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Weather Terrorism, W.T.F.?

Photo by The National Guard | CC BY 2.0

As the predicted storm pounded the narrow canyons in the hills above Montecito early in January, a rumble began to overtake the percussion of hard rain on scorched earth. It built, once the torrent of water had dislodged first soil, pebbles, small rocks, then boulders, into a mighty thunder as the mud gathered speed over the resin-slicked surface of the newly burned wild lands.

From out of the Wildland-Urban-Interface, the mudslide drove down into the leafy suburbs of Montecito and tangled with the fragile infrastructure that supports the life-styles of the rich and famous, the merely rich, and all those others who call this Santa Barbara suburb home.  It smashed through homes, businesses and, most critically, fractured the system of pipes, suspended across the naturally occurring drainages, that link a chain of reservoirs that serve as the community’s water source.

The broken pipes unleashed a sea of nearly ten million gallons of fresh water released from the reservoirs because their electrically operated control valves were inoperative in the storm related blackout. Much of the mud and water found its way to U.S. Route 101 which runs from Los Angeles to the Oregon border. The section that runs through Montecito, a few hundred yards east of the beach, was transformed into a rock and tree strewn delta where water ran twelve feet deep in places and over 100,000 tons of debris were spread along its length. The highway was reopened recently after a two-week closure. Restoration of the area’s water supply will take longer. Both were the collateral damage of extreme weather events.

We are a species in retreat. Pusillanimous descriptions of our geo-historical circumstances such as ‘climate change’ are daily challenged by the occurrence of extreme weather events that disrupt society, destroy infrastructure, and obliterate human life. Twenty lives were lost in Montecito and two others remain missing, buried perhaps, beneath mud or swept out to sea. These events might be more effectively described as Weather Terrorism. However, the ascription of such an inflammatory label to acts of ‘Nature’ – to grant weather agency – requires a profound philosophical re-orientation.

It is this task to which philosophers such as Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton, among others, are currently devoted. Latour takes the position that humanity’s place in the biosphere is now fundamentally altered by its industrial age activities, most notably the burning of fossil fuels, such that it is now a global, geo-historical force which expresses itself in species’ extinction and in its power to change the weather. We are in an age he characterizes as the New Climatic Regime when our political institutions have become entirely incapable of protecting their citizens from extreme weather events and thus risk their own irrelevance. He fully recognizes the unconstrained powers of the non-human to shape our destinies.

Morton, in arguing for the agency of the non-human takes a swipe at the academic humanities (fields in which he toils at Rice University) in which it is conventionally suggested “that there are no accessible things in themselves…. only things insofar as they relate to some version of the (human) subject…. thinking which is called correlationist”. But, he argues, “the screen on which these correlations are projected isn’t blank after all”.  Both Latour and Morton acknowledge that ‘Nature’ has traditionally served as the big screen upon which human activities are seen to play out. Each philosopher urges us to begin to understand that this erstwhile passive backdrop has a life of its own, composed of what Morton provocatively calls ‘non-human people’ existing alongside ‘hyperobjects’, all-subsuming phenomena like global warming or the weather that are, in part, reflections of the violence done to the biosphere by humanity.  Our species, fully constituted as a geophysical force, now contends with the terrifying consequences of engaging with other biospheric forces.

Within such heady realms we must negotiate the minutiae of our political positions. In the present duopoly, only tepid distinctions are offered within the powerful brew of neoliberalism which drives American political support of globalization and excessive consumption in the West whilst ensuring, by heavy-handed military and financial means, the complicity of other, recalcitrant regions. Consumed with a Coke versus Pepsi ideological battle, framed within an uncontested arena of historicized nationalism, most Americans, and the political parties to which they owe allegiance, are magnificently unprepared to grapple with their nation’s irrelevance in defending them from the unfolding realities of our geo-historical moment; even less, to comprehend the apparent acts of war being waged by non-human forces – forces with which we must now find an accommodation.

This message may resonate differently depending on where you live.  For instance, with as many as one in three Americans living in the Wildland-Urban-Interface, defined by geographers as places where indigenous landscapes impinge significantly onto the ever-widening perimeters of suburbia and exurbia, wild fire looms as an existential threat.  These are landscapes increasingly stressed by historically unusual drought regimes with expanding anthropogenic ignition sources. On these exurban frontiers, endemic wild fires may begin to erode the perimeters of our species’ range – despite the current post fire-event philosophy of re-build and return. At some point, the frequency of attack will change behaviors, just as repeated Jihadi bombing of market places eventually inhibits their function as viable locations for buying and selling.

Rising sea-levels and coastal inundation, storm surges and heightened wind and rain events may similarly impinge on the habitability of coastal regions. The inexorable loss of land at the coastal perimeter of Louisiana is likely more indicative of the future than the delaying strategies of sea-walls, dikes and floating storm surge barriers.  Like Baghdad’s Green Zone, where blast barriers and barbed wire were no security against rocket attacks or, finally in 2016, the uprising of the street, flood defense strategies will not, in the end, alter the geographical imperatives of global warming.  Thus, few in the USA, or elsewhere on the planet, can truly be safe from the impacts of Weather Terrorism.

The urban destruction that has become a signature of the kind of asymmetrical wars being waged by Imperialist powers across the planet – fought to the local architectural and societal death – routinely results in the tragic loss of historically, economically and socially significant human habitat. Weather Terrorism threatens to wreak damage on an incomparably larger scale.

You cannot outrun a wind-driven wildfire. We cannot double down on Modernity and stake our future on geo-engineering, or as Latour warns, “to increase still further the dosage of megalomania needed for survival in this world”. Fighting wild fires, hot-shots know that to find safety they have to outflank the fire and run ‘into the black’ – where the fire has consumed the earth and left it carbonized – where there is no longer fuel to support the other two legs of the incendiary triad, heat and air. Morton counsels a retreat to a time before ‘agrilogistics’, the term he uses to describe the algorithms humans run to facilitate farming, that hierarchical and ecologically damaging means of food production which he damns as “the slowest and perhaps most effective weapon of mass destruction yet devised”. This retreat, he imagines, will bring us to a more fully animated world, endemic before the rise of agriculture, where we might achieve safety in a solidarity with the non-human beings with whom we share the biosphere.

We live in an environment of extinction. We have subjected the planet to a pernicious miasma of global warming which we continue to exacerbate by our selfish actions, initiating rates of change in biospheric systems that offer non-human life-forms few options of adaptation other than death. Now, in refusing the accommodation of the non-human and the possibilities for coexistence, we must suffer the consequences – phenomena that it is quite reasonable (and politically useful) to call Weather Terrorism.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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