Christina Nichol participated in our first Climate Action Fellowship course last year. She is the author of the novel “Waiting for the Electricity.”
By Christina Nichol, The Guardian, May 4, 2018
People used to roll their eyes at my gloomy talk of climate change. Then the big blaze came.
In 2017, the weather in California was the hottest in history. It was hotter than in 2016, which was also the hottest in history. The vineyard owners spoke nervously of how difficult it was to find people willing to pick grapes in this heat. The apple trees dropped all their apples. Over the summer the smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning throughout the state gave me a chronic cough, which turned into walking pneumonia. People began to talk about how illnesses are getting weirder these days. I decided to attend a climate change action meeting I had seen announced in the local newspaper.
It was an experimental prototype course founded on the ideas in George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. After spending 15 years studying climate change-denying microcultures, Marshall concluded that facts don’t change people’s minds – only stories do. We’re so motivated by wanting to belong that we’d rather risk the dangers of climate change than the more immediate symbolic death of estrangement from our peers. In order to address climate change in our communities, Marshall suggests, we must appeal to the same desires that religion does: belonging, consolation and redemption.
For this reason, the purpose of the group – or “fellowship”, as the organisers called it – was to borrow the most effective tools of religion in order to create a community of people who would work together when it was time to implement policy change, or even take to the streets. Their aim was to galvanise 3.5% of the local population – the number that social scientists estimate is the tipping point for effecting social change.
You had to apply to join the prototype course, so after the informational meeting I wrote the organisers the following email: “I grew up with a dad who would regale us with climate change statistics over the dinner table. If my brother said he was going to a Giants game, my dad would say that he better enjoy it now because there weren’t going to be any Giants games in the future. Hanging on the wall was a colour-coded map he had created, showing what property values would be when ocean levels rose in the Bay Area. He terrorised all my friends by describing how the atmosphere would start to smell like rotten eggs as soon as the oceans warmed and started pluming carbon. In effect, I assumed that by 2020, life on Earth wouldn’t exist anymore. I teach environmental studies, and am looking for ways that I can bring hope to my students but also help motivate them (as well as myself).”
The organisers tried many methods for cultivating a feeling of fellowship. They’d start the session by banging a gong, or by reciting a poem by William Stafford, or one about holdfasts – the dangly part of seaweed that clings to rock – which we were encouraged to commit to memory in order to steady ourselves when things got rough. They encouraged us to discuss our vulnerabilities. But the most effective method was to scare the crap out of us with mini-lectures about the realities of climate change, which bonded us in common terror.
We were presented, at the beginning, with a self-proclaimed “humourless, brain-numbing deep dive into climate science”. They told us it wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. Climate scientists had predicted that by 2017 we would be at 380 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but we were already past 410ppm. The man who presented this information was, like my father, a local architect. Scrunching up his face he said, “I don’t want to depress you, but I want to tell it to you straight.”
The most effective glue for bonding, our organisers said, was collaboration: we needed a goal we could all work towards. Our goal was to phase out the internal combustion engine in California by 2030. They gave us questionnaires so we could spend the next week testing the public’s receptivity to this idea. Here are some of the responses we got:
“What happens if the power goes out?”
“Where do the cars on the road go? Do we get a free car? What happens to the oil companies? Would you be punished for having a gas car?”
“Do I have to get rid of my brand-new car? How did we get into this mess? What can we do to ensure our children can understand so they know what is going on by the time they get through high school?”
“Why not just get everyone to stop eating meat instead? Agriculture creates as many greenhouse gases as automobiles. Haven’t you seen Cowspiracy?”
“There are so many other issues. Why electric cars? We need to change our habits! Our schools should feature human relationships and our relationship to the Earth. The 4 Rs: Reading, ’Riting, Rithmetic, Relationships.”
“Could I go to Nevada to buy a car?”
“Isn’t solar production toxic?”
“What will I do with my beloved van that carries all my stuff day after day?”
“Would there be violent, emotional reactions to such a ‘radical’ move? How do we deal with that reaction?”
