No Fire Without Smoke

Photograph Source: woodleywonderworks – CC BY 2.0

The smoke travels down the coast in a great southerly flow. For the past week, the particulate rich air has been sucked south by a tropical depression off of Baja, Mexico, that for a few days became sufficiently deep and focused to warrant a christening by the National Hurricane Center as Tropical Cyclone Genevieve. Now, downgraded to a post-tropical depression, smoky air still streams south over the Pacific, pushed into flood plains, canyons and valleys by local onshore winds.

The landscape here, in a high, inland valley well north of Los Angeles, has turned pallid – grey washed by smoky air. The naturally occurring atmospheric sfumato is close and toxic rather than remaining as a distant and alluring scrim at the horizon. The air quality is officially branded as ‘unhealthy’, but here in the Southland its aesthetic transformations are stunning, with fiery dawns and sunsets composing dramatic, incarnadine reflections of the fire terror in Northern California.

The aesthetics of the apocalypse are a well-worn art history trope, and writing at a distance from the clustered fires up north, sparked by lightning strikes, their consideration is an extravagance only made permissible, perhaps, by the recent local experiences of the Thomas and Woolsey fires which ravaged areas north of Los Angeles in 2017 – 2018. These more recent fires, however, are the clearest indication to date of the anthropogenic, global warming provenance of California’s twenty-first century fire history.  The fires arrived with the full force of Revelations 4:8, “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder.”

Since 1980, according to a report issued by Stanford University earlier this year, climate change has resulted in the doubling of the number of extreme-risk days for California wildfires, while average temperatures have risen almost two degrees Fahrenheit, and rainfall has dropped by a full 30%. Lightning strikes have proliferated. The State is now on the front-line of America’s unfolding global warming disaster, experiencing unprecedented fire, flood related debris flows, drought, heat-related deaths, crop failures and rising sea levels. Even now, the silent intrusion of salt water into coastal ground water, estuaries and rivers, pushed by rising tides fed by the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, is beginning to wreak devastation on the rich coastal plains upon which much of California’s agriculture is dependent, threatening both livelihoods and food supplies.

The Red Queen effect that requires that the economy run at full speed in order for us all to stay in the same place, has been put into abeyance by the COVID lockdown. The possibility now exists for this country to consider a re-evaluation of its insistent need to achieve growth through ever rising production and consumption in what remains a fossil-based economy. Neither state nor federal responses are hopeful. But the stagnation of neo-liberalism, entrenched since 1980, is beginning to be challenged. Some, like Ganesh Sitaraman, Joseph Stieglitz, and Alfredo Saad-Filho, regard these as the end days of the ideology, its demise hastened by the obvious failures in dealing with the pandemic demonstrated by those nations, such as the U.K., the U.S.A. and Brazil, which have been amongst its most ardent proponents.

What is remarkable about this country is its ability to adapt, to re-think its history and redefine its heroes and villains – all amply demonstrated during the BLM protests earlier this summer. That this reconsideration of America’s past, spearheaded by a rising multi-racial generation, is occurring during a critical confluence of the protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, an awareness of the impacts of global warming and the impending federal election suggests that it may serve as a prelude to a genuine reimagining of its future. As ever, at stake is the instantiation of America’s historical promise. While it is now evident that long overdue racial justice is an inextricable part of environmental, economic and social justice, it is the climate crisis that will establish the inevitable context of its equitable resolution.

Unless there is radical, programmatic reform, the country’s ability to deal with the economic, health and welfare implications of increasing temperatures and other extreme climatological phenomena is doubtful. Serial failure on this count will likely see its social fabric further disintegrate. In these circumstances, the preservation of our democracy and its historical promise of justice for all will be moot. At the same time, we must acknowledge that while the U.S. can impact the reduction of global CO2, that responsibility is now majority owned by China and other Asian economies. This country’s greatest climate leverage is as a consumer of global production and as a cultural avatar. It can moderate its appetite for its own and Asian production, and it has the power to make genuine sustainability desirable both in its practical application and through its portrayal in its globally disseminated popular culture.

To be clear: global trade, tourism, transportation, industrial agriculture, the defense establishment and excessive consumer consumption are the sustaining elements of the fossil economy. Clean energy cannot sufficiently replace oil and gas in the few short years we have to turn things around. Thus, the elimination of fossil biomass from the energy stream requires an immediate and drastic reduction in overall energy use so that our needs can be entirely served by sustainable ‘green’ sources such as wind, hydro and photovoltaic. Basic societal behaviors which encourage energy consumption must be transformed.  The COVID shut down, when economic activity was suddenly quieted, suggests a way forward. But politicians are unlikely to embrace its possibilities in their haste to revive the status quo ante – to fully resuscitate the Red Queen economy.

The pandemic has amply demonstrated the broad ill-preparedness of the U.S. to deal with a public health crisis. We can only expect that the environmental stresses of global warming and the deleterious impacts of the expansion of global development will present even greater challenges. Its weaknesses are long-standing and systemic rather than attributable to a particular party or leader. Its government, under either the Democrats or Republicans, has focused, since the end of the Cold War, on a series of wars of empire that had to do with controlling global trade routes, preserving oil flows and maintaining military hegemony across the planet; on loosening restrictions on financial institutions and reducing taxes on the wealthy; on social policies highlighted by mandatory sentencing resulting in the increased warehousing of black and brown youth; on a rickety health insurance scheme that still leaves millions un-insured and many others impoverished by steep premiums; and on environmental policies that consistently favor extraction and exploitation in the form of oil and gas exploration, mining, ranching, logging and fishing.  It has largely ignored the building of infrastructure, the strengthening of coastal defenses again sea-level rise and consistently defunded social services. This dystopian governmental universe will not be overturned, in the next election cycle, by one of its major architects, nor of course, by our current lord of misrule.

Programmatic, structural economic realignment of the kind sketched here, will not be primarily about the continuation of our existing economy while we transition to alternative energy sources, and add jobs while we do it. It represents instead, a deadly confrontation with an anthropogenic atmospheric chemistry capable of destroying the habitability of the planet. This task has an urgency that transcends notions of normalcy and continuity – it demands a revolution. It must be undertaken in the knowledge that other major CO2 polluters may not take similar measures, but that this country’s actions still have meaning in the world. The pain will be extreme, the rewards bountiful for generations ever after.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is a Democrat pure and brave enough to advocate, when speaking at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, for the nation’s need to recognize and repair the wounds ofcolonization. She was also miraculously saved, in that briar patch of mawkish Americana, from the opprobrium of backing Biden because she was limited to a role of seconding the nomination of Bernie Sanders. She may well be our reformist hero in 2024 – her time is not now, but it is in sight. Her Green New Deal remains a faint light flickering in the stygian gloom of Congress.

The clouds of CO2, and other noxious fumes that billowed from the hyperactive industrial activity of 21st century humankind, were stilled by the COVID lockdown. As the veil of pollution slowly drifted away, the drill-rigs, ocean platforms, tankers, trucks, pipelines and sprawling refineries which fuel our factories, planes, container ships and motor vehicles, were revealed as a senescent and deeply fraudulent infrastructure. The promise made as the nineteenth century became the twentieth – that our muscle-work and the muscle-work of our equine partners would be totally assumed by the burning of oil – was quickly turned into a wracked and disease-promoting addiction to hyper-mobility and excessive consumption that has cost us far, far more than the effort the former has saved, or the trivial pleasures the latter has bequeathed.

It is this energy source, in a convoluted chemical chain of causality, that now reveals itself in fires burning more than a million acres of Northern California and in the smoke that occludes my distant view and blocks the sun’s rays in usually sunny Southern California.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at