Smoke Days

At first it was the smell of burning leaves, a very nostalgic smell for me,  evocative of Indiana in October, back when I was a kid and you could still burn leaf piles. I had never experienced that smell in California before, in eighteen years of living here.  I chalked it up to the weirdness of city living: with so many people, who knows what odd things someone might be doing somewhere.

Half an hour later, the sounds of helicopters made it clear that it wasn’t a renegade neighbor burning a backyard leaf pile. A text from my wife around the same time filled in the remaining details: there was a grass fire about a mile from our house, next to a highway. She seen it while driving to an exercise class and called it in. Soon I was watching online video with the local news channel: ten fire vehicles lined up along the side of the road next to a charred football-field sized patch. The 1991 Oakland fire was a smallish grass fire that was put out and then sprang back to life, a fact that is now deeply ingrained into fire management here. Oakland fire personnel were walking through the surrounding area with hoses, saturating it. Most likely some of them would be there for hours, watching vigilantly for any rekindling.

As the day progressed, the fall-in-Indiana smell turned into a New-Delhi-smog smell. That smell evokes fond memories of India; but also memories of upper respiratory infections on two separate occasions when I passed through Delhi. That acrid smoke was from strong winds had started not just that little Oakland fire, but from the now-infamous Camp Fire. A huge smoke plumes trails off of it, like a long gray scarf of doom blowing across the state and out into the ocean.

By the next day the world had shifted into a postapocalyptic yellow-orange-gray cast, like a sunset, but in the middle of the day. It was a Friday. On Friday mornings I have a standing arrangement to meet with another Dad with our kids, usually at the Zoo or at a park. We texted about the air quality but decided to go anyway. Being stuck in a house all day with a two-year old feels like as much of a mental heath risk as being outside in poor air quality is a pulmonary health risk.

The park was vacant when we got there. All the other parents had apparently decided to take the mental health risk. In the bathroom the toilet seat, and the water in it, was covered evenly in gray fibery particles. At first I thought someone had clipped their hair over the toilet, before realizing it was ash.

This is the third time it has been like this in a little over a year. The October 2017 firestorm was large and close, a whole week of windows-closed, ash-on-the-cars, can’t-go-out, red-sky days.

This summer, July of 2018, a couple of months after our son was born, our family drove to Grass Valley, on the shoulder of the Sierra Nevada, house-sitting for a friend who was traveling. We planned to stay for a week, running around outside on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. We left after two days, in large part because of the Carr-Mendocino fires.

Now we are on day nine of the Camp Fire shut-in. I started writing this over a week ago, on Saturday November 10, and still we cannot go outside more than briefly; the air quality is in fact decidedly worse. Jumping on our couch has been my two-year-old’s primary method of physical exercise for the last week. I’m writing this, in part, because there’s nothing else to do. My wife and the grandparents have given me some time off from parenting, and typically I would use that to be off on a bike ride all day. But today, that’s not something I can do today without filling my lungs with smoke.

“Was it ever like this when you were growing up?”

That was the question of the day last weekend. I first asked my wife, who grew up in Oakland, in midafternoon. Later that evening we went out to dinner with some friends, and one of them – who had also grown up here – asked her as well.

They agreed answer was no, it was never like this. Every few years there would be a significant forest fire, but not this frequently, this bad, for this long. The next day another friend who also grew up in Oakland came by. I asked her the same question. “Oh no, definitely not, never like this. They’re saying this is the ‘new normal’.”

I’ve lived in California now eighteen years and had zero recollection of days like this before last year. Apparently there was a fire in 2008 that led to a few poor air quality days, but I was traveling and missed them. By itself a single fire like that was not worthy of discussion. What’s different now is the pattern.

The evidence is not just in records and in memory, but in language: we don’t even have particularly good language for it. Smoke days? Air-quality day? I’ve seen one researcher calling them “smoke waves”. More often it’s referred to as “the air quality” as an abstract property of the world, kind of like “the weather”, but I think that doesn’t capture the experience. To me, these days seem like snow days in Indiana – days where the culture changes, everyone is doing something different – but an evil cousin of the snow day, with fewer snowmen and more apocalypse sauce.  For most of this week, school was optional in the Oakland public schools, so that students who would have to travel extensively outdoors to get the school – by walking or by bicycle – would not be penalized for staying home. On Friday, most schools in the bay area were closed for all students.

The scientists give the same kind of answer, that yes it is different. And of course climate change is the primary difference. A few degrees warmer means a lot dryer. There have always been forest fires in California, and it does have a dry season. However, dry has varying degrees of dryness. There must be thousands of sparks, cigarettes, and lightning strikes each year in California, but with ordinary temperatures they land on slightly damp sticks and leaves, they don’t turn into a forest fire. As temperatures rise, foliage dries out. More sparks turn into flames, turn into smoke days.

Climate change is not the only cause for the forest fires, and everyone from climate scientists to Republican politicians agrees that forest management contributes to the severity of the fires. But we’re on top of that error in California, in a way that the United States and the world as a whole isn’t on top of climate change.

When my daughter is my age, in 2058, “what it was like growing up” for her will include smoke waves and smoke days. It’s a miniature version of “shifting baseline syndrome”, a phenomenon within science as a profession that’s only fairly recently been recognized: every generation creates a concept of what the world is like based upon what was like when they grew up. It allows us to forget the diversity or the stability of the world that existed before.

Jon Mooallem describes how this happened with butterfly collectors and entomologists in the bay area: the San Francisco Bay area used to be a butterfly collector’s paradise, even within the City, with diverse and numerous butterflies easy for the catching. Over generations, habitat degradation has led to massive butterly population reduction or extinction, but with each successive generation there’s a forgetting of the losses that happened prior to their birth. To learn about the accumulated losses, to imagine the full natural diversity and abundance that could exist, requires digging into books and reports from the past.