“I like it. Get there!”
“Proud of you, Bill, for being involved. It’s inspiring.”
“I’m not driving an electric car! I’m allergic to electricity and smart-meter rays!”
“2030 may be too late to avoid some of the most catastrophic climate & social issues.”
“We have such a gas + car culture. Why do we let high-schoolers drive to school? We need to change the consciousness. Only HS kids who work should have a car.”
I was surprised by the responses. To be honest, I thought people would be more excited about it.
Our climate change group provided a metastudy about the 97% scientific consensus on climate change. Because scientists never say that something is 100% true, and by nature, are often poor at communicating on an emotional level and tend to resist alarmist scenarios, the climate change deniers have been able to point to that 1-3% of doubt (97% is also the proportion of scientists who support the theory of plate tectonics).
We also learned that 61% of Americans say climate change is important to them, but rarely or never discuss it with people they know. Our homework was to become climate change evangelists for a month. To prepare, we discussed how to raise the topic with a stranger: “Sure is hot these days”, or “How often do you take the train? Trying to save on fossil fuels?” or “Do you ever remember it being 97 degrees in October?”
I decided, as an experiment in humiliation, to discuss climate change everywhere I went. The following are methods I do not recommend:
1. Bumping into someone’s shopping cart at the supermarket: “Oh, sorry, I was just so distracted thinking about climate change.”
2. After complaining to my boss about the measly salary I make as an adjunct professor: “I apologise for expressing myself in such a heated manner about how impossible it is to live on this salary. I was just really distressed thinking about climate disruption.”
3. During Hurricane Harvey, I was having dinner with my neighbour, whose car has bumper stickers that say things like “My other car is a broom” and “Never fear, the Goddess is here!” So it was unsurprising to hear her say: “This hurricane is Earth Mama expressing her anger at the patriarchy!”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m not sure if the hurricane has anything to do with the Earth getting angry. It might have more to do with greenhouses gases. I’m not saying that climate change is causing the hurricane. It acts more like a hormone, or an adverb, an intensification of the qualities already present. I’m afraid things are only going to get worse.”
4. I went to my friend’s Blade Runner party, which was filled with fortysomething guys who kept reciting all the lines and knew all the trivia answers. During the pee break, one guy started talking about how we’d all be wearing Google Glass in 10 years.
“If the Earth doesn’t burn up,” I added.
“Right!” someone interjected, and I thought we might be on our way to a useful discussion.
“This party just turned into a real downer,” someone else said, so we went back to the movie.
Oh, no, I thought. I’m turning into my dad. Over dinner, he often told stories about how the heartbeat of the ocean might stop, which would affect the wind and freeze parts of the midwest and Europe. For this reason I think of discussing climate change as a relaxing family activity. My father’s second wife, on the other hand, got so tired of hearing about global warming that she considered getting a “Stop global dooming” bumper sticker for her car. When my brother announced that his wife was pregnant, my dad told him he wouldn’t need a college fund since there wouldn’t be any college in the future. My brother, who was tenderly grilling ribs, threw down his barbecue fork and said: “For once I want to talk about life, and not always be focused on the end!”
After that, climate change became a forbidden topic on holidays. Now I was rediscovering what I had understood as a kid: people don’t respond well to threats, to cajoling, to end-of-the-world scenarios, to dystopian futures, to hopelessness.
But as I watched the news about Hurricane Harvey, I was astonished that not a single anchor mentioned climate change. Instead they blamed the flooding on Houston’s paved surfaces. According to George Marshall, those who don’t believe in climate change are less likely to believe in it after a climate disaster. Every single member of our group was confounded by this. “That makes no sense!” we said to one another.
If a person believes that weather fluctuates regardless of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or that catastrophes represent some kind of punishment from God, confirmation bias will lead him to view the latest climate disaster as proof. And after a climate disaster, people feel a heightened sense of community; they don’t want to get into a politicised discussion with the neighbour who just saved their dog. Furthermore, Marshall writes, climate disasters operate according to the same psychological logic people develop when they get struck by lightning. They tend to believe they are statistically immune to it happening again, even as the actual odds remain the same. And if your house floods due to a changing climate, it is more likely it will flood again. If your house burns down, it is more likely it will burn again.
