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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Danger Of Becoming Accustomed to “Smoke Days”

I don’t want my daughter to grow up accepting this as normal…

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 18 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 sound of helicopters made it clear that it wasn’t a renegade neighbor burning leaves in the backyard. 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 had seen it while driving to an exercise class and called it in. Soon I was watching live online video from the local news channel: 10 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 plume 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 post-apocalyptic 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. (We could risk our pulmonary health outside or our mental health stuck in a house all day with a two-year-old.)

The park was vacant when we got there. All the other parents had apparently opted for 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 12 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. Every day we check the AQI, or “air quality index”, on AirNow or Purple Air, the way most people check the weather. Every day it is “unhealthy” or worse, and we stay inside. Jumping on our couch has been my two-year-old’s primary method of physical exercise. Ordinarily, almost all the time I spent writing this—during weekends, when grandparents are helping out with the kids—I would have been outside, riding a bike.  But that’s not something I could do for the last two weekends without filling my lungs with smoke.

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

We were all asking that last weekend. I first asked my wife, who grew up in Oakland. Later, at dinner, I asked a friend who was also a Bay Area native. The 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 for 18 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 know what to call it. Smoke days? Air-quality days? I’ve seen one researcher calling them “smoke waves.” It’s most often being talked about as the “air quality,” like it’s an abstract property of the world, kind of like “the weather.” But that doesn’t capture the experience. To me, these days seem like an evil cousin of the snow days in Indiana—days where the culture changes, everyone is doing something different, and everything is affected. Except with smoke days, no one gets to go outside and build a snowman. For most of this week, school was optional in the Oakland public schools, to minimize smoke exposure, especially on the way to and from school. On Friday, most schools in the Bay Area were closed for all students.

The scientists give the same answers as the anecdotes: Yes, it is different. And of course, climate change is the primary difference. A few degrees warmer means a lot drier. There have always been forest fires in California, and it does have a dry season. But dryness comes in degrees. There are thousands of sparks, cigarettes, and lightning strikes each year in California, but with ordinary temperatures they land on slightly damp sticks and leaves, and don’t turn into a forest fire. As temperatures rise, foliage dries out. More sparks turn into flames, those flames burn cities inland and turn into smoke days elsewhere

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 fixing that error in California, and it might help if Republican politicians didn’t try to cut the federal Forest Service budget. The deeper problem is that the United States and the world as a whole aren’t on top of climate change.

When my daughter is my age, in 2058, “what it was like growing up” will include smoke waves and smoke days. It’s a miniature version of “shifting baseline syndrome”, a phenomenon that affects the science profession itself and has only recently been recognized—every generation creates a concept of what the world is like based upon what it was like when they grew up. It allows us to forget the diversity or the stability of the world that existed before we came into it, and it can be dangerous in acclimating us to “new normals.”

Jon Mooallem describes how this happened with butterfly collectors and entomologists in the Bay Area. It 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 butterfly population reduction or extinction. Yet each successive generation doesn’t start out knowing what happened prior to its birth, and what was once universally known is quickly forgotten. To learn about the accumulated losses, to imagine the full natural diversity and abundance that could and did exist, requires digging into books and reports from the past. What could once have been observed simply by going outside has to be pieced together from fragmentary evidence, and memories only live as long as people continue to actively preserve them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

I suppose it’s not technically a “loss” for my daughter, since she never knew what we had. But I feel a loss knowing that she, and her daughters, won’t have the freedom to be outdoors year-round, something we all valued and took for granted.

Up until recently, talking about climate change to those who denied or doubted it felt like being a crazy person describing a future evil of uncertain shape. Denial of climate change was easy thanks to the contingency and abstraction of it all. It couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, therefore it could not possibly be as pressing as any current, tangible problem. But now the problems have become material.

This is what it is like to be lobsters in a warming pot. For decades, there have 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. Climate change is now on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, where it is now mentioned offhandedly as an established fact—although the only “lessons” proffered are a policy towards burying power lines, and for people in fire-prone areas to “adopt the assumption that such a deadly natural disaster could happen tomorrow and that they might need to leave immediately.” We had that assumption already in California; it’s just that we were hoping for a solution other than running away as our houses burn.  Another incredible WSJ op-ed said that climate change is now “over,” not because it’s not happening, but because it’s too associated with “identity politics” for us to bother doing anything about it.

And right now, we’re just in 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. My wife and I just spoke about finding an air filter for our house—our daughter already had a cough before the fire, and it is slow to go away. Is she 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 time, money, and mental-load 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.

The individual harms of climate change are greater than the collective costs of addressing it, if only we were able to act collectively. But 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. Part of that may be 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. But while it’s healthy to distrust centralized authority, we have to act collectively in order to solve our collective problems, and we should also distrust the centralized authority that accumulates in private hands among those 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 socially damaging industries do, by funding researchers, writers, think tanks, and university departments that make their personal good seem like the societal good. The tobacco industry is the most universally-understood example of this—it 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, even as they knew better themselves. It’s kind of amazing, but it is taking wildfires and hurricanes to demonstrate that it was all bullshit.

The argument for climate action should be grounded in freedom. Freedom is often discussed in “positive” and “negative” terms, the freedom to do  something and the freedom from something. Often, advocates of unrestrained free markets insist they are the champions of “negative liberty,” the freedom from excess government power. Another way to look at it, though, is that this is backwards: what they really want is the freedom to destroy the planet for other people. This kind of 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.”  It is time to revive the conception of freedom put forth by Roosevelt in the “Four Freedoms” speech, which advocated a conception of liberty that offered a healthy balance of “positive and negative” freedom for all: the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. It’s those last two we’ve given up on, and perhaps we need a new one, more specific: freedom from the devastating 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 and cost of an engine overhaul, we ignore the 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. Even that is 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.

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 U.K. 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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