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7.3.04

Same-Sex Wildfire

I have a Google News Alert set up to notify me of stories about wildfire. But since Google lacks reading comprehension, I wind up getting emailed about stories that use the word "wildfire" as a metaphor as well. The latest round of such stories to hit my inbox relate to comments by conservative leaders such as Bill Frist comparing same-sex marriage to wildfire. My initial reaction was "sounds good to me," akin to Morat's comparision of same-sex marriage to an avalanche that can't be stopped.

But being a fire ecologist, I thought it might be interesting to dig into the metaphor a bit deeper. I think the conservative use of the wildfire idea draws on outdated ideas of what wildfire means, and that looking at same-sex marriage through the lens of fire ecology shows how the same-sex marriage* wildfire is good for our society.

The associations that Frist wants to evoke are that wildfire is destructive, out of control, and demanding of almost paramilitary measures to keep it down. Wildfire is started either by a cruel vagary of nature (lightning) or a malicious person, and comes to bring woe to all the innocent homeowners and cute forest animals. It seems lively and exciting, but leaves lifeless desolation in its wake. This parallels the idea that same-sex marriage is ignited by either a cruel vagary of genetics, or by wilful indulgence in sin. It brings woe to all the innocent heterosexual marriages by threatening their sanctity. And it seems exciting (witness the flamboyance of stereotypical gay culture, and the appeal -- irresistable to the straightest of us, by some accounts -- of the idea that sex should be fun), but leaves behind it the heartbreak of meaningless irresponsible sex and the destruction of procreation and child-rearing. Wildfire in its most fearsome aspect laughs at barriers placed in its way -- crown fires leaping the widest firebreaks, hot winds lofting firebrands over firefighters' heads. This parallels the fear of a slippery slope, on which gay marriage propels us past legal barriers like defense of marriage acts as well as past any philosophical or moral standards that could justify condemning pedophilia or "man-on-dog." Under the old view of wildfire, massive paramilitary measures were necessary to keep things under control -- what Stephen Pyne calls the "Cold War on fire," using high-tech planes, bulldozers, and chemicals and loads of footsoldier manpower to quench any stirrings of flame. Similarly, conservatives feel same-sex marriage calls for drastic measures, from amending the constitution to blocking schools from hinting to kids that homosexuality may exist or be legitimate to "ex-gay" reeducation programs.

So much for the Smokey the Bear/Bambi vision of wildfire. What have fire ecologists learned over the last quarter century? First: wildfire is inevitable. Suppression worked at first, but costs spiraled out of control and wildfires came back with a vengeance. The structure of wildland fuels makes it necessary. Similarly, same-sex households will not go away, both because the causes (be they genetic or environmental) of homosexual desire will not go away and because the structure of a liberal democratic society ensures that people will have a rationale and an ability to put the question on the table again and again.

Second: fire is good for the environment. The scorching heat of a fire releases seeds from cones. The treeless postfire landscape is a landscape of opportunity for vigorous new growth. Ash is nature's fertilizer. Similarly, same-sex marriage is, in the long run, good for society. It helps homosexual people, obviously, releasing them from the bonds of homophobic institutions. It's good for straight people like myself because it affirms and activates our society's commitment to equality and liberty.

Third: fire is good because it is disruptive. An undisturbed climax forest may not be an ideal realization of a landscape's biological potential -- rather, it may be an ecosystem in a rut, limping along under its own dead weight. The same can happen to societies, dragged down by an encrustation of tradition. Further, fire's disruption has a random element, leaving a mosaic of landscapes with different patterns of growth, fostering a healthy biodiversity. Same-sex marriage does the same in pointing to a society that doesn't put all its eggs in one family structure basket.

Fourth: fire forces us to make hard choices. Fire management is a prime example of the way not choosing is itself a choice. Homeowners, municipal planners, and foresters have to decide what kind of tradeoffs they're willing to make in managing the environment. You can't expect to write fire out of the landscape -- rather, you have to learn to live with it (and it with you -- our ecosystems evolved in the presence of anthropogenic fire). Similarly, the push for same-sex marriage forces us to make choices about how we structure society, how we deal with sexuality and family. Ignoring homosexuality or passing the buck to tradition don't cut it in a situation that demands justification and taking responsibility for choices.

*I think most of what I'm saying can be applied to the gay rights movement in general.

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