Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Friday, June 10, 2011

The smoke of burning dreams

Sunset through the smoke, Albuquerque, June 7, 2011

The massive forest fire in eastern Arizona continues to burn. It is known as the Wallow fire, after the wilderness area where it began on May 29.  Winds in the area subsided somewhat yesterday, but sustained gusts are predicted to resume tomorrow. Hundreds of fire fighters are working frantically to construct containment lines before the winds return. The flames are expected to cross the state line into New Mexico sometime this weekend. Currently, the wildfire ranks as the second worst in Arizona history. It has now burned over 600 square miles -- about half the land area of Rhode Island, according to a news report.

The same report notes the ferocity of the force burning its way east:
Alex Hoon, a National Weather Service meteorologist, told ABC News that this fire is actually creating its own weather, forming a pyrocumulus cloud, or fire cloud, that is dynamically similar to a firestorm.

"The fire is so intense has so much heat that it actually forms its own thunderstorm at the top of the smoke plume," Hoon said. 

These storms spur the fire on by creating winds that start new fires by hurling burning debris as far as five miles through the air. 

The firestorm is far distant from my house in Albuquerque, but it comes to the city each night. At sunset, the winds above the American Southwest shift with the changing currents of atmospheric heat. The result is a gigantic wall of smoke that rolls over Albuquerque every day at the setting of the sun. The dirty haze of smog burns the eyes and completely enshrouds the city, coating it in fine dusty layers of ash. Last night we had some relief, with the settling of the wind. It will be back tomorrow. No one knows when the fire will stop.    

A friend of a friend snapped this picture from the top of the Sandia Mountains, five thousand feet above the city of Albuquerque, as the silent billows of smoke came in from the west:

The smoke arrives at sunset: Albuquerque, June 3, 2011
Seen from Sandia peak, elevation 10,000 feet above sea level

Yesterday, a co-worker of mine slumped in despair at the thought of spending another evening huddled inside her house, smothered in heat with the air conditioning off, trying to avoid the burning abrasion of smoke in her lungs. In Albuquerque, most of us use "evaporative coolers" for air conditioning; these devices suck air from the outside, pass it over flowing water to cool it off, and blow it into the house. Using these coolers sucks the smoke directly into your house. So you have to turn them off. Without air conditioning, Albuquerque houses can become almost unlivable at the height of summer. Even now, in late spring, the daytime sun forces heat into the 90s. Working and middle class homes in Albuquerque were never built to withstand that searing desert heat, the way the desert Indians of this region did when they built their stone pueblos to retain cool night air during the day. Today's fake stucco and cheap prefab domiciles broil in the sun and retain the heat long into the night. Without air conditioning, you have to leave every door and window wide open to get even a semblance of relief.

This is what my co-worker is having to deal with, as the summer heat in our city begins to mount and the clouds of particulate ash descend almost every night. Besides the physical discomfort, my co-worker told me yesterday, the smoke simply makes her afraid. It's alien, unearthly. Not right. Her adopted children and the kids in her neighborhood ask her: aunty, when is this stuff going to stop? She doesn't know what to tell them. One kid keeps hacking and sputtering, every night, trying to cough the soot out of her chest.

My co-worker related this with something like panic growing on her face. She asked me: what in God's name is happening to us? She's a Christian, who has always believed that one day the end times will come. Now her home is smothered in smoke every night, and the television brings new images each day of a country being laid waste. Fires in the west, the bloated Mississippi miles wide, drowning the homes along its banks, tornadoes roaring out of the sky in city after city. It looks like the end times to me, my co-worker said.

It is, I replied. This is climate change. This is what all the scientists have been talking about for so many years. It's here. Fires like this are just the beginning. This is what it's going to be like for the rest of our lives. We can't change it. All we can do is try to help each other. My co-worker looked doubtful. No one cares, she said. People aren't like that any more. Nobody looks out for neighbors or feels any connection to anything, the way they used to. Then maybe we have to re-learn it, said I. We don't really have a choice.

I've spoken many times with this co-worker about climate change and what it will mean, for ourselves, our country, and our people. She would always nod without really listening. Politely, but without comprehension. Yesterday, for the first time, I think she listened, as we both anticipated the onset of smoke with the fall of night.

Climate change, and other sweeping global issues, are not real until they become real in the here and now. In the ashes settling onto your flesh. This is a basic, inescapable truth, unfortunate though it may be. Now the ashes have come. More people will be willing to listen. It takes a jolt. Not from dry numbers and policy statements or political ads. What makes people listen is the sudden hammer blow to the psyche of a soul comprehending its own extinction. People listen to the dark angel of the end made real, animal instincts gushing adrenalin into the blood, a flood of neurotransmitters lighting up the brain in the ancient tidal onset of fear.

We have more to fear than fear itself. But we have no choice except to face it, and live with it, try to leave something to build on for those who come after. Try to give them the start of a new way of life on an alien world, where the forests have become memory.

It has to start now, because we're out of time. The new world is here, heralded by flame. Words of a prophet: let us not talk falsely now, for the hour is getting late.  

The Wallow Fire, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona, June 5, 2011
Photo by U.S. Forest Service,


  1. I never cease to be amazed by images like that, the reminder of the awesome forces nature can deploy. The gloves are coming off. We've lived for ten thousand years in a period of amazing calm; paleoclimatology has shown that massive climate instability if more the rule than the exception for our planet. We're hastening the end of our comfy period, but it was likely coming in any case. I think it really is analogous to the womb; our civilization has been comfortable and relatively safe, provided with stable climate and ample resource, but we are about to be born, squalling, into a world not so amenable to our needs, a world that is not shy about imposing the hard limits. No, you CAN'T have unlimited energy. Suck it up. Whether we respond by becoming stronger and more mature as a people, or going completely to pieces, remains to be seen.

  2. In the future as depicted on "Star Trek," human beings had to go completely to pieces before they got their act together and become a more mature species. I like to think that even if things fall apart in our lifetime and a long time after, the result will eventually be a more humane and livable set of human societies.

    I don't think that's predestined, or that we can identify some kind of basic motive force to history to be harnessed by the vanguard of the chosen, the way the Marxist-Leninists believed and the way today's messianic prophets of global capitalism also believe. Still, I like to think there's a chance, for somebody, someday. It's more a comforting personal vision than a well-thought out ideology.

    I like your womb analogy! Ever since reading John Michael Greer's "The Ecotechnic Society," I've mused upon eventually writing some sort of work of fiction or speculative future history, set in the 35th century or so, about the people who live in the future of the hard limits, outside the safe, climate-stable, resource-plentiful womb. I suppose I could write notes for that future history here... if not for the fact that I'll soon be consumed with case law and such.

    For now I'll settle for annoying people around me by forcing them to think about your admonition: no, you can't have unlimited energy, suck it up. I did that to a history professor friend of mine who visited New Mexico last week (sorry, Alessandro!). He does the history of recent international relations, and he was talking about the future of relations among nation-states without the slightest thought of a possible end to the age of plentiful energy and stable climate. He hadn't heard of any of the numerous, alarming reports on those topics by Western military establishments. Nope, it was all just business as usual for my history buddy, worrying about China's rise to superpower status, whether or not the U.S. would go isolationist and cause all sorts of bad things to happen. When I talked about peak oil or the fact that climate change is already disrupting food and water supplies, his facial expression was the same as if I were talking about the Oscars or something.

    Oh, well. I'll keep being annoying and hope somebody listens before I'm dead.