All posts by John Davis

Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect

Photo by Timothy Brown | CC BY 2.0

The latest cultural titan besmirched by allegations of sexual harassment sits squarely atop the profession to which I am loosely affiliated as a practicing architect. As a minor pundit in the swirling firmament of cyberspace, I feel constrained, at last, to enter into the fractious arena of sexual politics.

Richard Meier, #45 on Dezeen’s global hot list of architects has been accused of sexual harassment. He is known for his stark white buildings begun when, as a protégée of Phillip Johnson, he was a member of the New York Five, also known as the ‘Whites’, long, long ago in the 1970’s. He is the designer of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, The Getty Center in Los Angeles and recently, a series of glassy New York condo towers.

Five woman have accused the architect of unwanted sexual advances. Four were his employees, of whom two report his exposing himself to them. The fifth, a furniture designer, describes an attempted rape in Los Angeles, while Meier was working on The Getty Center. The New York Times further reports that following allegations of sexual harassment against Meier in 2009, Alexis Zamlich, then a 22-year-old communications assistant, received a $150,000 legal settlement that also required the firm’s staff to undergo sexual harassment training. A former communications director with Meier’s company has noted that his behavior was an open secret amongst female staffers.

Cathleen McGuigan asked, in her prescient Architectural Record, Editor’s Letter, March, 2018, Where is Architecture’s #MeToo Movement? As indicated above, it arrived, days after her editorial went on-line, at the very pinnacle of the profession – Meier belongs to that very select group of architects who have been awarded the profession’s top prize, the Pritzker. She writes, “There are rumors of bad behavior that go back decades, some involving leading figures in the profession (some new dead)…but attempts to document new cases of predatory or abusive actions in architecture, are so far, proving difficult”. One is left to wonder what she knew and when she knew it. In any case, it was left to the paper of (sexual harassment) record to break the story.

Meier, has regularly included his own photographs of female genitalia in his collaged art pieces which were publicly exhibited and for sale; the major work in Meier’s recent New York show at Sotheby’s S-2 Gallery, (precipitously closed following publication of the allegations), priced at $250,000, is ominously titled By Law All Buildings Should Be White. Perhaps the aforementioned photos were forcibly obtained using a similarly ferocious totalitarian diktat. Erin Hudson reports in Architectural Record that “Meier’s collages are infamous for including naked women and close-ups of female genitalia”. At his first art show at Design Miami in 2013, the magazine’s critic, Fred Bernstein wrote, that viewers were shocked by “raw photographs of naked women showing absolutely everything except the subtlety Meier’s architecture is known for.”

Given the litter of warning signs, lack of meaningful intervention in this case must be deeply regretted. Meier’s fall from grace will negatively impact his current and past institutional, private and corporate patrons, his employees, and his friends and family. While he owns full responsibility for his alleged actions, his closest advisors (and the Architectural press) share some culpability for the not inconsiderable financial, emotional, psychological and societal blowback of his being allowed such a lengthy career, it now seems, as a sexual predator. Meanwhile, we can safely assume that his professional achievements will be forever footnoted by his apparent personal failings.

Responding to the news, Eva Hagberg Fisher, an architectural writer and PhD candidate at U.C. Berkeley, writes, in Co.Design that “the conditions of capital and power are very linked here. This is not about men like dyyyyyyyying to sleep with hot women. This is about systems of power and systems of the production of labor that favor people already in power. So pay architects better wages so that they don’t feel like they have to put up with unlawful shit, like sexual harassment!”

She rightly notes that this kind of harassment begins with an imbalance of power. Power relationships based on professional status, talent, pay, age and experience will continue in all areas of contemporary society and are, perhaps, irredeemable – they are not, in other words, about to go away any time soon, nor, arguably, should they.  What can change is the societal power allotted to one’s gender. Empowering woman is not akin to the neutering of men. It is not a zero sum process. We should all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or ethnic identity feel empowered. It is a necessary condition for the successful navigation of our lives through time and circumstance. It should not be a special dispensation.

Visible evidence of this shared empowerment might reasonably be sought, for instance, in an equitable distribution of gender throughout all societal endeavors. But it is the empowerment of woman that will ensure that result not the other way around. Mandated or voluntary quotas will breed resentment and abuse of whatever mechanisms are put in place(all our cleaning staff are female, all our executives male, but we have gender parity – we choose the best qualified individual regardless of color, creed or sex!).  McGuigan blithely suggests that architecture firms should “bring true pay equity and equal opportunity to woman and minorities”. Women are not special cases. They are an inviolable part (at slightly more than 50%) of the human species. ‘Minorities’ assumes the validity of racial categorization. While we are at it, designation of sexual identity and or preference assumes that that too, is somehow socially meaningful data.

Can we use every new case of bad behavior as an opportunity to fight for what really matters, rather than mouthing platitudes? To fight for what is essential rather than for the trappings of appearances and quotas? To fight unconditionally for the full and complete empowerment of all women and men as members of the human dyad?

Conditions in many architecture firms are as bad as or worse than in Hollywood. They are both, ironically, ‘sexy’ professions that attract the young and the vulnerable willing to trade their empowerment for their career advancement. Jonathan Berr, writing last year in Forbes, notes that, “The history of Hollywood is chock full of examples of powerful men (Howard Hughes, Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn and Joseph Schenck to name a few) who preyed on young women eager do anything to be a star. Even Shirley Temple wasn’t safe. A movie producer reportedly exposed himself to the child star when she was 12”. Perhaps McGuigan will shortly regale us with her list of prominent architects whose behavior generated the ‘rumors of bad behavior that go back decades’. Howard Roark – one of the 20th century’s best-known fictional rapists – was, of course, an architect.

Few architecture firms approach gender parity and while student enrollment at architecture schools is close to 50/50, their teachers are predominantly male and inappropriate teacher-student relationships abound – this from both personal observation, and anecdotal information. McGuigan suggests that “more professors, more guest lecturers and more jurors on student’s crits should be women”.  Well, duh.

Richard Meier, is alleged to have been abusing his power and the woman in its thrall.  He grew to fame and fortune in a society which valued his education (Cornell University), intelligence, talent and, let’s face it, his maleness. His outing as an alleged sexual predator, like Harvey Weinstein’s, represents another crack in the well-armored facade of an intensely androcentric society. Female empowerment must be wrested from this bastion – and it may ultimately be achieved, it seems, over the ruined careers of the men committed to upholding its most demeaning privileges.

Climate of Fear

Photo by Molly Adams | CC BY 2.0

In The Atlantic, November 1, 2007, Cornell West wrote that “Niggerization is the wholesale attempt to impede democratization – to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful and helpless subjects.” He went on to suggest that post 9/11, there had been a similar process inflicted on the wider American population. “Like the myopic white greed, fear, and hatred that fueled the niggerization of black people, right-wing fear, and hatred have made us all feel intimidated, fearful and helpless in the face of the terrorist attacks.” As the fear of imminent terrorist attacks has faded, we have found new ways to live in fear.

Now, we are the people of the gulf and of the islands who fear for every ripple on the water, every puff of wind, and every drop of rain. We are the people of the drought who fear for every day without moisture.  We are the people of the temperate lands who fear the extremes of heat and cold. We are the people of the tropics who fear the cold, and of the polar landscapes who fear the melting of the ice. We are the people of the burned lands who fear for every wisp of smoke. We are the people of the debris flows who fear for every rivulet and rill. We are the people of the flood lands who fear for every rise in the water; we are the people of the tide who fear its every incoming, and we are the people of the storm who fear its every surge.

But these new fears are not necessarily debilitating – they can also breed solidarity and resistance.  What is clear is that the impacts of a warming climate respect no national boundaries.  They present societies, in their shared distress, with opportunities for common cause across borders. But deep divisions exist that run along both national and hemispheric lines. Even as the Global South industrializes, there remain issues of accountability for global warming. The Global North having, historically, produced the bulk of the offending carbon-dioxide is now consuming the lion’s share of the goods manufactured in the Global South. Greener production in the North continues to be offset by off-shored production in the South using generally more carbon-intense energy sources. Additionally, political ideologies such as neoliberalism cut across attempts to solve or ameliorate climate issues through a shared environmentalism.