Perhaps there is no loss of something that you never knew you had, but it is a loss for me to know that the freedom to be outdoors year-round is not something that my daughter will not have.

In each region it will be different. Global warming, as an abstraction of negative energy waiting to find incarnation, reminds me of Rick Moranis, describing an ancient demon in Ghostbusters:

Gozer the Traveler! He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the Rectification of the Vulronaii, the Traveler came as a large and moving Torb! Then, during the Third Reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex Supplicants, they chose a new form for him, that of a giant Sloar! Many Shrubs and Zuuls know what it was to be roasted in the depths of a Sloar that day, I can tell you!

Up until this point, talking about climate change to those that denied it felt like this: being a crazy person describing an future evil of uncertain shape. Denial of climate change could be predicated on the contingency and abstraction of it all, something that cannot possibly be as pressing as any current, tangible problem. But now the problems have become material: the large and moving Torb of hurricanes on the east coast, the Sloars of California wildfires roasting towns and suffocating cities. The Camp Fire is our Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

This is what it is like, to be lobsters in a warming pot. There has been a few climate-scientist lobsters over there in the corner reading the temperature gauge, but now all of us can feel that the water is warmer. Republicans on the coasts are now starting to believe in global warming after getting hit with so many hurricanes that it defies their childhood memories of “normal” as well.

And this is the initial perceptible damage from global warming. It’s the edge of the storm, the wind picking up before a hurricane. Wildfires are the first palpable change, but the greater hazards may be more systematic environmental collapse, migrations, and armed conflicts over shifting and diminishing resources like water and arable land.

What are we to do?

Even before coming to any kind of prescription, the thing to recognize is that we are already doing things because of global warming whether we like it or not. Here in California, we’re mourning people who died in fires, rebuilding housing stock, wearing respirators, staying inside, not exercising, and bearing the costs of respiratory illness.

As I was writing this I just had a phone call with my wife about trying to find an air filter for our house; our daughter already had a cough before the fire, and it is slow to go away. Is that just getting over a bad cold, or is it because the smoke is getting into the house? Maybe we should buy a PM2.5 air sensor as well so we have a concrete concept of what the air is actually like inside our house. These are all time and money costs we wouldn’t have had but for global warming. They are  also not options that are available to families that are struggling financially. And, again, this is only the beginning.

These individual costs of global warming are greater than the collective costs, if only we were able to act collectively. The United States, and to a certain extent the whole world, have been taken over by an economic individualist ideology of neoliberalism, which holds that true freedom can only be found in individual action and markets. In a lot of ways I think this is a hangover from the Cold War; there is an aspect of the American psyche that believes any collective action is the first step into Soviet totalitarian communism.

There are reasons to be fearful of centralized authority, but at a certain point we have to learn to trust our understanding of democracy allows us to actions collectively as a society; and conversely to distrust the centralized authority that can accumulate in entrenched industries that are more interested in profit than in the social good (I’m looking at you, David and Charles Koch).  With enough money, you can make an argument for anything, and that’s exactly what they do, from buying think tanks to university departments to make their personal good seem like the societal good.

The tobacco industry is the most universally-understood example of this, which defended itself with fake science and obfuscation, to the detriment of millions of people that are sick, dead, or will die early from smoking. The fossil fuel industry has used many of the same researchers, PR firms, and scientists to create an illusion of doubt that their products weren’t socially harmful. It’s kind of amazing, but it is taking wildfires and hurricanes to demonstrate that it was all bullshit.

Another way to look at it is that freedom has multiple conceptions, but the only one that we have understood for the last forty years has been positive freedom: the “freedom to” do something.  However, unchecked positive freedom creates oppressive power centers that are industrial rather than governmental: “‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others.”  Now is the time to resurrect ideas of negative liberty from dormancy: to have “freedom from” oppression by sources of power, and an acknowledgement that democratically-elected government may be our only recourse against entrenched industrial interests that are socially destructive, like tobacco and oil have been. We need freedom from the effects of climate change.

As time goes on with no action, as a species we are like a person who drives a car that is long overdue for maintenance. To avoid the inconvenience of an engine overhaul, we ignore the car experts and put up with the clattering and sputtering and smoke from under the hood. Eventually it will catch up with us. Right now it is catching up with us.

What that societal engine overhaul looks like is still coming into focus, and it is shifting all the time as we drive on, accumulating more damage. At a bare minimum it means winding up the oil and gas industries with all due haste, and to obtain energy from solar, wind, and other sources.

This is by itself an enormous undertaking, but at this point it seems possibly insufficient. As Jason Hickel reports, the most plausible model is to learn to live differently. Not unimaginably differently, but . . . differently:

The new IPCC model calls for us to scale down global material consumption by 20 percent, with rich countries leading the way. What does that look like? It means moving away from disposable products toward goods that last. It means repairing our existing things rather than buying new ones. It means designing things so that they can be repaired (modular devices such as Fairphones rather than proprietary devices such as iPhones). It means investing in public goods and finding ways to share stuff—from cars to lawn mowers—shifting from an ethic of ownership to an ethic of usership.

Personally I would also tack on a shift to a four-day workweek, which is already possible for many German workers, and is being considered in the UK. None of that is unimaginable, and actually it doesn’t sound all that terrible, especially as compared to, say, being trapped indoors for multiple weeks a year, or having your town incinerated. It also seems within the bounds of other society-wide changes that the United States has been capable of historically, with the most common analogy, by writers such as Bill McKibben and George Monbiot, being to the shift to war footing in 1942. But first it requires a mindset change, to consider the entire cost of the way we live, and a re-evaluation of our capacity to act together as a society. The accumulated wildfires and hurricanes of the last few years should be our Pearl Harbor.



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