By Valerie Andrews
Fall is the season of hurricanes, floods and wildfires, and once again, and instead of wishing, wanting and hoping for a unified plan to avert climate change, we are facing some hard truths. In The New Yorker (“What If We Stopped Pretending?”) Jonathan Franzen says it’s time for a reality check: Scientists only predict what they are absolutely sure will happen, so we have no idea how bad things really are.
As if on cue, climate researchers have just revised their predictions. According to The Washington Post (“Dangerous New Hot Zones Are Spreading Around the World”) the number of hots spots around the globe is rapidly increasing. Many locations have already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius or more, “the number that scientists and policymakers have identified as a red line if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences.”
The same week, The New York Times reported that in just the first half of 2019, a record 7 million people were displaced by climate change – and that number is bound to increase as the planet heats up more. Finally, in USA Today, Harvard experts warned that climate change is about to worsen the affordable housing crisis.
No matter how you slice it, it’s time to charge past our resistance and begin to change the way we live.
The Fire Next Time
Last year, when the wildfires hit Northern California, it was a matter of caulking up the doors, wearing an N-95 mask, and having a go-bag or emergency pack on hand. In the aftermath, we’ve begun to dig deeper and think about the consequences of living so close to nature.
In my hometown of Mill Valley, CA, near the majestic Mount Tamalpais, many residences fall into what is called the WUI, or Wildland Urban Interface. The city recently passed an ordinance requiring home owners to remove ten species of high flammable vegetation from their property, hoping to create a ring of safety around the most vulnerable residences.
“This is one of Marin County’s strictest wild land management ordinances,” says Dick Spotswood, a former mayor of Mill Valley yet the California state legislature is considering a bill which will go even further than Mill Valley’s new law, reducing fuel sources 5 and 30 feet around the structure, and requiring a noncombustible zone within 5 feet of the structure.
The aim is create a hardscape around the house, eliminating any plants that could be ignited by a windblown ember.
The state law applies only to residences in very high fire zones. Yet seventy-five percent of Mill Valley fits within that definition, as do sections of the surroundings towns. And insurance companies are pushing hard for homeowners to comply.
Our Obsession with Beauty
Some folks are doing the necessary clearing, keeping the wood chippers provided by the city filled. Yet others are resisting. Why? They’ve just spent a small fortune on landscaping and don’t like the “hardscape look” in which the house stands alone, and seemingly “out of context.”
Here’s the thing: Our attachment to some fixed ideal of beauty may be our greatest impediment to protecting our homes from natural disaster.
“(This ordinance) is going to be very expensive and most people don’t understand how excessive it’s going to be and how much they’ll have to cut out of their yards,” resident Stoney Fritz told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Mill Valley will never be the same.”
This resistance is firmly grounded in nostalgia, our longing for things to stay the same. Yet nature doesn’t exist in a steady state. And a brief review of history shows that why this kind of nostalgia is misplaced.
A hundred years ago, these hillsides burned, periodically, and nature did its own pruning and clear-cutting. If we don’t make room for this organic process, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
“People move to Mill Valley because they love to live in the forest and the fuel has never been this dense,” says Mill Valley fire battalion chief Michael St. John, who knows that we’re overdue for a big burn. The bottom line we may not have a recognizable town when the next wildfire blows through.
The mill in Mill Valley used to thin the surrounding woods, and until the 1920s, wildfires swept through town, every ten or fifteen years, destroying all the brush, from the hills near Mount Tam right down to the main square. The tall redwoods rarely burned, but these fires did away with a decade’s worth of undergrowth.
“In 1929. the fire came down the mountain and stopped at City Hall when the winds shifted. As it progressed, it destroyed approximately 100 homes and structures,” says Tricia Ossa, Chair of the Emergency Preparedness Commission for the city. “If we had same fire footprint today it would destroy approximately 1000 homes and other structures.”
Current fire-prevention wisdom calls for controlled burns to reduce the ground cover. But that just isn’t an option when most of that flammable vegetation (from juniper to bamboo to acacia and scotch broom) is on private land. So each resident has to step up and be part of the solution.
Our Privacy Fetish
Our fixation on privacy is another thing we’ll have to revisit. And I’m not just talking about our fear that the neighbors will be able to see into our windows once the shrubs are down.
A friend in Marin County tried to organize her block, scheduling a talk abut emergency preparedness. Some residents simply weren’t interested in attending while others were skittish about sharing their emails or phone numbers. This isolation is a fallout of the digital age. Community is now intangible – it can be anywhere in cyberspace. Our relationships are increasingly disembodied and we have no sense of allegiance to a certain place.
Yet extreme weather is challenging our notion that an internet connection is enough and asking us to consider who we can actually depend up on in a crisis. Think of it this way: Home is the container of everything you love and cherish. The last bastion of safety, a buffer between you and the chaos of the outside world. But to protect it, you need the help of friends and neighbors. The bottom line is this: Sanctuary is something we create with the help of others.
Changing the Human Brain
Two years ago, friends in the Sonoma wine country were evacuated as the flames crossed mountains, lakes and highways. Over the next few months, they worked together with astonishing grace to rebuild their homes and businesses. Makeshift signs went up all over the county: “The one thing thicker than the smoke in the air is all the love on the ground,” while bumper stickers proclaimed, “Sonoma Proud.”
I also noticed a change in my hometown right after last year’s deadly wildfires in Paradise, CA, as the air quality changed here and kept us all indoors. People usually glued to their laptops at the local coffee shops began to talk about trimming trees and clearing brush. They collected blankets and clothes for the folks who’d lost their homes, and set up dormitories for fire-fighters arriving from as far away Washington, Oregon, and Arizona. As our region came under threat, we all pulled together—the newcomers and techies, the investment managers and the hippy artists and musicians. Instead of staying in our lanes, we reached out to one another, and suddenly everyone felt like they belonged.
Yet we quickly forget these brushes with catastrophe. It’s human nature to repress hard times, so we put these near-misses behind us and crawl back into our cocoons. We can no longer afford this selective memory — that means to effectively combat climate change, the brain has to evolve.
Home is now the buzzword of the decade–to safeguard it and preserve it, there are some important changes we will all have to make.
As social critic Eric Francis notes, “We’re entering a phase of history where genuine, bona fide community will be essential and that will begin with small cells of people who actually know one another,” and can provide essential life support when natural disaster strikes.
“Defining your home as your boundary,” he adds, “will also make you more selective about who you spend time with, and more likely to use that time meaningfully. If you make home an important emphasis, you will be in tune with the times.”
What You Can Do
-- Jonathan Franzen
--- Howard Zinn