The night the fires started in northern California, my boyfriend and I had an argument. Afterward, he took out the garbage. “Come here,” he said when he opened the door. “Check out how hot it is outside.” A little while later, the wind started to sound like airplane engines. The following morning, my mom and my aunt both told me that they’d thought we were being attacked by North Korea.
On the evening of 8 October 2017, severe gusts of dry winds blew across desiccated grasses and diseased trees caused by years of excessive heat and drought. A great flood had fattened grasses into combustible fuel. The wind knocked down power lines, which lit the trees on fire. The firestorm destroyed a thousand homes in a single neighbourhood. Neighbours pounded on neighbours’ doors, honking horns, trying to rescue one another. It took hours to leave town. Most people reported that drivers were calm, though a few resorted to the sidewalk, the median, and the opposite side of the road. One woman managed to stuff her pony in the back seat of her Honda Accord. Another woman had to choose between saving her car or her horse. She jumped on her horse in her pyjamas and rode away from the flames. The fires burned for over a week, killed 44 people, and destroyed more than 10,000 structures and square miles of land. It was the most destructive outbreak of fires in California’s history.
During the fires I took walks, and I tried to read the paper falling from the sky. I wanted to collect the scattered notes, but they disintegrated when I picked them up, leaving the smell of poison on the tips of my fingers. The paper pieces lay curled like chocolate shavings. They were all the size of my palm. I was looking for stories, but I could only find information. Bible pages (sections from Genesis); phone bills; pieces of romance novels (so many of those); perfectly preserved letters so meticulously burned around the edges that they looked the way letters do when you burn them in fourth grade to make them look romantic; gold-embossed stationery with someone’s name written over and over in tiny letters at 45-degree angles; musical scores; Swedish package-tour vacation brochures; pieces of phone books (people still have phone books); a kid’s homework (he did poorly); journal pages (so many pages of people talking to themselves); as well as tar paper and bits of insulation burned until thin as paper.
I walked and walked and tried not to breathe. Why was the sky directly above me blue, while everywhere else it was gunmetal grey, and flickering with particulate matter? Everyone spoke of particulate matter. In the hardware store all you needed to say was “Where are they?” and they’d point you to the pile of N95 respirator masks. Someone passed me on the trail. I imagined he was judging me for not wearing a mask, but I couldn’t read his expression because he was wearing one. I looked at the dun, shoulder-high grass. That explosive fuel, the colour of pale grasshoppers, was all that stood between an out-of-control fire and me.
Outside the grocery store, the usual produce had been moved inside to avoid falling ash. Walking down an aisle, I heard a woman yelling into her phone: “Keep it watered down. Dammit! Keep watering it down!”
The news never reported where the active fire was. We only knew that it was completely uncontained, and that all effort was focused on rescuing people, evacuating the hospital, and getting elderly people out of their homes. All we could do was hope the winds wouldn’t change. I walked into the grasses to get away, to get away from the panic on people’s faces.
There was no digesting this fire. There was no beginning, middle or end. I couldn’t stop thinking about Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, which was now decimated. I hadn’t walked on Sugarloaf Ridge in years, but whenever I used the words “poison oak” or “gallop” or “fog”, my mind flashed femtosecond images of the park. Now it was ash. My old high school had burned down, as well as everything along the roads to get there.
Before the fires, I had been teaching a class on ecology. We were learning about systems theory and the interdependency of ecosystems, how trees communicate and send messages and medicines to other parts of the forest, and draw up water to share with other plants.
