I breathe dead people. The words ran unfettered across the chalkboard of my mind as I drove the curves of Oregon Route 66 back down into Ashland. It had taken nearly a week for the haze to blow north into our valley from the horrific and devastating Camp Fire that was burning three hours south.
We experienced days and weeks of smoke in our valley this past summer so thick you couldn't see the street signs. The haze I saw below wasn't nearly as bad, but I was surprised how I hadn't really noticed it until I got up out of it for the day. Sort of how it's not as easy to see the forest when stuck in the trees.
I chastised myself for the morbid words that flickered unbidden through my brain as I drove. But then I considered the possible truth of them. What are we actually breathing when so much goes up in flames?
There's a crematory on one of the main drags in my town, and sometimes you'll be driving down this busy street and see a black plume of smoke rising up from the chimney and drifting across the road. I hold my breath. I don't want to breathe dead people. I don't want to breathe in their mercury fillings, or medical implants and devices, or the radiation or drugs or embalming fluids they may have most recently been filled with. So I hold my breath, like I and my kids do when driving through a tunnel, mentally ticking off all of our dearest wishes before gasping for breath again, laughing, on the other side. Except under this crematory plume I say a prayer for the life most recently gone and is now only black smoke, ashes, and memories. And I wonder at where they land across the street and beyond, be it on the front step of the tattoo place across the street, or just beyond in the backyard of a friend's house where the roses grow.
I'm not able to hold my breath for weeks on end when smoke from miles away covers our valley like a blanket. I can't come close to understanding what it feels like to lose everything one owns in a fire. I can't imagine the horror of learning your loved one burned to death in their home because they were unable to evacuate, or in their car while attempting to flee. I can offer up a prayer for all of these victims and survivors. I can look for ways to help either physically or financially. And then I can look at myself and ask what role I play in any of the pain these people have experienced, or that people will, undoubtedly, experience again in the future.
In 2017, here in Ashland (maybe a poor choice of names for a town?), we experienced almost a solid month of smoke. This year almost six weeks, give or take a couple hours or days here and there where it lifted for a bit, or when it returned as a hovering haze a week after the Camp Fire started. According to the air quality app installed on my phone, and the EPA air quality data spreadsheets I've accessed, many of these smoke days were in the very unhealthy zone; others were in the hazardous zone and rated as the worst air in the world.
The smoke, and often ash and embers, that have blanketed my town and valley the past few years is typically from forest fires, mostly blown in from many miles away. I have usually, naively I admit, thought of these forest fires in terms of only burning trees. Like a campfire, only much much larger, and potentially devastating.
But surely these wildfires—which scientists explain are more exacerbated by the “wildfire threat multiplier” known as climate change than a lack of “forest raking”—disperse and choke us with so much more than just the burning of trees.
Most residents here, when the smoke comes, just close their windows and run their air conditioners 24/7. Understandable, but also incredibly troubling. In the United States alone, our use of vehicle and home air conditioning units already pump, by some estimates, half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. I doubt this worrisome figure includes how our CO2 belching is compounding the effects of an already dire predicament when we respond to regular heat waves, and/or weeks of smoke, via closing our windows and turning on vehicle and home AC units for 24 hours a day.
When our family could get away, we would check the air quality app on our phones and head to the nearest campground with the best air, which was sometimes over three hours away. So we were driving, which is the very thing we most need to curtail. And while the word “campfire” has always been a happy word for me, when attempting to escape our own smoke-filled valley for better air, it seemed a tad absurd to then set about building a campfire.
Almost everyone I talked to during the weeks of smoke here in my own valley was doing exactly the same thing any chance they could—driving to get away from the smoke, and often going camping so they could enjoy the outdoors. Yet none of us were talking about how these actions would only make the problem we were trying to escape the symptom of . . . exponentially worse in the future. It's like not noticing the Titanic is sinking because you are too focused on trying to quell or distract yourself from the nausea by rearranging the deck chairs on the other end of the sinking ship.
Peabody Killed Paradise
The Camp Fire—so-named because it started near Camp Creek Road near Pulga, a former ghost town turned artist enclave—has forever changed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
I wonder if the word “campfire” will ever again be a happy word for all those affected by the horrific fire that broke out the morning of November 8th and ravaged most of the town of Paradise and several other surrounding smaller communities in the Northern California foothills of the Plumas National Forest in the beautiful Sierra Nevada range.
