07/03/2013 09:30 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

From Wildfire: The Next Generation of Heroes


The tragedy of the 19 Hotshot firefighters from Prescott, Ariz., killed battling a sudden blaze in the ongoing heat and drought of Arizona and the Southwest deserves the nation's attention and respect. Unfortunately their sacrifice will not be the last among a new generation of warriors on the world's natural and industrial frontlines.

We have created too many high-risk environments that can not be easily or safely managed. For thousands of years warfare was the main rite of passage by which young men proved themselves as warriors and heroes going on to become the leaders of our clans, tribes and nations. Today, given the interdependence of an increasingly crowded planet, and faced with growing impacts from extreme weather, including historic drought, heat waves, wildfires, tornadoes, coastal disasters and expanding disease vectors linked to climate change, also terror bombings, migrant surges, industrial disasters and pandemics, we are finding new heroes deserving of our respect and honor among our first responders.

In the future our warriors and leaders may more often emerge from the ranks of young men and women willing to go in harm's way to confront an expanding range of catastrophes in unusual and dangerous settings from the burning islands of Indonesia to the floodwaters of Europe to the blazing hills of Arizona and California. Their ranks will include firefighters, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, cops, lifesavers, anti-poaching activists, CDC Epidemiologists and Doctors Without Frontiers and of course those 19 brave men who lost their lives on the fire line on May 30, 2013.

No doubt wars will continue to distract us from the essential work of the 21st century. But despite the instability we leave behind in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing and horrific bloodshed in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, the key global conflicts of today have moved away from the traditional military battlefield.

The outcome of the next major global conflicts, for clean energy, potable water, arable soil and healthy seas could be the real game changer for society. It's going to be a rough transition to a sustainable blue planet for ten billion people if we even make it.

And while wildfires, hurricanes and high seas can be adrenalin charged, they don't have the same insidious attraction as warfare. After all, war gives armed men a sense of control over life and death. Environmentalism only teaches us where we fit into that cycle -- and sometimes takes the lives of those brave enough to attempt to restore the balance.