I have spent the last week laid low by the extreme air pollution caused by multiple wildfires across northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Physical symptoms include burning eyes, nausea, migranes, nosebleeds, cough, wheeze, and dryness. Emotional symptoms include despair, helplessness, inability to focus, insomnia, and anhedonia. For several days in the middle of the week, the air in Oregon was the worst in the entire world.
The wildfires here are different than in California. Forest fires are a natural part of the life cycle in California, and the large fires we are seeing in the last 20 years are the result of catastrophically bad management. Forest managers and/or the politicians that supervise them decided to cut down the number of managed burns to almost nothing, leading up to a huge amount of fuel in the forests over large areas without managed fire breaks. In Oregon, forest fires happen but are once in a few generation events.
When British colonists arrived here, they found an abundance of large white oak trees, perfect for shipbuilding, which they—true to their nature as disastrous incompetents that ruined every ecosystem they came into contact with—cut down in great numbers. White oaks are hardier against fire than their faster-growing neighbors that they compete with, the Douglas fir. The pre-colonial landscape of Oregon contained a slow dance between the white oak and the Douglas fir: the firs would light-smother young oak trees, building up a dense stand, which would then burn down to the advantage of a lucky white oak that resisted the fire, earning enough light to get established and remain alive for several hundred years. It’s a beautiful dance, one that colonists put a stop to when they logged the white oak to near extinction, then stopped the wildfires, then started clearcutting the remaining monoculture leaving nothing but sterile mountainsides full of decay.
The forest are the land’s lungs, and they are burning.
For my entire lifetime, the forests of Oregon and Washington have been dangerous traps that look like enchanted landscapes. These traps are everywhere, and they are starting to knock into each other and go off: overfished oceans, pumped out aquifers leading to ground collapse, disruption of the water cycle, destruction of the atmosphere, mass extinction of animal species. They are all connected by one phenomenon: the capitalist market system assumes that the earth’s natural resources are infinite.
It’s comforting to think of the market as a circulatory system where money flows through exchanges of value, but if you zoom out far enough it looks like a giant system of roots, and at the tip of every root is someone extracting something out of the earth and not putting it back: mining, harvesting, slaughtering, fishing, felling. For all our talk of progress, there has never been a year since the Industrial Revolution where we have restored more than we have destroyed, planted more than we have harvested, or rested more than we have disrupted. The resources of the earth are not infinite, however, and we are starting to experience that collapse.
It has been difficult to accept that the slow disaster of ecological collapse is going to be the entire story of my lifetime, and nothing that I do professionally, artistically, or socially, will be more important than that story. Teenagers and folks in their early to mid-20’s got there a lot faster than I did. I had a childhood where environmentalism was a niche political issue instead of the loudest story forever, and that has opened a big generational divide between me and those just a little younger than me.
Despite the large challenges of climate change—and the more that I learn about the different policy choices that led to the world being as it is right now and the more that I learn about economics and the more that I learn about our scientific research system, the more truly convinced I am that we have all of the tools and resources, right now, to decarbonize the global economy—the fact that we don’t have a full consensus about the existence and scale of the problem is what makes me despair the most. I wish I could scapegoat uneducated white people as the roadblock, but I’ve seen ignorance about this problem from wealthy, educated white East Coast cousins and working class, high-school educated Southwest cousins both white and latino.
Individual actions are not going to be enough to fix this problem, and I set myself apart from a lot of my anticapitalist liberal friends because I don’t think that nationalizing industry or banning categories of businesses are going to do it either. It can be solved with a combination of aggressive taxes for the wealthy and taxes and regulation for industry and manufacturing that are polluting or have a negative effect on the ecosystem. This idea seems to make older folks nervous, but I don’t see why the status quo isn’t making them more nervous. It may seem like confiscating wealth to highly tax the wealthiest 50 people in the country, but it’s also confiscating wealth to set the conditions for unstable weather events, make property uninsurable, then do nothing as people lose their homes.
Voting isn’t going to be enough. There’s no question that **** has to be dismissed, but the center-left party is too reliant on the status quo to meet this challenge. I’ve used a lot of words to get here, but this is what I want to say: we have reached a tipping point of rolling, painful natural disasters. There is no longer a choice between change and no-change. The choice is between managed change and violent change.
I am a peace loving person, I love growth and building for the future and cycles. I am trying to find acceptance with the fact that those will not be the conditions under which I get to build my life.