A forest fire is not just a “pile of wood.” And it's also not just “a town” when a community burns. It's so much more than that, and I would have thought someone out there in googleland would have by now made a list I could consult. Not that I could find though, so I spent a bit of my common sense (though that grows rather than depletes with use, thankfully) and a number of hours trying to figure it all out. What follows is by no means an exhaustive or perfectly accurate list, but it feels important to list it, rather than just chalking things up to being the new normal and moving on.
A strictly forest or grassland wildfire is likely to be any combination of trees, brush, various other flora, and all animals caught in the fire's path. If anywhere near civilization it would also most likely include at least a small combination of metals, plastics, roads and whatever they are composed of, and whatever other inanimate objects happen to be in the fire's path such as road signs, water towers, cell towers, old mines, illegal dumps, etc.
But in a wildfire that partially burns or annihilates an entire neighborhood or community? Such as the fires last year in Santa Rosa, or most recently this year in Redding and Paradise? Then we are looking at a much much larger list of things the fire ingests, in addition to the above, and then spits back out near the vicinity of the fire and/or disperses via the winds and jet stream hundreds and thousands of miles away.
In Paradise alone, as of the date of this writing, the numbers stand at 85 deceased and six still unaccounted for. Aside from this tragic loss of human lives, and animals both domesticated and otherwise, and the loss of 153,336 acres of forest and land which is equal to the size Chicago, the fire also destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and almost 5,000 other structures and businesses.
These some 19,000 homes, structures, and businesses, both old and new, and all they were made of went up in flames. Many of the following items used in construction are known to be toxic—either by the means produced, or in their final form—and to contribute to global warming. This becomes an exponentially worse situation when these items are burned.
- Veneers including plywood, particleboard, medium-density fiberboard (most of which are bonded with formaldehyde)
- Treated lumber (a process which used arsenic before being “restricted” in 2003, or now uses copper)
- Metals (carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper)
- Heavy metals, including lead, mercury, and cadmium
- Plastics, including PVC, found in pipes, flooring, wiring, siding, insulation, and more
- Insulation materials, including fiberglass and plastics
- Roofing materials
- Flooring materials
- Lighting materials, including halogen and mercury
- Wiring materials
- Plumbing materials
- HVAC systems
- Glues, binders, paints, solvents, sealants, and Halogenated Flame Retardants
And then there's all the components in the homes and businesses:
- Appliances and all their materials, including refrigerators and their various refrigerants, many of which are now banned for contributing to ozone depletion
- Furniture, often a toxic soup, and most made with some amount of formaldehyde
- Mattresses, potentially full of toxins, including formaldehyde, polyurethane, and fire retardants
- All the techno gadgetry: Televisions, stereo systems, computers, printers, faxes, hard drives, modems and routers, security systems, digital cameras, gaming systems, and cell phones, etc.—all full of a combination of plastics, flame retardants, precious metals, mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, and more.
- The myriad personal belongings and memorabilia of each of the some 19,000 homes and businesses destroyed.
- The myriad of other chemicals stored in most ordinary homes and businesses, including: cleaning chemicals, weed and pest killers, paints and solvents, batteries, drain cleaners . . . .
- All the items outside each home and business including automobiles, bikes, trailers, RVs, boats, etc., and all they are composed of
- And all the items in the nearly 5,000 commercial and other buildings destroyed. It's currently difficult to find data regarding these businesses and other buildings, but one can probably assume that included in the mix were schools, restaurants, hardware stores, tire shops, auto repair shops, garden centers, health clinics, drug stores, grocery stores, paint stores, flooring stores, and everything that was inside each of them.
When I first set out here, a few weeks ago now, to try and understand some of the hazards of these massive urban fires, in addition to loss of life and home, it was surprisingly difficult to find any reporting from major news outlets on the issue. A couple weeks into it though, the The New York Times published an informative look at the issue, stating, “Experts say the risk posed by contamination stands to grow in scope as wildfires happen more frequently in California. As the fires burn up homes, they also release the components of modern daily life into the ground, water and atmosphere.”
And then there's the recent Woolsey Fire above Malibu. In addition to the three lives lost, and over 1600 structures, and 96,949 charred acres, it also needs to be noted that the fire started at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, formerly known as the Boeing-Rocketdyne Nuclear Facility, site of the nation's worst nuclear disaster in July 1959 which most are probably unaware of, partly due to the fact that it went undisclosed to the public for nearly two decades. Nothing to worry about here though folks. Move along. Officials have assured local residents, as they have for years, “there is no danger.”
The death toll and the thousands of lives forever changed, the chemical soup stirred up and dispersed—from the past two years of hurricanes and wildfires, just here in the United States alone—have been far from normal. We cannot allow ourselves to consider it as such and then move on doing business and living our lives as usual. People are dying horrendous deaths, whole neighborhoods and communities are being wiped from the map. And it is not fucking normal.
