Apocalypse has arrived in the western landscape. The Bay Area is enveloped in a layer of smoke so thick it has broken everything camera sensors to weather models.
The situation sparked confrontations with the future, real and imaginary. Blade Runner is Blade Runner 2049 they were both contact points for the scenes of a futuristic city mired in the haze. Others have referred The Martian, a science fiction film set in the future on another planet entirely (although astronomers have pointed this out Venus and Titan they are also perfectly acceptable analogues). And the situation in the West has, in part, been portrayed as a glimpse of the climate future that we all may soon face.
The fire season of 2020 has made time and space elastic, present and future, Earth and space colliding like the snap of a rubber band. But I can’t help but feel the elasticity that binds the present and the past and the fate of those who choke under a blood-red sky with decisions made in meeting rooms around polished mahogany tables. Our atmosphere and our forests are obsessed with these decisions and we forget them at our own risk.
Let’s start with the forest side of the equation. Indigenous groups managed the lands using fire as an integral part of the landscape long before a national forest service existed. But after the US government eradicated them from their lands, things started to go haywire. Then, the catastrophic firestorm in the Northern Rockies in 1910 dubbed the Big Burn changed everything.
Eventually, the federal government implemented the 10 am rule, decreeing that all fires should be put out, you guessed it, at 10 the day after they were spotted. William Greeley, head of forestry at the time, was of course that the fires were proof that “Satan was at work.” He also said that “the belief burned in me is that fire prevention is the number one job of American foresters.”
This was, at first glance, a matter of public safety as communities were expanding into the forests and the Big Burn killed 87 people, including a number of firefighters. But there was a cold and hard economy behind it. The mission of the forest service is (emphasis added) “to support health, diversity and productivity“of the land. One of the key pillars of the agency is the rent of land for timber.
The suppression of the fires, therefore, was really about trying to preserve most of the forest to be cut down with a little racism (Greeley mocked the natives’ approach as “Piute forestry”). The forestry service was certainly not the only one in this; a former Wisconsin director of conservation who served in Greeley’s time noticed that “every foot of land we own as a nation has a value, that there is a possible use for everything”. And the mentality of making money with the land continues today. In 2017, companies dwindled 179 million dollars timber value only on the land of the forest service. While the agency and other land managers have corrected the route recognize the value of fire on the landscape, there are decades of fuel accumulated in the forests ready to catch fire.
Then there is the climatic side of the equation. This you may know a little better. But let’s recap to really get the blood flowing and because, frankly, feeling anger is a lot more fun than the numb feeling I’ve been having lately.
Fossil fuel companies have spent decades lying about the risk of burning their products. The disinformation campaign by Exxon, Chevron and others was widespread and continues today.
Fossil fuel companies were helped by docile politicians, especially the Republicans, blocking any significant climate action. These companies have gone from extreme denial to a kinder, kinder form of denial. The party line now is that climate change is real, but we will be well. There is perhaps no better distillation of this mindset than former Exxon CEO and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who said the following in a Interview from 2012:
“If we take a reasonable scientific approach, we believe these consequences are manageable. They require us to either start exercising or devote more political effort to adaptation.
And as humans, as a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We’ve spent our entire existence adjusting, okay? So we will adapt to this. “
I’m sure the people who have burnt houses or those who breathe the most polluted air on Earth agree, Rex.
Politicians have had a lot of advice on how to avoid the quagmire we are in now, of course. The most famous is former NASA climate scientist James Hansen alerting Congress in 1988, but it is not the only warning or even the oldest. Here is a snippet of testimony from more than 30 years ago about the risks that going hard on the whole fossil fuel burning thing could desertify California:
We haven’t reached that stage yet (yet), but in this decade we have seen California plunge into a deep and dangerous drought that helped fuel the fires. And the risk of a much more disturbing situation decades-long “mega drought” they arise there and in Texas, just as Revelle predicted. Despite this, Congress has done nothing to act.
Oh, and then there are developers who have spent decades luring people to the wild-urban interface and local governments that have allowed sprawl. 13.4 million homes were built between 1990 and 2010 this fire-prone landscape. And half of all homes burned by fires are rebuilt within five years, putting people in danger.
While it’s tempting to look ahead and warn of a brighter future, looking back has never been more important. We have to understand exactly how we ended up here and who is captured by the special interests that continue to defend what the futurist Alex Stefan calls “predatory delay. “Only then will we be able to find our way out of the cobwebs that have trapped us in this moment of crisis and fight for a future that we will not be able to constantly confront with dystopia.