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On Those California Fires

As California burns, the press is offering all number of explanations for why this is so; naming everything from drought and climate change, to lack of sufficient acres of prescribed burns and forest thinning, to the failure of PG&E to properly maintain the electrical grid. The ‘problems’, or so the press would have the public believe, are fixable things (assuming climate change is actually fixable). I’ve yet to see it written anywhere that the problem is none of the above and that there isn’t, in fact, ‘a problem’ although that’s not to say, we aren’t in deep shit!

California burns. It has historically burned. It will burn in the future. It is supposed to burn. For almost all of time there was nothing wrong with the fact that California burned and indeed there was no one to think it was wrong. Fire was natural.

Fifty million Californians with their permanent domiciles and supporting infrastructure that cannot be moved and which no one wants to see burned to a crisp isn’t natural. It is an economic outcome. It is an artifact of modernity — if not modernity itself. The problem, to my way of thinking, is that those fifty million humans find themselves at odds with a land that will burn in spite of every effort to prevent it from so doing.

It strikes me that the story of fire in California today is a parable for something more universal. These days whenever human populations come into conflict with the natural world, ‘problems’ will be identified as such. Proffered solutions, however, will rarely be actual solutions. The problem of modernity is that Man has pitted itself against nature and believes he can fix the problems of his creation by taking control of nature: John McPhee’s Control of Nature, be damned, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, be damned, every warning ever issued by those conservationists who came before today’s crop of corporate conservationist/apologists, be damned.

The World is burning and while climate change isn’t making things any better, it isn’t the all-consuming threat conservationists, Democrats and progressives make it out to be. Modernity, something against which few dare speak, has come up against nature. Seven and a half billion humans have come up against natural limits. We have consumed all of the natural resiliency we enjoyed when Earth’s population was small. We adapted to changing conditions when we possessed such resiliency, but no longer are capable of doing so. We have become prisoners of our numbers, our systems and our possessions. Those who now determine humanity’s agenda have concluded that mankind and its technology must dominate nature and must take control of the Earth’s systems and resources to supposedly “save the world” — but actually to save ourselves, our institutions and our artifacts. They, through their efforts and their ultimate failures (failures because nature cannot be beaten), risk leaving billions of humans and countless other species dangling in mid-air, Wiley E. Coyote-style.

The fires of California offer a learning opportunity, a chance to reevaluate our definitions of problems and an opportunity to rethink our choice of solutions. Is there any chance anyone will learn a damned thing? I kinda doubt it.

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Scott Silver co-founded Wild Wilderness in 1991, an organization that for twenty years endeavored to shed light upon and halt a trend he dubbed “The Corporate Takeover of Nature and the Disneyfication of the Wild.” He was spectacularly unsuccessful in that effort. Scott lives in Bend Oregon where he has witnessed a five-fold increase in population driven by Bend’s much-touted recreation economy.

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