The apocalypse has arrived in the western landscape. The area of the bay is covered with a layer of smoke, so thick that it broke everything camera sensors to time models.
The situation provoked comparisons with the future, real and imaginary. Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 both were points of contact for the scenes of a futuristic city shrouded in fog. Others refer The Martian, science fiction film made entirely in the future on another planet (although astronomers have pointed this out Venus and Titan are also perfectly acceptable analogues). And the situation in the West is partly portrayed as a look at the climate future that we can all soon have face.
The forest fire season in 2020 has made time and space feel resilient, the present and the future, the Earth and the Space collide like the click of an elastic band. But I can’t help but feel that resilience connects the present and the past and the fate of those who suffocate under a blood-red sky with the decisions made in the rooms around the slippery mahogany tables. Our atmosphere and forests are haunted by these decisions and we forget them at our own risk.
Let’s start with the forest side of the equation. Indigenous groups ruled lands using fire as an integral part of the landscape long before the National Forest Service. But after the US government expelled them from their lands, things began to fall apart. Then the catastrophic storm in the Northern Rockies in 1910, called the Great Burning, changed everything.
Eventually, the federal government enforced the 10 a.m. rule, ordering all fires to be extinguished by, you guessed it, by 10 a.m. the day after they were spotted. William Greeley, head of the Forest Service at the time, was sure that fires are proof that “Satan is working.” He added that “the conviction that burned me was that fire prevention is the number one job of American foresters.”
At first glance, this was a matter of public safety, as communities expanded into forests and the Great Burn killed 87 people, including a number of firefighters. But at the heart of it was the cold, hard economy. The mission of the Forest Service is (emphasis added) “to maintain health, diversity and productivity“On the ground. One of the main pillars of the agency is the leasing of timber land.
Back then, putting out the fire was really about trying to keep as much forest as possible to be cut down, with racism thrown in (Grillie mocks the radical approach as Pute Forestry). The Forest Service was hardly alone in this; a former Wisconsin conservation director who served during Greeley’s time noted that “every foot of land we own as a nation has value, that it is possible to use it for all this.” And the thought of making money from the land continues to this day. In 2017, the companies cut $ 179 million worth of wood only on forest service land. While the agency and other land managers have adjusted the course recognize the value of fire on the landscape there are decades of accumulated fuel in the forests, ready for ignition.
Then there is the climatic side of the equation. The one you may know a little better. But let’s summarize to make the blood really flow, and because, frankly, the feeling of rage is a lot more fun than the numb feeling I’ve been feeling lately.
Fossil fuel companies have spent decades lying about the risk of burning their products. The disinformation campaign from Exxon, Chevron and others is widespread and continues to this day.
Fossil fuel companies are supported susceptible politicians, especially Republicans, in slowing down any significant climate action. These companies have moved from firm denial to a better and gentler form of denial. The party line now is that climate change is real, but we will be fine. Perhaps there is no better distillation of this way of thinking than former Exxon CEO and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the following in Interview from 2012:
“If you take one that I would call a sensible scientific approach to this, we believe that these consequences are manageable. They require us to start making efforts or spending more political effort to adapt. …
And as human beings, as a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We’ve spent our whole existence adapting, haven’t we? So we will adapt to that. “
I’m sure people whose houses have burned down or those who breathe the most polluted air on Earth agree, Rex.
Of course, politicians have had a lot of advice on how to avoid the quagmire we are in right now. The most famous is former NASA climate scientist James Hansen alarming Congress in 1988, but it is far from the only warning or even the earliest. Here is a snippet of evidence from more than 30 years ago about the risks that are exacerbated by the entire burning of fossil fuels that could devastate California:
We have not yet reached this stage (yet), but we have seen California endure a deep, dangerous drought over this decade that has helped ignite fires. And the risk of much more sinister many decade go up there and in Texas, just as Revel predicted. However, Congress has done nothing to act.
Oh, and then there are developers who have spent decades luring people to the interface between wildlife and the city, and local governments that have allowed it to grow. From 1990 to 2010, a staggering 13.4 million homes were built this fire-prone landscape. And half of all homes burned by fires are recovered within five yearsputting people back in danger.
Although it is tempting to look ahead and warn of a more fiery future, looking to the past has never been more important. We need to understand exactly how we got here and who is caught up in the special interests that continue to advocate for what futurist Alex Stefan calls “predatory delay. “Only then can we find a way out of the cobwebs that have trapped us in this moment of crisis and fight for a future that will not be constantly compared to dystopia.