Most insidiously, while countering Islamic terrorism feeds directly into the imperial proclivities of the North’s military-industrial complexes and their political aggrandizement and economic enrichment, there has developed a zero-sum consideration that couples expanded resources poured into the War on Terror with global warming denialism. Even when this linkage is not explicit, as under the Obama administration, it is rendered implicit by the allocation of federal resources.

Neoliberalism remains in the ascendance in much of the Global North and the model of economic growth upon which this ideology is based would necessarily founder if heading off calamitous global warming were taken with any seriousness. The continued obscenity of the U.S. Military budget would certainly be made vulnerable if climate change became a focus of the U.S. federal government. While Trump’s refusal to have this country participate in the COP23 agreement is an extreme symptom, his calculus is baked into the compromises and concessions intrinsic to the agreement.

Expect no neoliberal salvation of our climate-shadowed souls. We are the children of fossil capital. We are the burners of the stolen fuel. We are the ravenous consumers of the earth, now disinherited by our willful acts of predation and sacrilege. We are the people of the Anthropocene.

Can we now accept its most symptomatic epochal condition and, in environmentally conscious solidarity, accommodate global warming and, even at this late stage, head off its most extreme temperature rise? We, the People of the Anthropocene, own the fear of Weather Terrorism. This fear is not the creation of the oligarchy and the governments they control – which, in fact, are often committed to denying the threats of global warming both because they are fully complicit in its cause and because any reasonable, non-geo-engineering attempt to contain it would strip them of their power.

It is no longer, as West reflected on the manufactured War on Terror, only right-wing fear and hatred that have made us all feel intimidated, fearful and helpless, a condition that ultimately cripples democratization.  It is the weather and its extremes that have also rendered us, for the moment, supine and frightened. However, if we fully accept our vulnerability then we can, perhaps, exult – not for the fearsome oppression that the super-sized weather events inflict, but for the opportunities they represent to shape communities of resistance. That resistance may be aimed purely at the accommodation of new climate realities and the amelioration of our relationship with the enfolding natural world, but its practice will inevitably involve the tearing down of entrenched political and economic models.

Adrian Parr, for one, is exultant. In Birth of a New Earth, 2018, she promotes the concept of commonism which she identifies as a strategy for creating “situations of radical alterity from within the privatized landscape of neoliberal planetary urbanism”. The models she cites are outside of the neoliberal realm, but she argues that they could serve as emancipatory disrupters of it. She relates the experience of Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union created a shortage of oil-based fertilizers and pesticides as well as agricultural machinery (and the subsequent partial trade blockade instituted by this country), forced it to “creatively blend food-autonomy, land use and economic policies with small scale community driven agricultural activities” in a system of organic urban farming known as Organopónicos. Similarly, in Venezuela, the Agro Ciudad movement developed as a response to the oil crises of 2002 and 2003 and the global food crisis of 2009, where food is produced in schools, colleges, factories, by cooperatives, neighborhoods and families. These are programs that build community solidarity and a local control of the fundamental human right of nourishment. It is in these practical pursuits of a common endeavor that true democracy can be birthed.

In this country, The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network was created to counter the urban blight, shrinking population and food deserts of that prototypical rust-belt city and emphasized the role of community building in urban commoning and then grew to address not only food security but congruent issues such as drug-use, unemployment and homelessness.

The economic and political events that prompted these solutions in the face of existential crises are surely comparable to the kinds of impacts that we will experience as global warming continues to unfold across the U.S. The community responses to the devastation of Puerto Rico, Cuba, other Caribbean Islands, Texas, Florida and Louisiana wrought by last year’s explosive hurricane season suggest that, as Parr writes, “the singularity of local experiences, resources and capacities” can coalesce around a “universal attitude that aspires for the dignity and flourishing of all life on earth both today and into the future”.

It is communities on the margins in some of the most ecologically vulnerable places in the country that we can expect to see solutions in local sustainability (evidenced, quite simply, by survival in radically changing geo-physical circumstances) begin to challenge the hegemony of militarized emergency services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) whose implicit goal is the restoration of ‘business as usual’ despite the clear evidence of extraordinary circumstances. Communities along the New Orleans coastal waters are resisting re-location to higher ground (where they might continue to contribute to the creation of surplus value that is then suctioned-off into the gaping maw of the 1%) and are prepared instead to tough it out in what are fast becoming wet-slums, but which survive socially and economically in conditions, like favelas, of ‘radical alterity’. The hasty restoration of Breezy Point, in New York City, burnt to the ground during Hurricane Sandy, was a boon to local businesses but ill-serves the community who live in the same jerry-built houses (but of newer vintage) that performed so badly in the storm surge. Residents are fated to endure a few more cycles of destruction as the City, State, and Federal agencies, along with private insurers, continue to paper over this beach-side Potemkin village until their resources run out or the residents wrest control of their own fate. Massive residential post-Sandy re-development at Rockaway Beach (Where Life is a Never-Ending Vacation) built to 100-year flood standards is set to see that vacation end swiftly as once-in-five-thousand-years storm surges roll in.

Even in the burned lands of California’s recent Thomas Fire and last year’s Napa and Sonoma County fires, the majority of the proposed residential re-builds are in the mode of ‘the-same-old-shit’, similar to the houses that burned with such alacrity so recently – fully supported by the reactionary policies of insurance companies, banks, local municipalities and state and federal agencies determined to restore ‘business-as-usual’, as quickly as possible in denial of the altered realities of global warming.

Concerns for changing meteorological conditions have resulted in a legitimate climate of fear. It is a primal fear akin to the dread of predatory wild beasts. It is a fear that is born of our fundamental situation in a global ecology of both extreme threats and sublime comforts. The ironies of the situation, of our kind having initiated this radical change in the composition of the atmosphere and its insulating properties does not alter our primal reactions to its effects. The fear, thus far, has not been co-opted by West’s ‘myopic white greed, fear, and hatred’. It is a fear from which can spring, as Parr suggests, “extraordinary emancipatory and egalitarian promise”.

Climate of Fear

Photo by Molly Adams | CC BY 2.0

In The Atlantic, November 1, 2007, Cornell West wrote that “Niggerization is the wholesale attempt to impede democratization – to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful and helpless subjects.” He went on to suggest that post 9/11, there had been a similar process inflicted on the wider American population. “Like the myopic white greed, fear, and hatred that fueled the niggerization of black people, right-wing fear, and hatred have made us all feel intimidated, fearful and helpless in the face of the terrorist attacks.” As the fear of imminent terrorist attacks has faded, we have found new ways to live in fear.

Now, we are the people of the gulf and of the islands who fear for every ripple on the water, every puff of wind, and every drop of rain. We are the people of the drought who fear for every day without moisture.  We are the people of the temperate lands who fear the extremes of heat and cold. We are the people of the tropics who fear the cold, and of the polar landscapes who fear the melting of the ice. We are the people of the burned lands who fear for every wisp of smoke. We are the people of the debris flows who fear for every rivulet and rill. We are the people of the flood lands who fear for every rise in the water; we are the people of the tide who fear its every incoming, and we are the people of the storm who fear its every surge.

But these new fears are not necessarily debilitating – they can also breed solidarity and resistance.  What is clear is that the impacts of a warming climate respect no national boundaries.  They present societies, in their shared distress, with opportunities for common cause across borders. But deep divisions exist that run along both national and hemispheric lines. Even as the Global South industrializes, there remain issues of accountability for global warming. The Global North having, historically, produced the bulk of the offending carbon-dioxide is now consuming the lion’s share of the goods manufactured in the Global South. Greener production in the North continues to be offset by off-shored production in the South using generally more carbon-intense energy sources. Additionally, political ideologies such as neoliberalism cut across attempts to solve or ameliorate climate issues through a shared environmentalism.

Most insidiously, while countering Islamic terrorism feeds directly into the imperial proclivities of the North’s military-industrial complexes and their political aggrandizement and economic enrichment, there has developed a zero-sum consideration that couples expanded resources poured into the War on Terror with global warming denialism. Even when this linkage is not explicit, as under the Obama administration, it is rendered implicit by the allocation of federal resources.

Neoliberalism remains in the ascendance in much of the Global North and the model of economic growth upon which this ideology is based would necessarily founder if heading off calamitous global warming were taken with any seriousness. The continued obscenity of the U.S. Military budget would certainly be made vulnerable if climate change became a focus of the U.S. federal government. While Trump’s refusal to have this country participate in the COP23 agreement is an extreme symptom, his calculus is baked into the compromises and concessions intrinsic to the agreement.

