I’ve been thinking about our national death wish.
I’d finally gotten around to an essay about the California wildfires in 2018 and how quickly we seemed to forget about their horrors in the year that followed. It’s also because we’re now in the wake of our first mass casualties from Covid19, two terrible months after I thought we’d learned the hard way how to slow its deadly spread. Side by side, the way that many Americans exited the recent lockdowns looks uncannily similar to how many Californians fell back into the same fatal routines after its communities burned—the same reckless defiance.
I bury stories that look promising (like how disasters bring out the best or worst in us) until I can find the attention they deserve. There is always a pile of essays and news articles, along with a laptop-created document that I’ve cut and pasted together, that are waiting to be digested. Like acorns buried in the ground, these repositories are also available when I’m hungry for inspiration or more proofs that seem timely in the echoes of recent history.
Last November, a year after fires ripped through California devastating the town of Paradise (above) and many others, Mark Arax looked back at the ruination and rebuilding that followed with the reproachful eyes of an Old Testament prophet. Arax is a journalist and author of a beautifully titled book, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, that was published early in 2019, right after the firestorms were contained. Nine months later, after seeing for himself his home state’s response to the catastrophe, he wrote this essay. It’s a cri de coeur for a community he both loves and refuses to let off the hook.
Before reviewing his bill of particulars, here are some of the facts that support it.
The 2018 wild fire season was the deadliest and most destructive ever recorded in California. That year saw a total of 8,527 fires burning 1,893,913 acres. Given the magnitude of the economic and material losses, it’s a mercy that so few died: $12 billion in property insurance claims, more than 18,000 structures destroyed, and at least 85 people killed. I wrote about the Paradise fire in November of 2018 and, on several occasions since have commented about how forward-thinking Californians can be about environmental issues. So I was eager to gain Arax’s perspective as a life-long Californian on what his community did next. Much like our reckless abandon today, his account shook me by the lapels.
Arax began his survey of the recovery with a drive from north to south through the Golden State.
On the outskirts of Kern County, I crossed the Aqueduct, the 444-mile-long concrete river that moves snowmelt from mountain to farm to city and allows us to thumb our noses at nature. There I landed in an orchard that belongs to the most defiant Californian of all, Stewart Resnick. He grows more almonds, pistachios, oranges and pomegranates than any other person in the world and uses nearly as much water each year as the whole city of Los Angeles. He calls his barony—121,000 irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley alone—the Wonderful Company.
Three summers ago [in 2016], amid one of the worst droughts in California history, I stood in the same place and watched Mr. Resnick’s giant earth movers erase thousands of acres of nuts and fruits. Even Wonderful had gone dry, I thought. But three years is a long time ago in California. After back-to-back winters of rain, Mr. Resnick has stocked the ground with new almond and pistachio trees. Herds of agriculturalists have followed the Nut King right into the horizon.
The Gold Rush might have ended 140 years ago, but its ethos of extraction still dominates California.
Extracting instead of sustaining is some of what the state’s tree huggers—and many more of its commonsensical residents—are up against, but not all. Crossing California’s “Mason Dixon line, where the sprawl of valley farmland gives way to the urban sprawl of the Southland,” Arax views with dismay another crisis in the making because the state is a tinderbox. It is subdivision upon subdivision of new houses, that are:
marching out to the chaparral, hill and forest, straight into the path of wildfire. These are the new exurbs, kindling for the next killer blaze….
Here in the Santa Clarita Valley, I arrived just in time to see the levelers grading earth to build the first phase of Newhall Ranch. When it’s finished, it will be the largest master-planned community in California history—21,500 dwellings, seven public schools and a golf course, rising right where the 2017 Rye Fire jumped Interstate 5 and scorched the same ground.
‘We went to the county planning commission and showed them photos of people running from the fire in Pico Canyon in 2016,’ says Lynne Plambeck, a resident of Santa Clarita who’s been fighting growth in the path of wildfire for 25 years. ‘But it fell on deaf ears. It always falls on deaf ears. Until the next one.’
