There has been a lot of talk about the Seventh fire prophecies, with many people telling slightly different stories. Here is how I came to understand it. Hopefully this article can clear up some confusion.
In the time of the Seventh Fire New People will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. … It is this time that the light skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love brotherhood and sisterhood. If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with then in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people. Edward Benton-Banai
Many nations have stories like this one, and in recent years, many people are talking about the Seventh Fire. There are ongoing efforts to relearn and return to the ways that were left by the trail. Many are taking action against those destroying the planet. However, many remain unconvinced.
Some say they the Eighth Fire is achieved by reform, by making our place in the dominant society and economy. Many say that the story is just a myth, not worthy of our consideration, and that we should look at economics instead. Many ask “Where’s the evidence?” never having seen it. It is these people who I hope this article reaches. In studying science I have found overwhelming evidence for the prophecy. If our knowledge of the laws of physics in anywhere near correct, we have only options: the end of the dominant society (and a return to traditional ways) or the death of us all, as quite a few scientists have warned us about.
Here, we are going to prove the prophecy. Although the full story is too long for a magazine such as this, tying together the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Fires, the web of life, the Wendigo story, the potlatch ceremony, and many other stories, it is well worth reading. (Jason Godesky does a very good job at telling this story in the Thirty Theses of Anthropik, although even that is not everything.) I have only heard the Anishinabe version two years ago, but my interest in it has gone on far longer. For a long time, the ways of the dominant society seemed a bit fishy to me, and I learned a lot of the science about it, although it was only when I heard a Mayan version of this story relating this story to the cyclic nature of time, that I develloped the simple explanation I use here. (The “the world will end on December 12, 2012” story is actually quite a bad mistranslation: the real story is quite a lot closer to the Seventh Fire.)
Cyclic Time and the Principle of Uniformity
It was the idea of cyclic time that gave me the key to decoding the whole mystery, relating ancient prophecy to modern science. This idea may sound to many to be a spiritual concept, but it is quite an important scientific principle for describing earthly systems, where it is known as the Principle of Uniformity. This is is the symmetry that lets us track, making the present the key to the past. It is mostly talked about in geology (the class where I learned about it), where it revolutionized the field, but one of the main principles of ecology as well, although usually expressed quite differently.
So what else does this symmetry do, and how does it relate what we usually think of as the laws of physics? The work of Emmy Noether and Richard Feynman helps us here. (For details I would highly recommend watching Feynman’s lecture series The Character of Physical Law, which has a very good explanation of symmetries and energy. It is available on Youtube.) It turns out that due to the wave-like nature of matter under quantum mechanics, any symmetry in the laws of nature can be equivalently expressed as a conserved quantity (that is, some sum of measurements that does not change over time). One of the most certain laws of physics that we know is that the laws governing isolated systems do not change over time, i.e., the laws of physics in the past and future are the same as those now. This symmetry gives rise to a conserved quantity called energy. Because of this, energy is never created or destroyed, just moved around and converted from one form to another (one of which is useless heat). This is critical to everyday life, but the nature of time has more than this for us.
The other important aspect of time is it’s arrow, that is, to quote Feynman:
“It is obvious to everybody that the phenomena of the world are evidently irreversible. … The demonstration of this in lectures is usually made by having a section of moving picture in which you take a number of phenomena, and run the film backwards, and then wait for all the laughter. The laughter just means this would not happen in the real world. But actually that is a rather weak way to put something which is as obvious and deep as the difference between the past and the future; because even without an experiment our very experiences inside are completely different for past and future.”
This irreversibly can actually be expressed as another quantity, that of entropy, which is conserved during reversible processes and increases during irreversible ones. Entropy never decreases. The exact description of entropy is a but subtle, but its nondecreasing nature can be thought of as “efficiency has limits”, which was in fact the idea that the entropy law was derived from. (For full details I would recommend watching the rest of Feynman’s lecture that I just quoted the beginning of.) Because they both come from time, energy and entropy are quite related, and using the idea of scale (which is already in the definition of entropy), we can mix the two to create another quantity more useful to talking things on our scale.
Another way to think about entropy is to partition our total energy into macroscopic and microscopic forms. Doing this, entropy can be thought of as proportional to the microscopic total, the ‘useless’ heat. Energy can flow from macroscopic to microscopic, but not the other way. This macroscopic energy is called Available Energy, Free Energy, or Disequilibrium, and is usually given the symbol A. It this quantity that people usually imagine with they think of energy. Because entropy is nondecreasing, available energy is nonincreasing. In irreversible processes, available energy is dissipated from macroscopic to microscopic, making available energy a nice way to sum up and analyze the resources used in all irreversible processes.