We learned how insects can digest the compounds in eucalyptus and create poop that inhibits the growth of encroaching plants such as mustard. This is probably one reason why the eucalyptus has been so successful as an invasive species here. But in the 1850s, when the government planted eucalyptus throughout California at maniacal speed because its fast-growing wood was essential for railroad ties and fence posts, it turned out that these trees – unlike old-growth eucalyptus groves in Australia – twisted when they dried and became so hard that they were no longer suitable for building. And now the volatile oils in their leaves turned out to be extremely combustible. In seasonably dry climates, native oaks are fire-resistant, but with the introduction of eucalyptus we introduced an extreme fire hazard. I stared at the eucalyptus twisting in the heat.
The weekend before the fires, I attended a grief workshop sponsored by the climate change group. They told us that grief processed on one’s own turns to despair, but grief processed communally becomes medicine. Our workshop leader suggested that the thing that will save us may be our own broken hearts, for true action can only come through these deeper feelings.
The night after the grief workshop I got into an argument with my boyfriend.
“You should get out of the Silicon Valley rat race and dedicate yourself to transitioning to a green economy,” I heard myself saying. “You’re a scientist. You can help develop technologies. This article says we have to treat climate change like we are fighting the second world war. For example, we have to start movements where everyone paints their roofs white to try to dissipate the heat before it reaches a rise of 1C. We have to cut carbon emissions now,” I said. “Here’s an article about what we can do to stay below a one-degree rise. There are solutions. If you were to really internalise that we are the first generation to see the effects of climate change and the last generation to be able to do anything about it, would you change your life?”
Even while I spoke, I could hear myself sounding like a maniac. I kept reminding myself that people don’t respond well to threats, to cajoling, to end-of-the-world scenarios. But I couldn’t help it. I was in a bad mood because it was so hot outside.
“Yes, it’s the right thing to do,” my boyfriend finally said, calmly. “But if it were really that bad, as bad as you say, don’t you think Google would be doing something about it?”
On the fourth night of the fires, the humidity plummeted again, and anxiety peaked. A dry wind was expected to blow almost as strongly as on the night the fires started.
I packed a suitcase full of clothes and looked around my room. Should I pack the vase I bought in Turkey? How about the old Soviet tourist books about Tbilisi? How was it possible to choose between items of sentimental value? Better to leave it all.
“At least we have the public pool across the street,” my mom said. We’d heard about the couple who took refuge in their neighbour’s pool while their own house burned. They stayed in the water for six hours, covering their faces with wet shirts whenever they had to come up to breathe. “How long does it take for a house to burn?” the woman had wondered underwater.
My sister-in-law called and said: “Remember how when your brother and I first got married and your dad was always talking about global warming? Turns out he was right!” My dad called: “I’ve been needing Ambien to sleep. I’ll forgo that tonight.”
The next day, having survived the night and craving fresh air, I drove to the ocean. I was searching for clean air, but smoke covered the soot-coloured sea all the way to the horizon. I could have felt guilty for driving a car with an internal combustion engine, but guilt goes on hold during fires. I sped on my way home, because the rule of law no longer applies during fires. This is the wildness that descends. This is the triggered reptilian brain. During the fires we craved sugar and fat and ordered pizza and didn’t mention that we usually never order pizza. During the fires my neighbour, the goddess, forgot she was gluten-intolerant. During the fires all I could think of was the word “holdfast”.
We made a plan. It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. If the wind blew the fire this way, we would get in our cars and head to the ocean. If the fire kept following us, we would drive into the ocean.
A student of mine complained that he still had to work at the bank during the fires, since his branch was the only one open in the region. In one day customers deposited $600,000 in cash – a record – which they must have been keeping under their mattresses. My student said that all day his nerves were on edge because people kept walking into the bank wearing N95 masks. Later, the firemen told us that the masks don’t actually help much.
A friend who was evacuated said he grabbed his two dogs and two banjos and hustled into his car. Driving away, he realised he had forgotten to pack any clothes. During fires you hear, over and over, “I lost everything, but at least I have my life.” A couple of people, after losing everything, knocked on the door of a man whose house was for sale. They said: “We’ve lost everything. Can we buy your house and everything in it?” He left everything he owned to them, including his toaster and bath towels.