For more than a century, the stand-off between fire and water in California was produced by miracles of engineering that moved rain “from where it fell in the north to where the people chose to settle in the south.” The Central Valley Project in the 1940’s and State Water Project in the 1960’s “allowed California to build three world class cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego—with a farm belt in the middle that has no rival.” But now the piper is being paid, over and over again, with little or nothing being learned each time around.
[S]ince World War II, the state has [also] gone from 11 million residents to 40 million. The bulwark of dams, aqueducts, canals, ditches and levees is cracking under the demand for ever more water. That system won’t see us into a future of more nuts and houses, that’s for sure. Something will have to give. Yet no place on the map—not north, middle or south—is willing to call a truce in California’s eternal water wars.
One might have thought that the drought of 2011-17 would mark a turning point. In 2013, California received less rainfall than in any other year on record. Entire stretches of the Sierra Nevada, the state’s great watershed, were barren of snow. Real river, concrete river, the aquifer beneath our feet—each had run dry. As the farm pumps reached deeper into the earth to pull out more ancient water, the ground itself was sinking, not in inches but in feet.
They are conditions no fire can resist.
Since the 2018 wildfires, the state has mostly tinkered around the edges of the next calamity, arguing about who is willing to give up their “nuts and houses” to strike a truce with nature. From the precipice, Arax found that the “ethos of extraction” still seemed undeterred by considerations of safety or sanity. Even in our most future-oriented and “progressive” state, its people can’t stop consuming or building for long enough to realize that business as usual will almost certainly be killing more of them and destroying more of their homes in the months and years ahead.
Drought and wildfire may be natural occurrences, but California seems determined to make them man-made catastrophes. Here at rock’s edge, west of the West, we live to defy our essential nature, and sometimes we die horrifically because of it.
Of course, it’s not only between fire’s insistence and water’s availability that we’ve failed to learn what the recent past has been saying to us. “Back to normal” is like an undertow that keeps pulling us in, even when its deadly consequences are still fresh in our minds. Maybe we believe that a miracle will make the outcome different the next time or that luck will forgive us our deadly habits, but magical thinking always has its consequences.
As I thought about California’s death wish, it was hard to avoid the one that America’s been fulfilling since the initial virus lockdown.
From mid-March to mid-May, many of us started wearing face masks, social distancing, and even sheltering at home to avoid infection or the risk that we’d spread the virus to others. Few of us liked it, but we changed what we were doing, adapted (at least temporarily) for the sake of our survival, and it seemed to be working.
Some of our leaders and many others of us never embraced these safeguards. As the drive to “get back to normal” intensified six weeks ago, more of us abandoned common sense along with our safety practices. The result is that after suffering 100,000 deaths during the initial two-month surge, infections and deaths are again accelerating. While a headline in yesterday’s Times read, “US Cases Soar as Leadership on Virus Fails,” it would have been more accurate to blame both poor leadership and our astonishing ability to delude ourselves that the risks producing mass casualties just 2 months ago have somehow changed.
Among 6 key nations confronting the coronavirus, this is where the United States finds itself in today.
As you can see, cases are accelerating in Brazil, the United States and India and falling in the UK, Sweden and Germany.
I saw this chart on Twitter this week with the tag, “Without words,“ like it’s an inside joke among those who track the management of nations. (And maybe it is). But it also represents our propensity as a people for hubris; another failure to find a life-saving way forward in the face of fatal threats we’d just confronted; and one more occasion for Biblical lamentation. Once again, Americans are busy turning a natural occurrence (this time, the spread of contagion) into a man-made catastrophe.
Refusing to break our repeatedly destructive patterns—it’s how Einstein defined insanity, after all—we’re taking to the streets and venting our frustrations over being cooped-up by exploding M-80’s and throwing firecrackers at one another.
A vaccine, if they find one, can’t cure us of this.
This post was adapted from my June 28, 2020 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning. You can subscribe by leaving your email address in the column to the right.