The opening paragraph to the introduction of the recently released Congress-mandated and comprehensive Fourth National Climate Assessment that was put forth by 13 federal agencies in collaboration with a team of 300 federal and non-federal experts, states unequivocally:
Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.
The report informs us that we are only in for much worse times ahead unless we immediately start making some drastic changes to the way we live and do business.
But, again, what are these things we must do? We are told that the governments must do this and that or such and such. And so we regular people wait. But if we reason upon the things we have so far learned as humans, the solutions will not likely come from the top down.
The esteemed environmentalist and author Bill McKibben laid out many painful facts in a recent article in The New Yorker, “How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet.” In what should be required reading for all, McKibben explains, among other things, that in the late 70's and early 80's, approximately 40 years ago, Exxon went to great and expensive pains to prove, only to themselves mind you, that climate change based on human behavior was the real deal. McKibben notes:
In a private corporate primer, they [Exxon] wrote that heading off global warming and “potentially catastrophic events” would “require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”
Clearly and fully aware of their own scientific data regarding human-caused climate change, and their impact within this nexus, Exxon and other oil companies proceeded to go about doing everything they could to keep this information from the public. Perhaps billions upon billions of potential lost revenue per year might be the reason? Ya think? In his reporting, McKibben references an internal memo put forth by a Republican consultant to President George H.W. Bush that obviously became the guiding ethos to Republican administrations ever since: “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”
This framing of current Republican administration ethos bears repeating for emphasis in its own paragraph:
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Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.
In 1971, the same decade Exxon was seeking to learn how fossil fuels may be adversely affecting the climate so they could then mislead and misinform the public and continue to rake in massive profits, John Prine wrote a song about his father's hometown of Paradise, Kentucky.
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Peabody Energy Corp., headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, is the largest private-sector coal company in the world. Making it also one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. Peabody has a history of lobbying against environmental reforms, and funding climate change deniers. And just last year a judge ruled that Peabody's 2016 bankruptcy protected it from being liable for its contributions to global warming.
One might say that Peabody killed Paradise. Again.
If We Quit Buying It
Our so-called leaders are in bed with the fossil fuel industry, both of which are currently the leading deniers of the science-proven fact that we humans, and our choices they try to sell us, are the leading contributors to climate change. All the while they get to grin all the way to the fucking bank while we literally burn up in our cities. The happy news? If we quit buying it, they'll quit selling it.
The United States is currently winning bigly at consuming 25% of the world's fossil fuels, and contributing half of the world's solid waste, though it comprises less than 5% of the population. A horrendous and shameful statistic that I cogitate on as I consider any potential “discomfort” I may feel when cutting back on, or eliminating entirely, certain behaviors that may be contributing to the problem of climate change, and to the disasters born of climate change that are destroying people's lives, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.
I consider my neighbors just three hours south of me who have lost all but their lives and are still living in tent cities. I consider that every day, over one quarter of the world's population has to struggle, often unsuccessfully, to find enough clean water for survival.
Discomfort? I don't know discomfort. And I won't know discomfort when I make my ecological footprint smaller.
Certainly, there are big things that need to change. Things like campaign finance reform. We need to oust corporations and their lobbyists from our elections, and from Washington. But there are also seemingly little things we can do that may be even more helpful. Just as it was small individual donations that helped propel Senator Bernie Sanders into the national consciousness during his 2016 presidential campaign, it is the little individual things we can each do each day that can help us avert the end of human civilization as we know it.
While showering this morning, enjoying the warm water cascading over my shoulders, I wondered what would happen if I could commit to decreasing by half, or even by a quarter, some of the everyday things I consume? Like shampoo, for example.
Shampooing probably sounds like a silly and inconsequential act when it comes to addressing the big issue of climate change, I know. But it's also sorta like how $27 dollars sounds like a silly contribution when it comes to impacting a presidential campaign!
What if I started using half the shampoo, I continued in my wondering, that I often mindlessly squirt into my hand, and which usually results in too much lather, and requires longer rinsing? I'm almost 100% certain that if anyone noticed anything at all about the look of my hair it would only be positive.
I currently refill my reusable shampoo bottle in the bulk section at my local co-op, but I'd still be cutting back in other quantifiable ways: less ingredients extracted from the planet, less energy transporting these ingredients, less energy in the factory compiling these ingredients, less energy packaging these ingredients, less energy transporting these compiled ingredients, less ingredients washing into the treatment plant and waterways, less good water wasted with all the rinsing, less trips (often drives) to the store, less energy and greenhouse gasses all around that are going into the atmosphere and negatively affecting everyone else just so I can think I have “clean” or more “beautiful” hair that no one else even notices. Just one small adjustment. Ditto all the same with conditioner. And then I will keep going down the list of what I currently consume.
