California Burning: Life on a Tinderbox Planet

The metaphors are too ripe. California, symbol of limitless abundance, material wealth, possibilities for personal transformation. California, the impossibly over-endowed beauty, who wins all the contests, to the bitter envy or sycophantic admiration of the average Joes and Janes. California, the consummate global destination for the millions of who are desperate for reinvention: sexual, political, economic. California – thanks to the limitless marketability of human desire, which built its gargantuan industry of dreams – the world’s avatar for the whole USA.

All this is now tinder in a planetary fireplace.

New York, financial capital of the uniquely nameless and stateless global empire whose figurehead is California, has already received its exaggeratedly symbolic apocalyptic warnings. The Towers at the dawning millennium, like some contemporary tarot symbol, knifed by the colliding planes, collapsing in on themselves, creating a proto-nuclear explosion of toxic dust and uncountable reams of paper. (What symbolizes a bygone civilization better than ruins, dust, and fragmented archives?) Since civilization is always played on the world’s chessboard as a zero sum game, blowback is a defining aspect of weakening ones.

That, however, was still an example of human scale.

Then Superstorm Sandy (short for Cassandra?) flooded the downtown subways with chilly waters, lapping at the gone-silent monoliths where the world’s deals were done. The trains didn’t run at all, much less on time, the heat went off, the lights went out. Under the hurricane’s glaring eye, New York blinked.

And now California, producer of food and dreams to the world, gets its own head’s up from the gods of increasing chaos. Bone dry for four years, burning every year (as it has for millennia, but never before with 38 million of us, a primate subspecies born in an Ice Age, inhabiting and drastically altering its landscape). The annual fires (approximately 6,000 this year, 1,500 more than last year) have created localized holocausts – a blackened line of hills that was once a scenic view, a demolished suburban or exurban tract, a decimated small town.

And yet even in this recent wave of unprecedented ferocity, millions of acres of forest can be incinerated and their biodiversity radically reduced, thousands of structures destroyed, and still disruption of the human world is relatively minor. There is so much land that the vast majority of Californians are far removed from all the ground zeros. Most of us 38 million experience the burning forests, as we do the snowless granite peaks or empty reservoirs as distant backdrop. They are compressed into a crackling sound bite of exploding trees, a single shot of a glowing inferno against a night sky inserted into the endlessly looping all-night (and day) disaster movie that is the TV news. Or maybe they are like the faint reverberations of anxiety that presage an epic migraine – but the migraine still hasn’t come on. Most Californians die as most people still do around the world: from illness, accident, old age, or at the hands of other people. Many more Californians have lost their homes to foreclosure than to fire. We’re trying to be a little bit good now as individuals about our vanishing water, but we have utterly failed to rein in the giants in our village: Big Ag and Big Oil. The human reckoning to nature, if there is to be one, is not yet.

In San Francisco as the Valley fire, the most disruptive in the state this year (13,000 people evacuated), exploded less than 100 miles away, we had a weirdly warm and overcast afternoon, barely a blip on our collective radar screens. A famous hot springs resort, a center of the so-called human potential movement since the 1970s, was the most evocative victim of that fire – razed in a day. All that lucrative belief in the transformative power of human consciousness was no protection against an elemental force. But San Francisco has moved on from such anachronisms anyway. It’s not human potential but the potential of complex machines that fills our wallets and fires our imaginations now. At the same time, we are the empire’s quintessential pleasure palace – a show piece for the world to come and gawk at. We had, once again, just thrown the world’s sexiest high-end art party – out in the post-apocalyptic badlands of Nevada. We’ve been turning end-of-the-world scenarios into profit margins since before you were born. We’ll be fine, thanks.

Babylon still has a long way to fall, baby.

After all, what has happened to New York since Sandy? Capital is pouring in, faster than the floodwaters did, covering much larger and previously ignored swaths of the city’s low-lying land. A frenzy of capital is reinventing the vast cityscape, preparing to make it home to the masses of the moneyed, who the developers are sure exist, will continue to exist, and are waiting eagerly to buy in. New York is the financial equivalent of a firestorm: it creates its own weather; it feeds on itself.

Somewhere in the planning are extensively engineered dreams of pushing away the inevitable future storm surges, like a child pushes away a distasteful medicine. But the water must go somewhere. The unspoken idea, based in precedent, is that it will go to the places without the money to protect themselves. It will wash away the unneeded poor (cf. New Orleans). A cleansing effect.

