For the 15 million of us who live in Northern California, life changed two weeks ago.
It was not only the horrifying loss of lives, homes, communities, landscapes and the ravaging of Wine Country, a tourist destination more popular than Disney World.
It was the shock of how suddenly life can change—and on such a massive scale.
It was the unavoidable proof that we are interconnected in this climate-changing world. Some experience supersized hurricanes, some drought and unprecedented wildfires, some sea level rise.
And it was the awful feeling of being powerless to protect one’s children from the most fundamental thing in the world: the air we breathe.
In a matter of days, the wildfires created as many carbon emissions as are emitted in a year from all the cars on the road in California, which already suffered from the worst air pollution in the nation.
Bay Area Wake Up
Nearly 40 percent of Americans—125 million people—live where the air is unhealthy to breathe everyday.
Yet in Bay Area, an admittedly privileged place, we haven’t been confronted with severely poor air quality before. And many of us are big outdoor people: We live here for the spectacular natural offerings. We socialize on hikes, while rock climbing, or surfing.
Then, in a matter of days, our air quality was as bad as Beijing’s. Schools were closed. Outdoor activities canceled. People were wearing ask masks, and stores could not keep them in stock.
Those communities most directly affected, in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, were declared severe health hazards.
But the fires were so vast that if you lived in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland, you could have thought they were in your own relative backyard. The sky was bluish, the evening sun red, the smell unavoidable. We were repeatedly on the “highest five” list for the worst air quality in the nation. And we were staying indoors, windows closed.
Another Hit to the American Dream
The reality of what has happened—above all, for those most directly affected—is indescribable. It is, as Gov. Brown said, the worst tragedy in our state’s history.
And while influenced by a number of factors, including high winds, climate change, as the Governor and fire officials have said, has made these fires much worse. Years of severe drought will do that.
The symbolism is also hard to miss. California, in some ways, epitomizes the American Dream—a dream that, across the nation, has recently suffered many slings and arrows. And, now, in the Golden State, it has suffered this one.
So What Happens Now?
Like the hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, Houston, and parts of Florida, the catastrophic fires in California point to some important things that we could allow to change us for the good. For example:
- We really are all connected in this.
One of the reasons that we face some of the environmental crises we do, as my co-authors and I wrote in Ecoliterate, is because our complex global society has created a vast collective blind spot about the effects of human behavior on natural systems.If a small indigenous society farmed unsustainably one year, for example, the people would directly experience the consequences of it the next year—and likely change their ways. But with our food, production, and other systems spread across the planet, consequences are a lot harder for us to grasp.Still, the reality is that we are interconnected in the causes as well as the consequences of climate change, as these fires have so dramatically shown. A wealthy community can be wiped out as quickly as a poor one. And there are no borders on the air.
- It’s OK to get mad as hell about the unconscionable failure to protect people—children, especially—from climate change.
As parents, we all want to protect our children from harm. Some things we can’t protect them from, and that’s always a hard pill to swallow. But the science on climate change has been clear for decades; so have the solutions.The only thing that has ever been lacking is the political will. And if you want to understand why, you only need, as they say in journalism circles, to follow the money. It leads right back to oil and coal interests, as The New Yorker writer Jane Mayer chronicles in Dark Money.Should we quietly if grudgingly accept this—knowing unprecedented tragedies such as those we have seen this year are the result? Hell no. We need to marshal a political will stronger than that of those who lobby for the self-destructive status quo. As mothers, we can do this. If you need inspiration, just look to the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.
- In difficult times, humans are capable not only of radical hope but of great kindness and ordinary heroism.
In Rebecca Solnit’s book, Paradise Built in Hell, she reveals that people often respond to calamity not with chaos, greed, and violence but with spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is one of her examples. What we have seen in response to the Wine Country wildfires is no different.And while only some can be as brave as the firefighters who have been risking their lives for others, many more of us are capable of ordinary heroism. We can rise above our usual ways, even put ourselves at risk for the benefit of others. We’re parents. This is what we do. And this is what we must do now in more forcefully demanding bold climate action—not the unjustifiable backsliding we’ve seen from Washington, D.C., this year.
So imagine if after the shock of California’s wildfires, we put some of these things into action—for the sake of everyone’s children, now and to come? It would, perhaps, be one good thing to rise from the ashes.