So far we have been talking about isolated systems, but what about on earth, where systems interact with their surroundings? It is here where things get a bit more complicated and symmetries get partially broken. Consider available energy, there are various systems making up earth’s surface that contain and dissipate available energy. Life is a prime example of this: we need to eat because we run on irreversible processes and therefore use resources and must replenish our supplies, and we can be eaten because we contain resources. Available energy can be dissipated and can move around the earth through predation, weather, and biogeochemical cycles in very complex ways; but the only inputs of available energy are the uptake of sunlight by photosynthesis in plants (the vast majority), the creation of weather systems by sunlight, and nuclear reactions in the earth’s core (quite limited). This input of available energy happens at a fairly constant rate (usually given the symbol K, although K the symbol is also used in descriptions of smaller systems, with the same meaning) and any deviations are small and temporary.
It turns out that although available energy is not conserved, it is held fairly stably in a balance between dissipation and input by sunlight. This is a condition known as a dynamic equilibrium, and also occurs in many of earth’s systems, not just the entire planet. This is a very important concept in ecology, and there are many models built on this principle. The idea of carrying capacity is one of these. This says the in an ecosystem, since life (including us) dissipates energy, that the total amount of life that can exist in an ecosystem long-term is limited by the inflow of available energy (K), also called the carrying capacity. The population can temporarily exceed this limit, but then it starts to use up the stored energy (usually in the form of other kinds of beings), of which there is a limited amount. The length of time that an overshoot (population above carrying capacity) can occur, is thus limited and when the populations of other beings declines too much, the population that has overshot declines and restores balance. This leads to the cycling of populations most famously seen in hares and most dramatically in lemmings (which tend to go through extreme overshoots and subsequent crashes, but over the long term, stay in balance).
So, to get to where where we started, this balance of available energy is somewhat like a conserved quantity when dealing with earthly systems, so perhaps it gives rise to something somewhat like a symmetry. Because we are dealing with energy, we are dealing with time. It turns out that such a near-symmetry has formed the basis of geology for 200 years: it is called the Principle of Uniformity. What is says is that although the processes governing earthly open systems my fluctuate in the short term (seasons are a great example of this, but there are shorter and longer fluctuations as well), but when looked at long term, those fluctuations even out and we get something that is very similar (up to those short term fluctuations) when shifted in time. If we were trying to visualize such a symmetry, the orbit of a Lorentz Attractor makes a good illustration: very nearly repeating each time, and staying within the same general range, but never repeating exactly. This might be described as “cyclic”.
It is this similarity of natural processes in the past and future to processes in the present that we rely on to track. We can use our current knowledge of how things change to take the present and work backwards, constructing a story that could lead to the way things are, whether it happened just a little while ago or millions of years ago (when tracking rocks in geology). This use seems fairly obvious, but the flows of available energy we mentioned are the key to understanding the prophecy.
Economic Growth and Colonial Society
The next part of understanding the prophecy is to look st the dominant society and why it might have to end. Here the Wendigo story holds the key, talking about the destruction caused by those who always need more, who run the dominant society. The key here is to take a hard look at “economic growth”: what it means and why the dominant society needs it. Colonial society depends on expansion, which is nowadays commonly called economic growth. In the news, politicians and reporters tell us that this is a good thing, and often their highest priority for policy, but if we examine the idea more closely, we will find that this is not so, and that the Anishinabe were right.
First of all, why do colonial societies (including our dominant society) need to expand in order to function? This is quite a story in itself. Jason Godesky, building on the work of Joseph Tainter and Jeff Vail, writes that civilization creates a sort of arms race, where societies or parts of societies that don’t grow their economies quickly get turned into resources of those that do. In the famously studied case of the ancient Maya, the rivalries between city-states brought about this sort of situation, leading the cities to push their agriculture (and following it their populations) way beyond the local carrying capacity, bringing about the eventual demise of the empire. In our case, we have the same kind of race between countries, cities, and corporations, but this is not the only reason.
As well as the growth arms race, we also have a financial system that needs growth for stability, which is clearly demonstrated by the chaos caused by recessions. Just like a Ponzi (or pyramid) scheme, an economy based on profit only works when resources flow in at an ever-increasing rate. I will not go into all the details here due to length, but Gayle Highpine does an excellent job of both explaining the proof of why the scheme’s a scam, and generalizing it to economies.