Capital will come to the defense of California too. The engineers, the disaster capitalists, the techo-utopians like Elon Musk – they’re already here. They will find the state an even harder problem to solve than the Big Apple, since a ginormous chunk of its wealth is based directly on things that that unconstructed nature has directly endowed to it (one of which, disappearing fast, was a remarkably temperate climate), rather than on the dizzying high-wire maneuvers of speculators and salesmen thirty stories above the ground.

The thing is, no matter what they try in the coming years, we will feel it in our psyches: that sense of vertigo that indicates the proximity of the abyss. We will never be without that feeling now, those of us who aren’t terminally blunt instruments. We can even see it all falling down: shattered glass and toppling masonry.

This is the ultimate evolutionary double-aged sword, the waking ability to see things that are not there (including “the future”). This characteristic, which more than any other has shaped the world humans have made, can paralyze the sensitive even as it unleashes history’s hit men: the arrogant, the greedy, and the hyper-violent. The sensitive Cassandras are always right, because horror always happens, always ignored, because every crisis is an opportunity for someone.

But there is also a dicey aspect to most prophecies of doom; they are psychologically suspect in the same way that rubbernecking at a real disaster is – because we are always the saved after the sundering flood; others are the victims. And we apply our vivid imaginations to creating a romance and a corrective righteousness out of disaster that disaster never actually contains for those who experience it. If you need a contemporary example of this, James Howard Kunstler’s work is particularly nasty example. But you have only to pick up the Old Testament and open it randomly to see where he gets it from.

Those who experience apocalyptic levels of destruction do not romanticize such destruction or desire it to be total. It is never, in reality, cleansing in any way. It does not eliminate human “trash,” it creates desperate refugees, slaughtered innocents, broken infrastructure, hyper-impoverishment, psychic wounds that reverberate forever in individual lives. The righteous are not uniquely prized – just as often the opportunists and predators not only survive but proliferate. Mass destruction is the triumph of waste.

In the Anthropocene, the boundary between human and “natural” disaster is disappearing. But there’s still a difference. The living systems from which we arose know how how to regenerate after catastrophic events in such a way that entropy is minimized. Humans have tended to increase inequity (human to human, human to nature) with every increase in specialization, till entropy – waste – overwhelms our systems and they break down. Then we build them up again – on roughly the same template.

Our now-daily apocalypses do not presage a conveniently purgative Big One after which everything will be different for everyone. It’s more likely that they are just early evidence of a fundamental physical law: that any closed system becomes more chaotic as heat is added to it. Perhaps someday that law will seem as definitive to us as gravity’s, but right now humanity is frozen in Wile E. Coyote’s classic pose, wildly scrambling seven steps in the air off that cliff, still not looking down.

And so far, capital seems able to keep making tracks in the air. It goes on riding the invisible roller coaster it has created: whooping at the highs, shrieking at the lows, obliterating recurring efforts from among the surly crowds to alter the imaginary rails or take them apart altogether and put us back on the ground. While the lengthening queue just to get on board stretches around the globe.

But increasing chaos means exactly that: the production of unpredictable phenomena on the way to a new, unknowable equilibrium. Also increasingly desperate attempts to re-stabilize – most of which will fail, but some of which will become essential characteristics of the new state. Thus conscious, collective human action, with all its limitations in the age of the Empire of Chaos can still have a shaping effect on the future.

But without a posture of humility towards our planet’s living systems, without fully absorbing the lesson about how those systems minimize entropy, our species won’t ever get itself off the roller coaster. We’ll just go on shrieking and whooping until we ride into the endless tunnel of extinction. Leaving behind a deserted theme park that was once the most vibrant, bountiful, diverse world in the known universe.

There is nothing satisfying, or righteous, or necessary about the prospect of that outcome.

Meanwhile, California burns today, but the Big Ride hasn’t slowed for a nanosecond to acknowledge it. After all, tomorrow it may rain.



Christy Rodgers lives in San Francisco, where all that is solid melts into air. Her essays and reviews have appeared in CounterPunch Alternet, Upside Down World, Truthout, Dark Mountain Project, and Left Curve Magazine. Her blog is What If? Tales, Transformations, Possibilities.