Expect no neoliberal salvation of our climate-shadowed souls. We are the children of fossil capital. We are the burners of the stolen fuel. We are the ravenous consumers of the earth, now disinherited by our willful acts of predation and sacrilege. We are the people of the Anthropocene.

Can we now accept its most symptomatic epochal condition and, in environmentally conscious solidarity, accommodate global warming and, even at this late stage, head off its most extreme temperature rise? We, the People of the Anthropocene, own the fear of Weather Terrorism. This fear is not the creation of the oligarchy and the governments they control – which, in fact, are often committed to denying the threats of global warming both because they are fully complicit in its cause and because any reasonable, non-geo-engineering attempt to contain it would strip them of their power.

It is no longer, as West reflected on the manufactured War on Terror, only right-wing fear and hatred that have made us all feel intimidated, fearful and helpless, a condition that ultimately cripples democratization.  It is the weather and its extremes that have also rendered us, for the moment, supine and frightened. However, if we fully accept our vulnerability then we can, perhaps, exult – not for the fearsome oppression that the super-sized weather events inflict, but for the opportunities they represent to shape communities of resistance. That resistance may be aimed purely at the accommodation of new climate realities and the amelioration of our relationship with the enfolding natural world, but its practice will inevitably involve the tearing down of entrenched political and economic models.

Adrian Parr, for one, is exultant. In Birth of a New Earth, 2018, she promotes the concept of commonism which she identifies as a strategy for creating “situations of radical alterity from within the privatized landscape of neoliberal planetary urbanism”. The models she cites are outside of the neoliberal realm, but she argues that they could serve as emancipatory disrupters of it. She relates the experience of Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union created a shortage of oil-based fertilizers and pesticides as well as agricultural machinery (and the subsequent partial trade blockade instituted by this country), forced it to “creatively blend food-autonomy, land use and economic policies with small scale community driven agricultural activities” in a system of organic urban farming known as Organopónicos. Similarly, in Venezuela, the Agro Ciudad movement developed as a response to the oil crises of 2002 and 2003 and the global food crisis of 2009, where food is produced in schools, colleges, factories, by cooperatives, neighborhoods and families. These are programs that build community solidarity and a local control of the fundamental human right of nourishment. It is in these practical pursuits of a common endeavor that true democracy can be birthed.

In this country, The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network was created to counter the urban blight, shrinking population and food deserts of that prototypical rust-belt city and emphasized the role of community building in urban commoning and then grew to address not only food security but congruent issues such as drug-use, unemployment and homelessness.

The economic and political events that prompted these solutions in the face of existential crises are surely comparable to the kinds of impacts that we will experience as global warming continues to unfold across the U.S. The community responses to the devastation of Puerto Rico, Cuba, other Caribbean Islands, Texas, Florida and Louisiana wrought by last year’s explosive hurricane season suggest that, as Parr writes, “the singularity of local experiences, resources and capacities” can coalesce around a “universal attitude that aspires for the dignity and flourishing of all life on earth both today and into the future”.

It is communities on the margins in some of the most ecologically vulnerable places in the country that we can expect to see solutions in local sustainability (evidenced, quite simply, by survival in radically changing geo-physical circumstances) begin to challenge the hegemony of militarized emergency services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) whose implicit goal is the restoration of ‘business as usual’ despite the clear evidence of extraordinary circumstances. Communities along the New Orleans coastal waters are resisting re-location to higher ground (where they might continue to contribute to the creation of surplus value that is then suctioned-off into the gaping maw of the 1%) and are prepared instead to tough it out in what are fast becoming wet-slums, but which survive socially and economically in conditions, like favelas, of ‘radical alterity’. The hasty restoration of Breezy Point, in New York City, burnt to the ground during Hurricane Sandy, was a boon to local businesses but ill-serves the community who live in the same jerry-built houses (but of newer vintage) that performed so badly in the storm surge. Residents are fated to endure a few more cycles of destruction as the City, State, and Federal agencies, along with private insurers, continue to paper over this beach-side Potemkin village until their resources run out or the residents wrest control of their own fate. Massive residential post-Sandy re-development at Rockaway Beach (Where Life is a Never-Ending Vacation) built to 100-year flood standards is set to see that vacation end swiftly as once-in-five-thousand-years storm surges roll in.

Even in the burned lands of California’s recent Thomas Fire and last year’s Napa and Sonoma County fires, the majority of the proposed residential re-builds are in the mode of ‘the-same-old-shit’, similar to the houses that burned with such alacrity so recently – fully supported by the reactionary policies of insurance companies, banks, local municipalities and state and federal agencies determined to restore ‘business-as-usual’, as quickly as possible in denial of the altered realities of global warming.

Concerns for changing meteorological conditions have resulted in a legitimate climate of fear. It is a primal fear akin to the dread of predatory wild beasts. It is a fear that is born of our fundamental situation in a global ecology of both extreme threats and sublime comforts. The ironies of the situation, of our kind having initiated this radical change in the composition of the atmosphere and its insulating properties does not alter our primal reactions to its effects. The fear, thus far, has not been co-opted by West’s ‘myopic white greed, fear, and hatred’. It is a fear from which can spring, as Parr suggests, “extraordinary emancipatory and egalitarian promise”.

Can Hollywood Save the World?

Still from “The Shape of Water.”

The Shape of Water, Dir. Guillermo del Toro, is a tale of a woman establishing solidarity with the non-human whilst enduring the oppression of a corporatist, militaristic society – and then experiencing a profound physiological transcendence. The movie is suffused with post-humanist notions – where ethical concern expands beyond the human to embrace a connection with the multiplicity of the biosphere and where the teleological drive to subsume the earth under human consciousness and thus materially consume it, begins to wither. Theodore Adorno wrote that “Progress begins when it is at an end”. Is it time to begin rolling back half a millennium of Modernity? Hollywood, ever an indicator of the zeitgeist, seems to think so. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded del Toro Best Director and Best Picture of 2017 for his self-proclaimed homage to Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dir. Jack Arnold, 1954. It is out of such mythic tales that the Earth’s destiny may be shaped.

Pete Dolack, in China Can’t Save Capitalism from Environmental Destruction, writes that at last October’s 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping proclaimed, “Man and nature form a community of life; we, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it…Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us”. Xi was channeling his inner Thoreau, but as Dolack makes clear, his sentiment is meaningless in terms of moderating China’s growing impact on global warming. Nevertheless, his paternalistic nod to nature and, by inference, the threat that humans now present to it, was more than either Trump or Joseph Kennedy III, could manage in this country’s annual showcase of political theater, the State of the Union address and the Democratic response which went by, all 93 minutes of it, without a reference to global warming. Trump’s speech, clocking in at 80 minutes, was just nine minutes short of the insufferably loquacious Bill Clinton who established a record in tendentiousness in 1995. In 2000, Clinton got it partly right, with his final State of the Union, when he spoke of global warming in these terms,

“The greatest environmental challenge of the new century is global warming. The scientists tell us the 1990’s were the hottest decade of the entire millennium. If we fail to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, deadly heat waves and droughts will become more frequent, coastal areas will flood, and economies will be disrupted. That is going to happen, unless we act.

Many people in the United States, some people in this Chamber, and lots of folks around the world still believe you cannot cut greenhouse gas emissions without slowing economic growth. In the industrial age, that may well have been true. But in this digital economy, it is not true anymore. New technologies make it possible to cut harmful emissions and provide even more growth.”

His pro-growth stance entirely undercut his glib good intentions – his reference to new technologies presumably indicated the mechanism by which production and its attendant harmful emissions, was to be off-shored to Asia.

The environment is not a core Republican Party value except where it impacts hunting, mineral extraction, grazing, and now, perhaps, golf courses – all of which have negative impacts on what we used to think of as the great outdoors. The Democrats cleave to a misty eyed, John Muir inflected romanticism with respect to the natural world (enshrined in the ethos of our National Parks) without ever making a credible linkage between its protection and global warming. Yet both China and the United States have national ideologies wrapped in a professed love and respect for nature – while also being the world’s leading emitters of CO2 into the atmosphere. Dolack sketches the compromises, corruption and cronyism that bind China to cheap fossil fuel and with that to a profoundly paradoxical relationship between its environment and its economy – between a now alienated nature and a culture dedicated to its consumption.

