Watching My Home Burn

“A true ecological approach also becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environement, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

-pope Francis, Laudato SI (Care for Our Common Home)

I am a third-generation Californian.  On my mom’s side of the family, my grandfather was the youngest son born to Portuguese immigrants.  They farmed Blossom Valley, the acres and acres of bountiful fruit orchards that is now known as Silicon Valley.  California has been my home for all my life, minus a three- year stint in Houston, TX.  When we drove my reliable little Toyota Corolla back over the state line in 2013, I wept.  I have lived all over the coastal California and no longer identify with any single part of the state.  It is all home.

After ignoring the wildfires for the better part of a month, President Trump deigned to visit California today.  During a press briefing, Trump interrupted Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency to argue an absurd point.  The climate “will start getting cooler, you just watch.”

Mr. Crowfoot simply responded, “I wish science agreed with you.”

Here in objective reality, the Western United States burns.  According to The Guardian, air quality in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA are currently the worst in the world, followed closely behind by San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

There are only so many ways that our family in the UK or our friends on the East Coast can ask if we’re safe.  A close friend just sent a thinking of you all text concluded with a fire emoji.  It made me laugh out loud.  Who knew that so much catastrophe could be distilled into a single emoji?!?

When they ask about the fires, I usually deflect.  We’re safe.  Everyone I know whose been evacuated has returned home safely.  That is all technically true.  Though the reality is that all this is just a particular round of fires.  The “traditional” fire season in California runs from about July through October, when the Santa Ana winds bring hot, dry air off the desert. 

These days, the conditions are consistently so hot and dry that the fire season runs through the better part of the whole year. There is no seeming end to the fires, no respite for firefighters who risk their lives nor any period of true calm before residents yet again fear evacuation and loss of home.  Currently, there is no relief for my pregnant sister-in-law.  She is unable to leave her home in Sonoma County due to the dismal air quality.

In 2014, Richard and I had just bought our home in Carlsbad.  Within a week of moving in, we had a string of fires (later determined to be arson) that devastated San Diego county.  The Carlsbad fire was one of the first of the day, and we were close enough to see its actual flames.  By the late evening, the epicenter of the devastation was in the San Marcos hills.  Richard and I drove to a high-ground vista to get a better view of what was happening.  As I gazed out through the smoke and ash, I remember thinking, “this is what hell must look like.”

I really want to blame the Trumps of the world.  But alas, like so much of the rot that pervades the current administration, it precedes them.

I am complicit in climate change. 

You are probably complicit, too, if you’re not Greta Thunberg, Al Gore or a signer of the Paris Climate Accords.  We all need to acknowledge our complicity.  We reused our bags and bought some Nalgenes.  Whoopty-frickin’ do. 

Locally, we still drive.  We weren’t picketing outside the offices of our local officials when they refused that travel extension yet again.  The NIMBYs among us have been refusing denser housing for decades, so instead California kept building single family homes further and further out, allowing more and more homes to border our golden (i.e. dry and dead) hillsides.

Nationally and internationally, we did nothing.  We never collectively organized to force any action.  We twiddled our thumbs while the fossil fuel sector dictated policy, rewarding itself billions of dollars for its own lobbying efforts.  This is merely the tip of the melting iceberg (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Somewhere along the way, we as a global society lost sight of the fact that it was more than our earth and its biodiversity facing extinction.  Those of us brutalized by the current wildfires, those of us devastated by Hurricanes Harvey or Maria, those of us terrorized by Superstorm Sandy, we actually arrived late to the affected-by-climate-change-party.  The poor have been crying their songs of lament for decades.

Pope Francis, who himself has an academic background in science, wrote a breathtaking encyclical in 2015 called Ladauto Si (Care for Our Common Home).  If you have never read it, please do.  It is masterful in its articulation of everything currently at stake.  Although Pope Francis has some of the greatest scientific minds as advisors, this document is not framed in terms of carbon parts per million.  It is a profoundly spiritual and moral work, which practically pleads with the reader for understanding. 

There are many insights in Ladauto Si but perhaps the most significance is an examination of a throwaway culture.  He is not just referring to single-use plastics.  He is referring to people; the poor whose health is disproportionately affected by pollution, the indigenous communities like those in the Amazon whose cultures of subsistence are being obliterated and any vulnerable person or activist who dares to interject themselves between the earth and a maximization of profits.

Pope Francis visualizes a common, moral and humane purpose in unifying as a global community to combat climate change.  Until we heed the call of climate activists to create an entirely new economic systems with restricted patterns of consumption, the current experience of Californians will not be unique.

Each of us may be watching our home burn.

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