he says there is no need to burn anything, from wood to gasoline, anymore. We know how to do without it.

"Burning things seems so hopelessly archaic, like those images of humans huddled around campfires in the darkness," writes Edic. "Burning got us this far but it is no longer the best way. We can harvest endless energy with technology. Once that transition takes place everything changes."

I thought it was a fascinating article because we spend so much time talking about the specifics of cars and homes that we lose sight of the basic principle: We really shouldn't be burning anything if we have alternatives, and it seems every day we have more of them.

We have been stuck in a world of burning things forever, starting with wood and moving up the scale of more concentrated fossil fuels. It has made us what we are. As physicist and economist Robert Ayres wrote, “The economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services.”

But Edic claims we now have the technology to change this and that new economic forces are in play.

The Era of Burning Gas for Cooking Is Over

East Midlands Gas Board shop window display, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, 1961.

Paul Walters Worldwide Photography Ltd. / Heritage Images / Getty Images

The problem isn't just carbon dioxide. We have noted many times how problematic burning natural gas is for cooking, most recently in "Study: Methane Emissions From Gas Stoves Have Climate Impact of 500,000 Cars."

Edic tells Treehugger it is the issue of gas stoves that got him started:

"The concept for this article, a paradigm shift in my thinking about climate issues, came from doing research on induction cooktops. We were looking at alternatives to cooking with gas that did not require sacrifices in the cooking experience. Cleaner, instant-on, efficient, etc. During that research, I learned that Eric Ripert, the Michelin starred chef of NY's famous Le Bernardin, had spec-ed an induction cooktop for his home kitchen, after installing commercial versions in his restaurant. No flames, no carbon emissions, a better experience—how much things have evolved."

It is an example of how new technologies can not just get rid of carbon emissions, but make things demonstrably better. This is something we have been saying for years: There are still many traditionalists who are hanging on, but the era of burning gas for cooking is over.

The Era of Burning Wood Is Over

Wood stove in Old Hollaway House
A wood stove in the Old Hollaway House.

Juraj Mikurcik

Then there is the wood stove, often specified by designers of homes built to the Passivhaus standard for those few days a year when they worry they might need a bit of heat, as Juraj Mikurcik did here in the Old Holloway House. Jason Quinn of Sustainable Engineering suggests we think twice about that wood burner, noting:

"The problem goes beyond the release of greenhouse gases as wood is converted to heat. If you can smell wood smoke, it’s a sign that you’re surrounded by a haze of tiny particles. (The largest, at 2.5 microns, is 30 times smaller than the width of a hair.) That fine particulate matter is bad for human health in a multitude of ways, some of which researchers are still discovering."

This is a discussion we have had on Treehugger as well, after showing a beautiful Passivhaus design in the middle of a forest. The architect, Terrell Wong, argued that "reducing your need for heating 90%... then occasionally having a fire in an uber-efficient German boiler is not a bad thing." It was also built in a location where the power often goes out in winter.

But Quinn concludes that even in a Passivhaus, "it’s better to use a heat pump than a wood-burning fireplace for heating." He adds: "It’s better for their clients’ health, their neighbours’ health and the planet. And yes, that is taking into account the carbon implications of the heat pump refrigerant." 

Here at Treehugger, we have asked the question if burning wood for heat is green? In a word, no. Studies show how just 2.5 days of burning an EPA-certified wood stove puts out as much PM2.5 (fine particles less than 2.5 millionths of a meter) as a car does in a year. Studies on California campfires found that a single beach fire can emit the same amount of harmful particulate matter as a heavy-duty truck driving 564 miles.

So, as lovely as a fireplace or a campfire is, the era of burning wood is over.

The Era of Heating With Gas Is Over

Lloyd's gas furnace
My super-efficient gas furnace at home.

Lloyd Alter

This one is still a struggle. The gas industry is powerful and is fighting hard. Until recently, many people didn't have much of an option. Pictured above is my 8-year-old condensing gas boiler, bought at a time when a heat pump would have cost a fortune. But as I noted earlier, "It still pumps out 117 pounds of CO2 for every million BTUs of heat generated, and the U.S. burned 4.78 quadrillion BTUs for residential heating, hot water, and cooking in 2016. That's a lot of zeros and a lot of CO2. Gas furnaces and boilers also last a long time, so if any change is going to be meaningful, it has to happen soon."

Since then, we have had a technological revolution where air source heat pumps can work at low temperatures and can replace gas boilers. We can electrify everything. That's why cities in the U.S. are beginning to ban gas installations in new buildings, and why we need insulation and heatpumpification. Because the era of heating with gas is over.

The Era of Burning Fossil Fuel for Power Is Over

Boxberg Power Plant And Coal Mine
The Boxberg power plant and coal mine in Germany.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Here, Edic is an optimist given that there is a lot of coal and gas still being burned. But as the Electrify Everything gang keeps saying, we know how to fix this. And we have never had as much incentive to do so as we do now.

Edic writes:

"There is endless energy streaming here from the sun. That warmth feeds winds and waves, which can be harvested endlessly. In the short term this presents a storage problem. But we have other sustainable sources like hydro, nuclear, and geothermal that are ‘always on’. They can backup those sources that require batteries. There are also a few potential game-changers in the wings like fusion. They are a long shot, but progress is being made, albeit slowly."

This is perhaps the most frustrating one because we can almost taste it, we have the technology, we just don't have the will. But we only have to look at the news to know that for so many reasons, the era of burning fossil fuels for power must be over.

The Era of Burning Gasoline in Cars Is Over

Tesla Model 3

 Getty Images

Well, not quite yet, but we know it is coming. The bans on the sale of gas-powered cars have started in California and they will spread. When the current supply burp is over, electric cars will continue to drop in price. And of course, the fossil fuel industry is fighting back against all of this. But as Edic notes:

"I do not underestimate the power of the fossil fuel cartel. Their point of view is limited to quarterly profit reports. They will do anything to maintain their grip on our energy consumption, including starting wars of mass destruction. It’s just the way they think. But they will die off and be reviled by history for their role today in blocking our move to sustainable. But sustainable is starting to mean profitable and that makes all the difference."

Edic's article is so interesting because it simplifies—perhaps oversimplifies—the question down to a basic concept: "The age of fire has ended."

"The point here is that this will be a global change. There will be a day when the idea of just burning something for heat will seem mindlessly wasteful. That campfire we so relish will be a real and costly luxury, possibly even an illegal one."

After millennia of relying on fire, we have learned how to turn wind and sunlight into electrons and how to take the heat out of the air instead of making it from scratch. It is a stretch goal, but Edic is right: The era of burning things is over.

View Article Sources
  1. Quinn, Jason. "Think twice about that wood burner." Sustainable Engineering Ltd., 11 Apr. 2022.

  2. Robinson, Dr. Dorothy L. "Air pollution damages brains, as well as hearts and lungs." News, Medical Life Sciences.

  3. "Air Quality Impacts of Recreational Beach Fires: Preliminary Assessment," South Coast AQMD. 15 May 2013.

  4. Edic, Martin. "The Era of Burning Things Is Over." Medium, 14 Apr. 2022.