In this country, in its long glide path towards post-industrial senescence, the form of that relationship, paradoxical from the start, was created in the middle of the nineteenth century with the widespread adoption of steam powered mills and the railway. After World War II, when it became apparent that the conflict had metastasized technology, a genre of horror movie became popular as a way to exorcise the fears of a run-away advancement in nuclear, ballistic and plain old fossil-fueled engineering. Today, new fears have emerged out of our subversion of the atmosphere.

This country does not lack for jeremiads concerning our climate future. Clinton’s wingman, Al Gore, huffed self-importantly about Earth in Balance, in 1992. More recently, David Wallace-Wells, in last year’s New York Magazine piece, The Uninhabitable Earth, listed a number of worst-case scenarios in an attempt to engage his shrinking, elite, hyper-literate audience of old white people (They Read Long-Form Magazine Pieces Don’t They?) many of whom are warehoused in the tonier neighborhoods of New York City. The New York Times, playing, perhaps, to a similar audience, just produced a three-part supplement to their February 24th issue, ten months in the making, in a collaboration with Nola.com and The Times Picayune titled The Drowning Coast. Louisiana is indeed the emblematic battered shoreline – the soft underbelly of the southern states ripe for its global warming exacerbated ‘disappearance’.

As Wallace-Wells promises, it really is worse than we think, but as more and more Americans (and others) suffer in real time from the weather impacts of our historical legacy of burning fossil fuels, the perception gap, between the bad and the catastrophic, narrows. A Nor’easter, characterized as a Bomb Cyclone, or more accurately as explosive cyclogenesis (terminology that is inching ever-closer to the notion of Weather Terrorism), ravaged the Boston area on March 2nd, leaving seven dead (from fallen trees), millions without electricity and severe flooding from a massive storm surge.  Europe freezes because the polar vortex which hitherto has kept super-chilled air at the North Pole has now swung open like a recalcitrant refrigerator door so the Arctic spoils while canals in Amsterdam ice over and snow falls on Barcelona.  Even Trump’s denialism may be dented when Mar-a-Largo sinks gently into the Atlantic.

We are all deeply complicit in the consumption of the necrotic fuel – not merely in the act of filling the gas tank in our C.U.V., but more insidiously as passive consumers of its impact in off-shored, mostly Asian production. It is in the act of living and consuming in a society founded on the surplus value generated by fossil fuels that renders us complicit: we are nourished by the energy entombed between five and 439 million years ago, hydrocarbons that now inflame our atmosphere and deaden those beings who live within its realm. It is Fossil Capital (Andreas Malm’s inspired conflation) that has ensnared our consciousness, and, through the process of what Althusser called appellation, calls out our name and renders us its subjects.

Like another Best Picture nominee, Get Out, Dir. Jordan Peele, a racially charged horror movie in which white consciousness is seen to be inserted into stolen black bodies, we American consumers are possessed by a succubus, the demon fuel.  We passively accept global warming as we react to weather emergencies with palliative care (in the form of emergency services) rather than attempting to staunch its cause. This is the kind of false consciousness generated when a society is held hostage to Fossil Capital and provides one answer to Gramsci’s question: “why do subaltern classes resign themselves to their fate or even consent to it explicitly?”

It is not only much worse than we think, but we substantiate worst-case scenarios every time we plunge our chip into that card-reader’s orifice or click on-line.  Purchase made, we grind the wheels of commerce that run through China (or an Asian wannabe) and (shortly, via the mammoth infrastructure project, belt and road) we become further instantiated by the zombie fuel.

Adopting renewables may be one part of the solution. But while production ramps up, driven by ever expanding consumer demand, it will likely remain mostly fossil fueled – a fact ensured by the iron law of capitalism that mandates that production be located in abstract, deracinated spaces of the lowest cost and most tractable supplies of both labor and energy.

Can we think through this conundrum in terms of popular culture? Can Los Angeles, home to Hollywood, home to eight million cars and trucks, and the originator, in 1943, of mostly gasoline generated smog, now create memes that speak to our fossil-fueled psychosis?  Alongside of The Shape of Water, another Oscar nominated movie this year, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dir. Matt Reeves, was a tale of a future valorizing the non-human. The telling of such tales is a necessary first step in the re-wiring of human consciousness. At a deeply subliminal level (where transformation might be most effectively achieved) did Oscar night represent a step towards a consummation, to paraphrase Xi Jinping, of the human and the non-human forming a community of life? Did the glitz of Hollywood and its celebrity culture just get coopted by anti-materialism? And did Oscar, in his ninetieth year, finally accept his role as an Olympian god capable of disseminating a regenerative mythos – where fairy tales connect us anew to the mysteries of the biosphere?

Waiting for the Debris Flows

In J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, his characters sit around in an isolated colonial fort in a nameless desert country, awaiting their destiny – an invasion of the barbarians. The novel concerns its characters’ slow realization of their complicity, as agents of the Empire, in their fate. Something very similar is happening here on the eastern fringe of southern California’s Thomas Fire burn area as we await the rains and the debris flows that will surely follow – as they did, earlier in the year, with such devastating results in Montecito, further to the west.

This analogy, to fully flower, depends on two things. The first is that the fire was intensified by global warming. It came, early in December, after six years of drought, towards the end of a dry first half of the rainy season and in the midst of N.E. Santa Ana winds of unprecedented intensity. The second is that we are both culpable and complicit in the first by the fact of our living in a society driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Implicit is the connection between the two.

The motley assortment of ex-pats who populate Coetzee’s desert fort have more reason to debate the benefits or provocations of their colonial mission impacting the peoples they have (we presume) earlier displaced, although they too, even without the benefit of a course in post-colonial studies, come to accept their role in the disruption of a pre-existing social ecology and the acts of revenge this will ultimately generate. They sit and wait for an invasion by the people who, by destroying their world, they have made barbarians.

Meanwhile, in our now certified fire-safe house (but still surely vulnerable to debris flows) situated in the wildland-urban-interface, we sit and wait for other acts of weather terrorism provoked by the Empire’s eviscerations of the earth’s crust.

So, the world ends not with a bang but with the weather: not with a thermonuclear Armageddon, but with the slow melting of glacial ice, with the creeping scourge of drought, with top soil blowing lazily away, with trees stressed and lightning stricken, with the soft lap of flood water, with the low buzz of disease carrying mosquitos that follow; with the almost imperceptible warming of the oceans, with their swelling, with their perturbation of the air into a violent cyclogenesis and with their slowly increasing acidification. The world ends with a fulsome wetness, debris flows, a coruscating dryness, extreme heat, fire storms, chilling polar cold, high pressures and lows and the violent winds that are whipped between them; it ends with incursions, as Andreas Malm frames it, into “the killing fields of extreme weather”. Malm is the author of Fossil Capital – The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, 2016, a historical review of the death-spiral co-dependence of Capitalism and the Earth’s buried, necrotic energy deposits and most recently, of The Progress of This Storm – Nature and Society in a Warming World, 2018, a critique of post-Latourian ecological theory and a bleakly realist analysis of our current climate predicament.

Even now, in the global north, well into the new century of warming, this stormy weather rarely rises to a level of noticeable sound and fury or causes death and destruction in concentrated and therefore newsworthy numbers, although the bar is set low. Most recently, in the fall of 2017, fires in Northern California caused 10,000 homes to be destroyed, with 48 dead – which translated into big news. Southern California’s largest wild fire followed at the end of the year and then the related and much more deadly Montecito mudslide (now officially termed a debris flow) began the New Year, helped along in newsworthiness by the frisson of celebrity’s homes being endangered. Back in 2010, floods in Pakistan displaced 10 million people and killed 2,000. As Malm writes, “climate change will ultimately choke the accumulation of capital – long after it has killed those at the greatest distance from the bourgeoisie”. In the United States, the passing of our planet as a viable home for us teeming billions (and so many other species) will be slow and mostly unheralded. That process (along with its commonplace denial) has, of course, already begun.