Imagine the impacts if everyone else started doing the same, I excitedly wondered while the warm water was cascading freely around me.
Yeah, I can hear the defeatism. “Most people won't do anything, so it won't matter what you do. Or what I do.” This may be one of two belief systems that most need to be addressed in our time, which is too big a topic for this particular write, but I would like to point to (anecdotally, for the moment) the ratio of people using reusable shopping bags now versus 25 years ago. Back in the 90's I used to feel people were looking at me like I was a weirdo for using reusable bags. Now I feel like they look at me like I'm a weirdo if I don't have my reusable bags. Cultural norms can change. And I posit that we currently don't give enough credit to the effect of each of our individual choices, and to the possibility that cultural norms can change dramatically and meaningfully in a relatively short period of time. Small things add up.
Which Leads Us to Hope
There are as many choices that directly impact our collective climate and reality as there are 7 plus billion people on the planet and each of their billions of choices.
One 15-year-old girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, is making a tremendous impact, going on strike from school and going on from there to speak to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP24), all to raise awareness of what she says is the “biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.”
There is the Republican Mayor in Texas, Dale Ross, who convinced his community of Georgetown (population 67,000) to be the largest city in the country last year to be powered entirely by 100% renewable energy.
There are other easy steps individuals can take, like not letting the car idle or buying reusable cloth napkins, and there are the more difficult choices, like choosing to live without a car or to use natural and non-toxic (though often times more expensive) construction materials and components in the home. The beauty of it is, all the proactive choices I make that take into account my impact on the planet matter. As Greta Thunberg so wisely implored at the conference, “you are never too small to make a difference.”
Like what about cutting in half some of our cherished activities, such as showering, to continue my own wondering from earlier? It didn't hurt me one iota to turn off the shower while lathering up. Instead, it made me feel good about all the water that wasn't going wasted down the drain. Just talking water here, and not the fossil fuels necessary to heat the water, for every minute I reduce the time the water runs in the shower, I save anywhere from 1.5 to 2 gallons (if using low-flow showerheads).
The minimum suggested requirement of clean water per person on this planet is approximately two gallons . . . per day. Make it five gallons for basic hygiene and food prep. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people still lack access to this water. Here in the United States we let this amount go down the drain every single time we shower or flush.
And what about driving, that quintessential American act of independence that has so far (China is now in the race) contributed most to greenhouse gasses and global warming? According to the 2016 American Driving Survey, there are currently 227.7 million drivers on the road and we average 31.5 miles a day. According to the EPA's report for 2016, CO2 emissions per mile were an average of 359 grams, with average fuel economy at 24.7. If we cut just one day a week of driving and went with walking, biking, or fossil-free public transportation, we would keep over 5.6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere a week. And over 130 million metric tons per year. Imagine the results if fuel efficiency standards were on track to rise to over 50 mpg by model year 2025, versus being lowered under the current administration.
These are just some of the myriad of small, not all that painful and often actually quite enjoyable, choices we can make that have a huge impact. Choices that truly help.
You only have to look at the most recent disaster, wherever or whatever it is, to see how willing people are to help each other, to help strangers. But what help is really needed? When the Carr Fire destroyed over a 1000 homes in Redding, California this past summer, the Sacramento Bee published an article titled, “Want to help fire victims? Don't send any more stuff.” They explained that the sentiment of trying to help was appreciated, but the stuff wasn't usually what was most needed, was a burden for volunteers to sort thru, and often ended up in the local landfill.
Perhaps we need a different headline. “Want to help disaster victims? Minimize your ecological footprint.”
We cannot sit idly by hoping government will save us from ourselves (or them). The proactive choices and actions of each person, family, or community make an immense difference. And if we combine, with unified resolve and creativity, the hope most all of us share that our children and grandchildren will live on a healthy planet where everyone's basic needs are met, we can begin to mitigate the horrific and disastrous effects of climate change that we have been a part of, and help save this planet we share, and preserve it for future generations.
As Dr. Carl Sagan said, “Anything else you're interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water. Don't sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”
If readers want to help the most recent victims of the Camp Fire, please visit KQED for a helpful list of places to send monetary donations, and if you are so moved to send material donations there is a link to the Hope Center in Oroville, where you can reach out and ask what items are currently needed. Debi Smith can be reached with your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, a new website in the making that will be detailing little ways individuals can make a big difference.