The songs on the local radio stations were especially upbeat during the fires. They interspersed Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down with quotes from locals who had lost their houses. “Fires are burning in eight California counties,” the news announcer said, with the Tom Petty beat in the background. A woman’s voice: “I came out to get my dog and looked down the ridge and saw a glow and I looked at the wind and I told my parents that they might want to pack up something just in case, and my mom said that the fire was already at the bottom of the hill … ”
No I won’t back down, no I won’t back down / You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down …
Another woman: “I just want to thank all of you first responders. I love you all from the bottom of my heart. I thank you all for being there. For being away from your families, to help everyone else out there … ”
Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out / Hey …
“We are Sonoma County strong … ”
I cried when the song came on, though I’d already heard it five times. I cried while driving, and when I saw the banners on every highway overpass: “Thanks, first responders.” “Thank you, firefighters.” Or the signs in front of the cafes: “Firefighters eat for free.” Even as the fire raged on.
All the Mexican restaurants were closed except one. I went in to get a burrito and found it full of evacuees. “Sure is busy here,” people kept saying. One man said to the cashier: “It’ll have to be bulldozed. Totally demolished. How was yours?”
It was still hot: 35C (95F) in late October. We wondered if winter would ever come again. You can’t get into a pumpkin-carving mood when it’s so hot. On Halloween a few kids came looking for candy, but it seemed like everyone else went to the movies. The parking lot at the theatre was full. I had a dream that I had to evacuate, and the only thing I grabbed was the leftover bag of Halloween candy. I handed out Kit Kats to people as we ran from the fire.
After the fires, on Facebook people posted about the most random item they grabbed when they evacuated.
– daughter’s piggy bank with $2.35 in coins in it
– Grandmother’s Christmas cactus
– a wetsuit
– an avocado
– the cat-scratcher tree
– a Hermione wand
– the cookie cutters
– tarot cards
– all the beer
– kids’ pinewood derby trophies
– the sewing machine
– dog’s ashes
– the spice rack
– Norton Anthology of English Literature
– son’s Darth Vader alarm clock
– husband’s Hawaiian shirt collection
– jury duty notice for the next day
– the cat-litter box and all the cat litter
– combat-ready lightsabers
– a toothbrush (even though the man who grabbed this one was evacuating to a dentist’s office)
– a jar of Miracle Whip (because they were evacuating to a mayo-heavy household)
The fires didn’t discriminate between the houses of the rich and the poor. Everyone’s pearls melted, no matter how large. Nor did they discriminate between the houses of the “realists” and the “idealists”. After the fires, the realists wanted to rebuild as fast as possible with the same footprint. The original developers of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, which was destroyed by the fires, offered to use updated versions of their old floor plans in rebuilding efforts. Homeowners were upset to learn that they were now required to rebuild in adherence with the California green building standards code. They argued that they shouldn’t have to.
Before the fires, the builders who showed up to city council meetings were the same people every time – they all seemed to be on a first-name basis. But after the fires, something changed. People began presenting ideas to install rain-catchment and grey-water systems, community gardens and bike paths. They wanted to revamp the land-use laws, change the zoning for tiny houses, use fire-resistant straw-bale construction, and concrete and foam. The city council was inundated with people wanting to rebuild with green roofs and walls, to rebuild in a way that would promote bees and carbon-capturing methods, even permaculture methods and composting plants. City officials looked a little frightened as they listened to a large group of people talk about a town in Kansas that rebuilt with renewable energy after getting hit by a tornado. More than 600 people showed up for a breakfast sponsored by Daily Acts, an organisation that builds community by working with neighbourhoods to turn lawns into drought-tolerant gardens. A farmer who had lost his farm and all of his bees spoke at the podium: “Why can’t Sonoma County always be able to feed its poor?” My neighbours started talking about “agrihoods”, a new trend in which affluent, slow-foodie millennials move to neighbourhoods surrounding a farm, instead of to the golf-course communities of their parents’ generation. My dad even wrote an op-ed about it.
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