Timothy Morton (a noted post-Latourian ‘dark ecologist’ lambasted by Malm) suggests, “It is helpful to think of global warming as something like an ultra-slow-motion nuclear bomb.” Thinking this way elucidates what emergency services are trained to do. They function now as officialdom’s most visible interface with global warming, our legislatures, at all levels, being largely missing in action. In Morton’s metaphor, they help you evacuate ground zero after an explosion but then facilitate your earliest return back to your irradiated home where you will be doomed to experience similar detonations until your location becomes untenable, except that your choices narrow with each extreme weather event and the efficacy of emergency services slowly erodes with the attenuation of their budgetary resources. We do not yet understand their resilience, but it will surely soon be tested.

Despite the militaristic planning, equipment battalions and fleets of National Guard, Coast Guard and local law-enforcement helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and drones, this is not a ‘War on Weather’, even less a concerted attack on the cause of its terroristic inclinations, the blowback from ever increasing global CO2 emissions. The work of emergency services, combining regional fire and police services alongside of the Red Cross and Federal agencies such as F.E.M.A. remains, however, the most credible response this country makes to the issues of global warming. In California, and across the U.S.A., their work initiates a series of Dunkirks endlessly replayed in aggregations of private cars, trucks, S.U.V’s and minivans on freeways that once were meant to save us from the Red Menace but that now serve as conduits of mandated evacuations to anywhere or nowhere.

California, highly vulnerable to drought, wind-driven wild fires, rising sea-levels, floods, and debris flows has a Governor who talks tough but is confounded by ‘business as usual’, Malm’s damning evocation of a status quo in service to the hegemonic and carbon spewing power elites. Speaking in Bonn at COP23 last November, Brown conceded that “if we stopped the 32 million cars and said you can’t use oil, the whole economy would collapse. You’d have a revolution. There’d be shooting in the streets – and you couldn’t do that and no one would do that…..This (oil) is a very embedded industry and we need a very sophisticated response to minimize it….but it’s a part of a bigger picture. And gestures are not helpful, we need strategies and action”.

And indeed, the Governor has a plan which includes the usual bag of green tricks – renewable energy, efficient buildings, a cap-and-trade system, and a low carbon fuel standard. But even were California to become a zero CO2 emitting State, that would not mitigate its far larger role in global warming as a consumer of goods manufactured in Asia where, as Malm has it, China has become the ‘chimney of the world’ driven by globally mobile capital lured by a tractable, cheap labor supply in factories energized, for the most part, by massive consumption of fossil energy; California does its deleterious part both in consumption of such goods and as a cultural avatar which proclaims such levels of consumption as an aspirational goal for the rest of the world.

How does this end? Not well. The whimper you may hear will be the last gasp of the great mass of an oppressed citizenry under the command of a highly militarized corps of emergency services pursuing a sincere desire to assist in the human and property tolls of weather terrorism – which ultimately threatens to tear apart a society whose government is dedicated to the protection of that class of elite citizens most culpable in the production of its cause.

America has adopted ‘Fossil Capital’ as its national ethos. (‘Drill baby, drill.’) It has been a part of the country’s ideological infrastructure for at least a century and a half. America performs highly effective hierarchical command and control, a trait forged when it was a colonial outpost in the New World under constant threat from the indigenous peoples it re-cast as barbarians.  America institutes heroic large-scale, technologically and logistically intense bravura acts of intervention (world wars and space exploration); but it is constitutionally ill-suited to take the steps necessary to contain the temperature rise inherent in the continued burning of fossil fuels (to the extent that the U.S. remains relevant to this effort).

We can therefore expect increased militarization of federal, state and local emergency services battling the blowback from global warming, and an increased focus on geo-engineering solutions to mitigate solar radiation, a strategy backed by some of the world’s richest men, including Bill Gates – all desperate to preserve the formula for added exchange value derived from the earth’s store of prehistoric solar energy.

We should not expect rescue. So we sit and wait, knowing that the invasion has begun. As the rain falls (or not), the wind howls, the cold bites, the sun scorches, the wild fires rage and the debris flows, we are all under voluntary evacuation orders – but there is absolutely nowhere to go.

Weather Terrorism, W.T.F.?

Photo by The National Guard | CC BY 2.0

As the predicted storm pounded the narrow canyons in the hills above Montecito early in January, a rumble began to overtake the percussion of hard rain on scorched earth. It built, once the torrent of water had dislodged first soil, pebbles, small rocks, then boulders, into a mighty thunder as the mud gathered speed over the resin-slicked surface of the newly burned wild lands.

From out of the Wildland-Urban-Interface, the mudslide drove down into the leafy suburbs of Montecito and tangled with the fragile infrastructure that supports the life-styles of the rich and famous, the merely rich, and all those others who call this Santa Barbara suburb home.  It smashed through homes, businesses and, most critically, fractured the system of pipes, suspended across the naturally occurring drainages, that link a chain of reservoirs that serve as the community’s water source.

The broken pipes unleashed a sea of nearly ten million gallons of fresh water released from the reservoirs because their electrically operated control valves were inoperative in the storm related blackout. Much of the mud and water found its way to U.S. Route 101 which runs from Los Angeles to the Oregon border. The section that runs through Montecito, a few hundred yards east of the beach, was transformed into a rock and tree strewn delta where water ran twelve feet deep in places and over 100,000 tons of debris were spread along its length. The highway was reopened recently after a two-week closure. Restoration of the area’s water supply will take longer. Both were the collateral damage of extreme weather events.

We are a species in retreat. Pusillanimous descriptions of our geo-historical circumstances such as ‘climate change’ are daily challenged by the occurrence of extreme weather events that disrupt society, destroy infrastructure, and obliterate human life. Twenty lives were lost in Montecito and two others remain missing, buried perhaps, beneath mud or swept out to sea. These events might be more effectively described as Weather Terrorism. However, the ascription of such an inflammatory label to acts of ‘Nature’ – to grant weather agency – requires a profound philosophical re-orientation.

It is this task to which philosophers such as Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton, among others, are currently devoted. Latour takes the position that humanity’s place in the biosphere is now fundamentally altered by its industrial age activities, most notably the burning of fossil fuels, such that it is now a global, geo-historical force which expresses itself in species’ extinction and in its power to change the weather. We are in an age he characterizes as the New Climatic Regime when our political institutions have become entirely incapable of protecting their citizens from extreme weather events and thus risk their own irrelevance. He fully recognizes the unconstrained powers of the non-human to shape our destinies.

Morton, in arguing for the agency of the non-human takes a swipe at the academic humanities (fields in which he toils at Rice University) in which it is conventionally suggested “that there are no accessible things in themselves…. only things insofar as they relate to some version of the (human) subject…. thinking which is called correlationist”. But, he argues, “the screen on which these correlations are projected isn’t blank after all”.  Both Latour and Morton acknowledge that ‘Nature’ has traditionally served as the big screen upon which human activities are seen to play out. Each philosopher urges us to begin to understand that this erstwhile passive backdrop has a life of its own, composed of what Morton provocatively calls ‘non-human people’ existing alongside ‘hyperobjects’, all-subsuming phenomena like global warming or the weather that are, in part, reflections of the violence done to the biosphere by humanity.  Our species, fully constituted as a geophysical force, now contends with the terrifying consequences of engaging with other biospheric forces.

Within such heady realms we must negotiate the minutiae of our political positions. In the present duopoly, only tepid distinctions are offered within the powerful brew of neoliberalism which drives American political support of globalization and excessive consumption in the West whilst ensuring, by heavy-handed military and financial means, the complicity of other, recalcitrant regions. Consumed with a Coke versus Pepsi ideological battle, framed within an uncontested arena of historicized nationalism, most Americans, and the political parties to which they owe allegiance, are magnificently unprepared to grapple with their nation’s irrelevance in defending them from the unfolding realities of our geo-historical moment; even less, to comprehend the apparent acts of war being waged by non-human forces – forces with which we must now find an accommodation.

This message may resonate differently depending on where you live.  For instance, with as many as one in three Americans living in the Wildland-Urban-Interface, defined by geographers as places where indigenous landscapes impinge significantly onto the ever-widening perimeters of suburbia and exurbia, wild fire looms as an existential threat.  These are landscapes increasingly stressed by historically unusual drought regimes with expanding anthropogenic ignition sources. On these exurban frontiers, endemic wild fires may begin to erode the perimeters of our species’ range – despite the current post fire-event philosophy of re-build and return. At some point, the frequency of attack will change behaviors, just as repeated Jihadi bombing of market places eventually inhibits their function as viable locations for buying and selling.

