Playing with Fire

Flames have erupted once again, in the form of fiery vengeance against Pacific Gas & Electric – but how do we seek justice against the enemy we cannot see?

One moment it was there, the next it was gone. It is common we use this phrase to describe components of the natural world, like a species gone extinct – it’s not so common that we use it to describe ourselves.

It was a crisp Fall morning and the sleepy town was starting to wake up. Nestled high in the Sierra Nevada foothills, rested amongst soaring pines and majestic oaks, mornings in Paradise, California beckoned a soft, comforting quiet. Darkness receded over the hills, as morning bathed the town in a soothing light. Birds sang, the mountaintops glowed, and even sometimes, residents awoke to the peaceful pattering of snow falling from the crisp mountain air. But on this day, fresh air suffocated in a hazy breeze; the mountaintops glowed with apocalyptic flare; and the people awoke to the pattering of embers cascading from blackened skies. Abruptly ripped from its peaceful slumber, a great terror spread across the hills – and as the sun rose, the sleepy town was put to rest for good.

This was no dark sorcery or bizarre misfortune, but a burning inferno that ultimately evolved into the most deadly wildfire in California’s history. Ignited sometime before sunrise on Thursday, November 8th, what came to be known as the Camp Fire killed 86 people, destroyed 14,000 homes, and reduced the entire town of Paradise, California to ash and smithereens.

In a state that always seems to be on fire nowadays, flames have erupted once again – in the form of fiery vengeance against the nation’s largest energy utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). After company equipment was found responsible for igniting the California cascade of smoldering disaster throughout 2017, PG&E finds itself in the hot seat once again – facing possible murder charges, up to $30 billion in lawsuits, and a firestorm of media attention, alleging company power lines sparked yet another deadly inferno.

With allegations and bankruptcy closing in faster than the flames themselves, Senator Hannah Beth Jackson was quoted in The Santa Barbara Independent stating that she has, “little inclination to save the nation’s largest energy utility company from ‘falling into the abyss.”

California has experienced several devastating wildfires over the last few years, and as we struggle to rationalize the rapid browning of our Golden state, the time is ripe for accusation. But before we kick off the next round of the climate crisis blame game, the situation at hand begs that we ask deeper questions. Because this isn’t just a story of injustice wrought by bad company behavior – and as the media delights in the downward spiral of the aforementioned culprits, a deeper story begs to unfold.

It’s a story that beckons profound opportunities for self-reflection – about community adaptation in an age of normalized disaster, and how we respond to the unfathomable wrath of the enemy we cannot see: a changing climate.

California’s lush terrain has long endured the natural cycle of wildfire – but the recent eruption of savage monster-infernos hardly constitute something “natural.” Bigger, intensified, and increasingly closer to us, it seems that every minor spark escalates into record-breaking disaster. We’ve exchanged winter showers for clouds of ash – and from the months of summer, fall, and stretching into winter, our fiery state dominates international headlines. We’ve become a global spectacle.

With the world as we know it transforming before our widened eyes, it’s natural to desire an explanation. I don’t think any of us are ready to accept that we’ve entered an age where towns can vaporize in a single day; where every natural disaster becomes a record-breaking spectacle; where climate violence erupts into visible catastrophe at every vulnerable moment. We evolved to outrun lions and immediate danger, not the ambiguous threat of time. Assigning blame helps us rationalize the incomprehensible chaos and slow violence wrought by an enemy we cannot see. It provides an outlet for our fear and emotional trauma. But the problem with this approach is that we know it isn’t a real solution – climate justice is more than trimming trees and fixing power-lines.

Holding industry accountable for irresponsible activity is certainly one very crucial component of moving towards the safe, sustainable world we all desire. We cannot rot in silence while a careless few pillage our environmental safety, and demanding company responsibility is a vital component of public action. But pouring all of our effort into bitter accusations erases the existence of other things gone awry. As tempting as it is to project blame, PG&E merely lit the spark to a field of volatile hazards that lay in waiting.

The deeper injustice is not bad company behavior – it’s the crippling vulnerability of our communities to the ruinous progression of a changing climate. The deeper injustice is that we need greater community resilience, but remain locked in the paradigm of the present, with no visible way out. It’s that the public remains disempowered and largely unaware of what’s to come – do we have a comprehensive community action plan for adapting to climate chaos? Even as a student in this field, I remain largely unaware of the risks I face by continuing my normal life. I hope it doesn’t take losing my home or the next violent catastrophe to figure it out.

Paralleling this observation is the disturbing realization that, under the society we’ve constructed, catastrophe such as this should, theoretically, come as no surprise. Living in what sociologist Ulrich Bech once deemed the modern “Risk Society,” our pursuit of rapid modernization has led us to embrace tremendous risks in exchange for industrialized development. Toxic environments, fouled water, sparking power lines, and giant fires – these are not unforeseen misfortunes, but byproducts of a development paradigm that relies on risky, polluting endeavors for industrialized growth. As blameworthy as they may seem, PG&E and corporations are not merciless villains, but products of this society – and to blame them is to assign great guilt under our construction of what is, according to our chosen paradigm, actually quite normal. If we don’t want this sort of destruction to be ‘normal,’ we need to reframe our vision of what a functioning society looks like. The deeper injustice is not bad company behavior, but that we enable destructive industry to exist and thrive to begin with – and don’t speak up until the eruption of unimaginable consequences.

Underpinning this conversation is the insight that full-throttle catastrophe does not simply erupt out of nothing, but instead acts much like a fire – growing and feeding off of many interconnected elements. These structural, deep injustices – what Rob Nixon once deemed “the long dyings” – accumulate like parched California grasslands, silently festering beneath the weight of widespread inaction – exploding at the slightest spark, into monster fires and full-scale tragedy.

The truly terrifying thing we face is not a record-breaking wildfire, nor the destruction caused by its bigger-than-ever flames – it’s the thought-process that has emerged in our reaction to the climate crisis. It’s that our natural reaction is to seek immediate causation, ignoring these deeper, systemic dyings that predispose us to disaster. It happened last year, when it took a hurricane to illuminate the institutionalized injustice engrained in Puerto Rico. It happened in Houston, when it took massive floods to unveil enduring legacies of environmental racism and poverty. It happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, and once again, in California, with the outbreak of devastating fires showing just how unprepared we are to endure our new normal.

These disasters are not unpleasant surprises – they are desperate signals, trying to tell us something about our society and the way it currently functions. But the conversation is almost always about riveting disaster and who’s to blame – not discrimination, inequality, or institutionalized injustice. We need to ask deeper questions – such as, how do we foster greater community resilience as climate chaos beckons amplified disaster? How do we change our society’s paradigm, so that it improves the human condition and enhances the biosphere, rather than profiting off of destruction? As we seek justice amidst searing tragedy, the time is ripe to re-evaluate what “justice” really means – evolving from definitions that ascribe it as punishment against a single enemy, and into a discussion about how to make society more just in itself.

Life has a tendency to continue teaching us the same lessons until we get it right. Last year, I wrote an article about California’s last encounter with devastating fire and ended it with a question. I asked, “With the disappearance of flooding and flames, climate disruption retreats into invisibility once again – when it reappears, will we be ready?”

This time around, we were not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be in the future, and what we have now is an opportunity to achieve real justice – not through criminalization of some formidable enemy, but by adapting our societies, so that they are just in themselves.

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