For the past week, I’ve been surrounded by smoke. My old, leaky, house is encased in it. An air purifier has been the only reprieve, aside from two journeys out of the ash cloud — to Solvang and Camarillo.
By and large, I’ve been fine. My job has kept me busy posting updates to the college website (which had to put up a mandatory evacuation order Sunday afternoon), and the neighbors are old friends who are similarly grounded and eager to socialize. The dog and cats are anxious to go outside and tired of the constant human activity inside. The Christmas tree is still green.
My sole inconvenience is being confined to the indoors while the threat of hellfire glows miles away behind the foothills. And even in the case of a catastrophic fire, I have renter’s insurance — something I learned to value in college when part of my house burned down and I lost out on a couple thousand bucks in the process. Sitting in my house with my air purifier and green Christmas tree, I can’t help but suspect that I’m somehow in debt, both to the forces of nature and those who fight against it.
While I suck up power with internet and TV usage running alongside an air purifier that hasn’t seen a break in over a week, I read about incarcerated labor making less than $1 an hour to keep me and my possessions safe from destruction. I think about the weary old homeless man I saw outside McDonalds on Monday night — the night the Thomas Fire ravaged Ventura in a matter of hours — who asked for hash browns, a request I felt heartened to oblige. I wonder about my dad, also homeless for much of my life and also named Thomas, and where he might have gone if he had survived the Camel cigarette–induced lung cancer that took his life.
This is the Anthropocene, where human interaction defines our existence in its constant negotiation with a nature that we are now powerful enough to shape. Since September, we have seen five of the 20 largest California fires of all time. The death toll from the October fires in Northern California tragically stands at 43. The sky hasn’t offered more than a drizzle in my hometown of Santa Barbara in three months — when on September 3 an unusual microburst brought 80mph winds and hit unexpected tourists and locals enjoying an otherwise hot and humid Sunday on Stearn’s Warf. Fifty-six of them had to be rescued after being blown into the water in an unprecedented event.
I’m called back to all the climate-change arguments I’ve had in the past. The underlying theory always seemed so clear to me, and I have never been shy to defend it. We’re digging up old bones and burning them, creating excess heat that warms the atmosphere and weakens the protective layer between us and the sun. Ice is melting, well, like ice, a little at first and then faster and faster. A runaway greenhouse effect, the “Venus Syndrome” named by climate theorist James Hansen, doesn’t require any assumptions aside from my simpleton understanding of the laws of nature.
As fire rains down over my home, I am frightened more and more by inaction than what we can do to fix it. Instead of offering air purifiers for everyone, we should fight to shape the earth given the facts available to us. Humans share dominion over nature. That is an immense responsibility that we seem utterly incapable of facing.
As wildfires rage due to dry conditions, we use more water to put out the fire, depleting our already impacted water source. La Conchita, a small community sandwiched between ocean and foothills north of Ventura, saw the fire come right into its backyard. Now the residents will worry about the increased potential for mudslides, a recurring issue regardless of poor conditions. It seems that if we continue to live as we have, with no consideration for the chain of natural consequences to our actions, the earth will eventually force us to live according to its rules.
As I sit alone in my shelter from the smoke, a truth settles that all humans — collectively — share some responsibility for the well-being of the planet. It feels isolating to retreat to a bunker, but it also highlights a dependence on one another for comfort and safety. The struggles of climate change lend themselves to the creation of a collective subject (all of us), which must overcome human nature’s sins to make peace with Mother Nature’s power.
It is up to us to shape the world we want to be surrounded by. Will it be one spent indoors with an air purifier in every room, or will we summon the creativity necessary to restore natural beauty alongside human comforts? Either way, it will be called the Anthropocene. Whether or not this damned smoke ever clears, let’s all work to create an Anthropocene that exists in accordance with our noblest human traits — compassion, kindness, forgiveness — and against the arrogance and selfishness that allowed this fire to get so out of control.
Zac Smith, a writer who lives in Carpinteria, first posted this piece at Medium.com on December 14, 2017.