Rising sea-levels and coastal inundation, storm surges and heightened wind and rain events may similarly impinge on the habitability of coastal regions. The inexorable loss of land at the coastal perimeter of Louisiana is likely more indicative of the future than the delaying strategies of sea-walls, dikes and floating storm surge barriers.  Like Baghdad’s Green Zone, where blast barriers and barbed wire were no security against rocket attacks or, finally in 2016, the uprising of the street, flood defense strategies will not, in the end, alter the geographical imperatives of global warming.  Thus, few in the USA, or elsewhere on the planet, can truly be safe from the impacts of Weather Terrorism.

The urban destruction that has become a signature of the kind of asymmetrical wars being waged by Imperialist powers across the planet – fought to the local architectural and societal death – routinely results in the tragic loss of historically, economically and socially significant human habitat. Weather Terrorism threatens to wreak damage on an incomparably larger scale.

You cannot outrun a wind-driven wildfire. We cannot double down on Modernity and stake our future on geo-engineering, or as Latour warns, “to increase still further the dosage of megalomania needed for survival in this world”. Fighting wild fires, hot-shots know that to find safety they have to outflank the fire and run ‘into the black’ – where the fire has consumed the earth and left it carbonized – where there is no longer fuel to support the other two legs of the incendiary triad, heat and air. Morton counsels a retreat to a time before ‘agrilogistics’, the term he uses to describe the algorithms humans run to facilitate farming, that hierarchical and ecologically damaging means of food production which he damns as “the slowest and perhaps most effective weapon of mass destruction yet devised”. This retreat, he imagines, will bring us to a more fully animated world, endemic before the rise of agriculture, where we might achieve safety in a solidarity with the non-human beings with whom we share the biosphere.

We live in an environment of extinction. We have subjected the planet to a pernicious miasma of global warming which we continue to exacerbate by our selfish actions, initiating rates of change in biospheric systems that offer non-human life-forms few options of adaptation other than death. Now, in refusing the accommodation of the non-human and the possibilities for coexistence, we must suffer the consequences – phenomena that it is quite reasonable (and politically useful) to call Weather Terrorism.

Mud-Slide

Photo by The National Guard | CC BY 2.0

At some time in the 1970s, it became obvious that homo politicus, the propertied white male that our dearly beloved Founding Fathers had originally entrusted with the vote, and others over the centuries that were begrudgingly allowed to join them in the privilege, had been transmuted into homo economicus. Now treated as human capital, we are but factors in GDP enhancement, our political lives curtailed by the rise of neoliberalism.

When I turned the key in my car’s ignition recently to flee the Thomas Fire, California’s largest and almost certainly exacerbated by global warming, I was both victim and perpetrator, caught in the ouroboric moment of the snake eating its own tail. When, in October 2016, I cast my postal vote for Jill Stein, I was supporting the sham of American democracy in full knowledge that the institutions supported by this byzantine mechanism regularly victimize my economic, social and recreational opportunities while at every moment endangering life on the planet.

How can I show solidarity with others in our shared and authentic political interest? What level of energy sacrifice is necessary to escape the pay-back of geo-historical forces? What level of anarchic action is required to amend our democracy’s dysfunction without disastrous personal reprisals imposed by the state? Can we do good within a corrupt system with which we are complicit? Or, as Adrian Parr notes, in her startling new book, Birth of a New Earth – The Radical Politics of Environmentalism, 2017, “political awareness arises from the realization that” (quoting Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) “the reality I see is never ‘whole’ – not because a large part of it eludes me, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot which indicates my inclusion in it.” That stain, that blind spot includes each of us and our profound enmeshment within the global entanglements of neo-liberalism. Remarkably, she sees emancipatory and egalitarian promise within a movement of radical environmentalism that traverses “the identity barriers of race, class, gender, sexuality, geography, age, physical ability and speciesism”.

When a friend suggested to me that the New Year was just a continuation of the annus horribilis of 2017, and all hope for any sort of new beginning must be deferred until the mid-term elections this coming November, I felt very alone. Had he learnt nothing from the remarkably clarifying revelations of the last twelve months? Was he still looking for solutions from within a system that promises freedom, choice and individualism but delivers militarism, exploitation, suffering and oppression along with epochal planetary degradation? Had he not, in 2017, recognized the stain that was his culpability in the horror show of neoliberalism?

Was he, for instance, momentarily buoyed by the victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in the recent Alabama senate race? Should we even care to follow the news of such contrived events knowing full well that they are a part of the theater of the surreal whose reality is imposed upon us by our consumption of its tawdry performances? How significant is it that a decent human being fielded by the Democratic Party was able to defeat, by less than two percentage points, a Republican candidate whose reputation places him, on the historical spectrum of evil, somewhere between Rasputin and Adolf Hitler?

Why have any faith in an electoral process that is itself intensely ouroboric in its selection of congress people and senators who, whatever their altruistic ambitions, secure victories ensured by the contributions of the very wealthy and whose interests they then serve legislatively, to ensure their future electability? What solace can possibly be found in the coliseum of our politics? Better, of course, that Jones won, but he too will sink into the quagmire of corruption that is the U.S. senate – an institution that passed a tax bill, at the end of 2017, that will be deeply injurious to the economic and physiological health of the vast majority of the country’s population; ironically the Golden Goose’s base fully expects its reward when they ascend to the ranks of the uber wealthy, eagerly anticipated with every purchase of a lottery ticket. More disturbingly, Adrian Parr raises the following specter: what, she asks, “if the masses desire their own oppression?”

On the night of November 8, 2016, I was genuinely thrilled that Hillary had failed in her entitled bid for the U.S. presidency. There was nothing I feared more than another eight years of my life in America overseen by an administration that wrapped itself in hypocrisy while pursuing the most pernicious principles of neoliberalism – having already suffered through sixteen years of Democratic National Committee rule, headed by Presidents Clinton and Obama, in which I saw the country pushed ruthlessly to the right; towards the neo-liberal ideals of globalism, competition, militarism and the commodification of everything.

We are done with the elegant and smooth-talking Obama (and long done with Clinton) and are now exposed to the crude, but refreshingly un-hypocritical brutalities of Trump. How could this not be an improvement within the polity? How could this not be an opportunity to understand the true nature of our predicament? How could this not be a much-sought-after revelation?

2017 was also the year that Americans were fulsomely reminded of the power of weather terrorism – that frightening derangement of the climate that Bruno Latour calls “a profound mutation in our relation to the world”. As Hurricane Maria raped the Island of Borikén (or colonially, Puerto Rico); as Harvey exposed the petro-chemical sink-hole that is the low-lying prairie surrounding Houston, cutting a swathe through suburbs already condemned by environmental racism; as Florida’s doomed Atlantic coast-line was roiled, and Tampa was ravaged by Irma; as brush-fires destroyed over half a million acres of California wildlands, adjacent suburbs, mountain houses, beach houses, and commercial and industrial infrastructure, the connections between these revelations and the disequilibrium in our environment spawned by the systems of global capitalism may have finally dawned on a few. Certainly, many survivors established meaningful solidarity with each other in ways that transcend difference. But it was the spectacle of these events, framed by the media, that absorbed most of us and vitiated, as Parr writes, “our social energies and forces in the simplified representation of history”.

Amidst police brutality, the relentless incarceration of minorities, the poor and the mentally ill, and alongside the other social and economic savageries of neoliberalism, environmental emergencies exacerbate social fault lines, the crisis of health care and endanger the material and the psychological well-being of increasing numbers of American residents; such oppressive social and environmental disasters are often rendered as apocalyptical entertainment. Parr writes, “A diabolical faith in individualism has fractured us as a society. The sensuality of human beings has been reduced to the narcissistic pleasures of a spectacle culture”. Yet it is within the revelatory truth of such events, as Parr suggests, that we may also move towards solidarity with future generations, other species, and most immediately, with our fellow humans.

2017 provided many such potentially emancipatory revelations in politics, climate and beyond for my friend, and for each one of us. 2018 will doubtless be replete with further expository pantomime from Trump and many moments in other realms that are pregnant with elucidation. As I write, fifteen deaths have been confirmed in the tragic mud-slides of Montecito, a consequence of the recent Thomas Fire which burnt the mountains above this wealthy enclave and made the soils vulnerable to the extraordinary rain-fall of the last two days. Twenty-four people remain missing.