Now we have talked about the ‘need’ for economic growth, let’s look at its definition. Formally G=d log P/dt: economic growth (which we will give the symbol G) is defined as the rate of change of Production (symbol P) over time. (The use of the log derivative is to give it units of percent per unit time, making the number independent of the units used to measure production.) Production is the rate of at which economic activities are carried out (and indirectly of resource use). It is usually measured as GDP (an easy to calculate index) and has units of $/year adjusted for inflation. (You will sometimes see GDP published as just $ leaving off the per year but this is merely a common error.)
Since activities that contribute to the economy involve irreversible processes, production uses resources and relates (along with growth) to the flows of available energy we talked about earlier. If you want to convince yourself of this fact, I would suggest watching videos of various economic activities on rewind. Alternatively, this irreversibility is embodied in the definition of “adjusted for inflation”, which pegs money to resources. This means that economic production dissipates energy, which has to come from somewhere. (To those who say we can get as much as we want out of an amount or resources, remember the entropy law: efficiency has limits.) In the perspective of the earth P < K- dA/dT: total economic production is less than the total resource use (because other irreversible processes such as life go on too), and the difference between resource input and resource flows into of stores such as ecosystems.
The Two Roads
Now that we know more of the story, we can see how it ends. We prove that a society based on growth (like the dominant one) must come to an end eventually. Suppose that an economy could grow forever: G>0, G⇸0 (growth is positive and nonvanishing). If we put this condition into our equations relating growth to production and then to available energy, we find that available energy diverges negatively: A→-∞. In this scenario Production increases so much that its resource use far exceeds carrying capacity and quickly goes through stored resources, destroying life at an ever-increasing rate as in the Wendigo story. This means that at some point there is no life left on the planet, including no humans: A=0. Clearly, this road leads only to suffering and death. Growth as a goal is definitely not a good idea. Do we really want the destruction of our home(aka. growth) as our primary political goal? I should think not! I want to live.
Some people might see this as predicting the end of the world, but there is that second road. All we have really proved (remember the word suppose) is that growth is temporary, that our economy will end (likely long before it would kill us all), not our world. As humans, we can survive the transition, which in the long term, will be a return to the old ways. We already know how to create sustainable societies (which anthropologists call primitive), it’s just a matter of putting that knowledge into widespread action. It is not the end of the world, but a period of decolonization and a return to traditional ways.
However, this time of transition could get very messy, due to the corporations making last grabs for resources as is happening now, the fragile and falling apart nature of our infrastructure and the vast numbers of people who do not know anything of traditional ways of life. Many people can’t currently conceive of life without the economy, and have no idea how to survive without it. Many of them would simply give up in such a transition. For them, it would be the end of their world. Fortunately, this is not set in stone and by educating people, we can help them prepare for what’s coming. We can help people get through the transition into the new traditional communities.
The Time is Now
Now that we know what is going to happen, the next question is when. The Anishinabe prophecy gives no dates so we are on our own here. Fortunately, the equations from out proof, not only say our society will end, but also let us calculate a time limit from measurable quantities. Using current numbers, the answer becomes “any time now”. Already production is way above carrying capacity and a bunch of recent studies that resources levels (A) is currently about half of what they have been for most of history. At current rates of destruction (production and growth) there will be no life left on Earth by the end of the century, most likely quite a bit sooner than that (within many of our normal lifetimes). However, this is merely an upper limit. Hopefully, the transition is quite a lot sooner than that, while we still have a planet left. Godesky, using more sophisticated models of the instabilities of our society predicted (in 2007) that the transition will be in full force before the end of this decade.
Many people are waking up to the destruction of our home and are taking action to stop it. people are stopping pipeline construction in BC and the US, mining and logging all over the world, and most recently fighting against fracking in New Brunswick. It will be these people who will bring on the Eighth Fire, putting a stop to colonial destruction. Hopefully, that can succeed without turning it into a major war, but even war would be better than extinction. Many people know this and would join us on our side if this happens. we and our new allies (including most of the smartest people) will probably outnumber those siding with the corporations.
So here you have it. The Seventh fire is not just superstition, but solid science. Now that we have seen the evidence, no faith is required. We would be wise to pay attention to it.
Chi-Miigwech to Giibwanisi, Jason Godesky, Peter Bauer, Daniel Rowe, James Thompson, Stephen Julian, Candace Cross, Lisa Tutty, Donatta Ahern, Tamarack Song, and Mike Peters for helping me with these ideas and this article.