These are deaths, like most incurred in globally-warmed weather events, of extreme terror. As we continue our modern lives, stained by our complicity in an economic and political system which is nourished by the degradation of our terrestrial and atmospheric environment, we might bear witness to their short-lived screams as they were enfolded within the airless horror of mud which bore them towards the ocean at speeds of up to 50 m.p.h. The fact of their deaths, promulgated in the media as a frisson of spectacle and disaster, might be dedicated instead, to emancipatory and egalitarian purpose.

Afterburn

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

On December 22nd the skies over Southern California lit up with the afterburn of a Space-X rocket, launched from Vandenberg Air Force base, a few miles north of Point Conception – its spent hydrocarbons leaving an ethereal plume that flared across the western sky. The event was reflexively echoed, in real time, by social media. Below, deep in the Sespe Wilderness, the Thomas fire still raged.

The Falcon 9 rocket was sent on its way (across a lonely headland that once served the local Purisimeño Chumash Indians as the threshold of the Western Land of the Dead, from which they projected the souls of their departed) to launch ten Iridium ‘Next’ communications satellites. They are part of a second-generation constellation of sixty-six telecommunications satellites planned to be fully operational by the end of next year.

Somewhere, in this confluence of signs lay indications of the Anthropocene. The enigma of the epoch was made explicit both in this kerosene fueled apparition in the late evening sky and in the burning of over 275,000 acres of Southern California landscape in the month of December.

While many of the leaders of our federal government continue to deny climate reality, the American military machine, sheltered behind this opera bouffe façade, are fully cognizant that global warming de-stabilizes vulnerable populations, political regimes and drives the refugee crisis. The Washington think-tank CNA (Center for Naval Analysis) in a recent report, succinctly states that “climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States”. Left unsaid is that the rolling acts of weather terrorism across the United States in 2017, which included Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria as well as the massive forest fires in Northern and Southern California indicate the vulnerabilities of this country to internal instability: the climate-driven economic, social, and existential anxieties which, magnified in the crucible of social media, may lead towards imminent political fracture. The real threat to our polity is from within.

Trumpist notions of maintaining internal security by pursuing border walls, anti-immigrant policing and aggressive anti-terrorist militarism are powerless against the threats imposed by climate change. California’s megafires occurred in lands long accustomed to seasonal wildfires, but global warming, manifested in marginal increases in average temperatures, an extension of the summer fuel dehydration season, the increased occurrence of winter drought conditions and the extraordinary prolongation of fall’s off-shore winds, supercharges these events into acts of extreme, highly prejudicial terror.

As a survivor of the Upper Ojai firestorm, one of the two generative events that sparked the largest wildfire in California’s history, I have experienced firsthand the kind of weather terrorism that now threatens the credibility of national, provincial and local governments to protect their citizens.

The small country town of Ojai, at the green unburned center of California’s Thomas Fire, is festooned with signs in the windows of businesses and residences thanking Firefighters and First Responders for saving their community, suggesting great faith in the power of municipal, state and national authorities to protect them. Agencies from all levels of government were indeed arrayed against the fire on their behalf.

However, the feel-good narrative of the lower valley, Ojai’s commercial and tourist heart, which was saved by strategic back-burning and fuel reduction on its perimeter combined with favorable winds, the flanking of comparatively fire-resistant irrigated citrus and avocado fields  and topographical serendipity, contrasts with the grim realities of Upper Ojai’s firestorm where twenty percent of the residences were destroyed, and which went largely unchallenged on Monday night, December 4th, and into Tuesday morning.

At the heart of the fire initiated by an exploding pole-top transformer in the upper valley, four local Ventura County Fire crews and a fifth volunteer brigade from the nearby city of Fillmore, sheltered in place at the top of our road trapped by the great dragon’s breath of fire that raced down the fuel rich drainages on their way to Sisar Creek which runs along State Route 150. After this first wave of the firestorm moved on to the northern flank of Sulphur Mountain ridge to meet up with the other leg of the fire that had started further east and an hour before, the crews retreated to the lower valley choosing not to defend the residential streets running off SR 150 where most of the upper valley’s dwellings are situated. Lack of specific wildland fire training (ensure your line of retreat!) together with a conservative command structure may have contributed to the impotence of their response.

Once the command structure was able to regroup and call in resources from all over the Western States there was a massive response beyond the Ojai Valley where Santa Paula, Ventura, Montecito and Santa Barbara were all saved from overwhelming residential losses. Miraculously, there was no loss of civilian life; sadly, one professional fire technician died in fighting the flames that consumed the Condor Sanctuary, deep in the Los Padres National Forest.

In the eulogizing of our public safety personnel, it is little understood that they are abetted by huge influxes of inmate-labor on the fire-line – where the latter are involved in the most hazardous, health and life-threatening roles in wild-fire suppression, while the better equipped, better trained and infinitely better paid professionals provide command, back-up and communications well behind the front lines. A highly-placed source in the fire-fighting community estimates the involvement of prisoner firefighters at 80% of the boots on the ground in fighting the Thomas Fire.

Ironically, the prison-industrial complex absorbs vast gobs of state resources while other local agencies are starved of funds resulting in this strange hybridization of public services – where prison-labor eliminates paid-work (exacerbating the very social conditions that swell the prison population) and reduces both the professionalism and the morale of the fire-fighting force.

Media reflexivity, political instability driven by wealth disparity, weather terrorism and the expansion of public service (and corporate) utilization of inmate-labor represent an incendiary stew of contemporary derangements – home-grown ingredients that may eventually explode, like an improvised fertilizer bomb, into the heart of this country’s social order.

The fuse for such a device could likely be ignited by a massive loss of life in a weather terrorism event. By coincidence, on Christmas day, we four fire survivors (my wife, our younger son Griffin and neighbor Betty) on day twenty-one of our hegira, found ourselves in a likely location for just such a scenario. We had been invited to a dinner in Topanga, a bohemian suburb north of Los Angeles, deep in the Wildland-Urban-Interface.

When I turned the corner of our house at 7:15 pm, on that first night of the Thomas fire, to close the north facing fire doors, I saw a wall of flame engulfing the back of our property – the dark and customarily brooding landforms had become vividly alive in a moment of supreme, non-human animation. Those moments stay in one’s thoughts: ever after, the lizard brain is stamped with an immanent existentialism.

Driving in Topanga, from one canyon side to the other, from one set of friends to the other, we were all hyper-aware of the extreme perilousness of the exit routes, the ad hoc, highly flammable building styles in evidence, and the total lack of defensible space amidst the chaos of antic residential development. The community exists for now, harboring a very heterogeneous population, but it is heavily mortgaged to the next act of weather terrorism perpetrated by the non-human actors that have once more arisen amongst us, after the brief interregnum of modernity, when we foolishly thought them tamed.

FEMA may be irretrievably dysfunctional, insurance companies may go broke, fire departments are demoralized and their personnel under-trained, and the Golden State may largely rely for control of these pyromaniacal step-children of global warming – for the fire next time – on their vast prison population of over 100,000 inmates. It is the extreme contingency of such preparedness, or the lack thereof, that speaks to the fragile nature of our social compact.

We had believed that our taxes ensured some level of personal safety – some, like the lucky residents of the Ojai Valley, still believe it.

Ring of Fire

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

Southern California’s Thomas Fire, the state’s fourth largest, continues to grow. To date, it has consumed over 250,000 acres but in the middle of its burn area, which stretches from Santa Paula in the south east to Santa Barbara in the north west, the Ojai Valley (barring an extraordinary turn-of events), has survived. A week ago, the local weekly, The Ojai Valley News, emblazoned its front page with the banner headline, “Ring of Fire”, a phrase that had been in local circulation for several days previously as residents watched the flames encircle their communities on their seemingly inevitable way to the coast.

Many of us who have reached a certain age cannot hear that phrase without hearing, in our mind’s ear, the thudding voice of Johnny Cash running through his sister-in-law’s honky-tonk ditty of 1963. His earnest rendition has become a cultural touchstone: now, in central coast California and its inland valleys, it has become entwined with the epic events of December 2017 when much of the landscape that lies to the south of the Santa Ynez transverse mountain range was charred in the ring of fire that girdled the Ojai Valley; as it continues to burn to the north and west, it has already destroyed over a thousand structures – the surrounding chaparral blackened, somber, and pungent with congealed super-heated resins.

Cash had a great deal of history in the area. He recorded the song Ring of Fire in a small Ojai recording studio while living in Casitas Springs, the western-most community in the Valley. The town now proclaims itself as “The Home of Johnny Cash” and the trailer park he purchased for relatives to manage still stands forlorn in an area whose center is anchored by a convenience store, nameless but for the red neon sign over its door that reads ‘Bait and Liquor’.

Casitas Springs was founded in 1834 when local Chumash Indians, formerly wards of the Mission San Buenaventura were relocated to pastures along the Ventura River flood plain half a dozen miles inland from the coast. There they settled, built rough shelters (euphemistically called casitas and memorialized in the town’s name) and led lives tragically foreclosed by both the loss of their connection to a tribal life and the enforced institutionalization to which they had succumbed during the Mission era. Their sad histories were washed away in the frequent floods that plague these rank bottom-lands; their archeological footprint, primarily evidenced by their basketry, destroyed by the brush fires that periodically sweep along the escarpment to the south. The fire this time skirted Casitas Springs and the three other towns that run east between the Santa Ynez mountains to the north and Sulphur Mountain to the south – the Valley saved by its topographical character, its heavily irrigated buffers of citrus and avocado groves, accommodating winds and the battalions of fire fighters who worked at its margins.

For all its local resonance, this literal ring of fire also reflects the wild fires that customarily girdle the planet and are shown in a stunning animation on NASA’s Eco Earth website generated from information transmitted by its Terra satellite. Perhaps most of these fires represent versions of slash and burn agriculture, but whatever their origin they are now all non-human creatures of the Anthropocene, their fiery conflagrations, exacerbated by global warming to some unknown degree, reflections of the burning of the planet’s stored solar energy scavenged from its crust.

The Thomas fire has now swept through territory once lightly populated with Chumash Indians who regularly burned their food-gathering lands. As Kat Anderson has shown in Tending the WildNative American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources2006, local Indians managed their wild food resources by burning the land to encourage their growth and to create clearings in which they could better hunt game. While the coastal Chumash relied heavily on sea food, inland groups harvested acorns as their staple supplemented with chia seeds, the fruits of the holly leafed cherry and small game. The untouched wilderness eulogized by John Muir was in fact a carefully managed environment, with swathes of chaparral charred in controlled burns where the plants had long co-evolved with regenerative lightning-sparked conflagrations.

Following the European invasion of California in 1769 and the subsequent sacking of the territory by Anglo Americans in the mid nineteenth century in pursuit of gold, rampant infrastructural development in these fire-lands has raised the stakes for the rapid containment of its cyclical irruptions. Californian and Federal agencies, as well as municipal fire-brigades from all over the western states and the National Guard have massed their land and air forces to battle the Thomas fire. They are backed-up by a large police presence and loosely aggregated community support groups. There is a sense that in controlling the flames, in taming their wildness, the chaparral is being returned to the asylum, its place of subjugation. As Thomas H. Birch notes in The Incarceration of Wildness: Wilderness areas as Prisons, “when this place is made, and wildness is incarcerated in it, the imperium is completed”.

If we accept fire as a natural event (although, in the case of the Thomas fire its two starting points were of an anthropogenic origin), then the determination to contain it is very much in the tradition of Mao’s Great Leap Forward of the 1950’s which proposed conquering nature through human intervention. In an arguably more enlightened twenty-first century America might we begin to move towards policies of accommodation and of co-existence with non-human entities and their often cataclysmic manifestations? Reasonable containment strategies could then be incorporated into urban planning practices, or in the case of existing developments, accorded the same level of priority as other infrastructure upgrades in the areas of transportation, public health, communications and the supply of goods and services.

To continue the manic patchwork of whack-a-mole fire suppression is a profoundly reactionary approach that both validates and preserves the existing incongruities of urban and suburban developments within areas whose ecologies requires them to burn.  In many respects, this reaction echoes the mindset that drives the U.S. military towards the lethal suppression of armed resistance in areas of conflict rather than pursuing soft strategies of social, political, and economic accommodation that might remove the underlying grievances of the putative enemy. In both cases, these aggressive policies are the testosterone fueled products of the Neolithic mind.

In addition, the perception of the firefighter as Hero (who saved our town/house/life/pet) gets in the way of a sensible appraisal of the issues at stake. Firefighters do their job and for the most part are handsomely paid for their efforts (prisoners from state penitentiaries on the fire-line excepted) and while they often display extraordinary bravery in the protection of stranger’s lives, their property and pets, our adulation likely confirms in them and their command structure a sense of the ineffable righteousness of their work. We, as a community, are thus locked into the whack-a-mole ethos, which stands in the way of a measured coexistence with forest fires. Co-existence and accommodation do not represent humanity’s defeat in its battle with the elements but indicate a level of solidarity with the non-human and of an appropriate humility in acknowledgement of the other powers with whom we share the Earth.

In the aftermath of the fire running through areas of Upper Ojai there were several instances of looting of evacuated and damaged houses. I witnessed the arrest of a suspected looter on my street. Three Ventura County Sheriff’s black and white SUV’s were pulled up behind a beige Chevy Suburban bulging with boxes of household goods and clothing. Two bicycles were thrown haphazardly on the roof rack. A deputy knelt at the curb carefully probing one box of civilizational detritus at a time. The cuffed suspect was standing by his vehicle, his female companion still in the front passenger seat. I pulled up and my enquiring gaze was met with an explanation from one of the sheriff’s deputies that they were patrolling the streets around the burn area apprehending looters and other ‘undesirables’. I drove off, that last word etched in my consciousness.

Some years after Cash recorded Ring of Fire he went to Folsom prison, actively consorted with the state’s undesirables, then entertained and demonstrated solidarity with them. He revived his fading career by adopting an outlaw image as ‘The Man in Black’. He understood the plight of all those who refused to be totally coopted by the rules-making capitalist imperium. Perhaps, as a profoundly Christian man, he foresaw a day, in an epoch we now call the Anthropocene, when the ‘undesirables’ (in the neo-liberal lexicon, but one step away from the non-human), would inherit the Earth.

The Epic of Our Awakening

Photo by Kevin Gill | CC BY 2.0

The hubris of the Neolithic mind has been much in evidence recently; witness the sexual predation of the economically, culturally or politically powerful on the weak; the many refusals to acknowledge our complicity in global warming and the bone-headed military, economic and social aggressions of our statutory leaders (see also sexual predation, global warming, above).

The ability of humankind to control events has never been more tenuous. Like it or not, we have ceded much of that control to the realm of those non-human actors that we have long ignored or, more recently, actively aggravated: now, we are collectively suffering real-life home invasions by the dark powers that we had thought safely relegated to the past, buried deep in our subconscious, or rendered impotent by our technological prowess. Is it possible that the overt expression of our atavistic aggressions is stirred by new realizations of our impotence?

Or, can we trace our bad behaviors to the first scratchings on rock of anthropomorphic gods – of the fetishization of the female form and the celebration of the virility of the bull? Have we distanced ourselves from each other and the environment and, in celebrating our otherness (our alienation) are licensed to predate with impunity, like the gods of old?

As the kids say, karma is a bitch: but it is also, more simply, less sexistly, a mirror. I was caught up in some of its pay-back earlier in the week, my temerity (surely another name for hubris) at having built a home for myself and my family in the Wildland Urban Interface was cosmically answered by the ravages of Southern California’s Thomas fire.

It is no longer necessary to hike in the moonlight to experience a monochrome world. Our house now lies dark amidst the ashes of the chaparral, wisps of grey smoke rising into a smoke-smudged sky.  But it looms intact, testament to the steel fire doors that protected its glazed openings, to the landscape management that eliminated much of the fuel within two hundred feet and to the gravel terrace and pool that shielded its northern, uphill flank.

On Monday evening, December 4, having been alerted to the approaching Thomas fire by our son, who lives eight miles away to the west in the small country town of Ojai, I began locking the sliding doors in place then, on turning the corner of our building saw flames leaping over the back ridge. This precipitated an immediate evacuation with time only to grab passports, abandon the half-eaten evening meal on the table, jump in the car, pick up our neighbor and exit north on State Route 150 to the three storey, exterior corridored Motel 6 in Carpinteria, an appropriately carceral environment in which to spend our first night as ecological refugees.

There followed a move north to Santa Barbara, the smoke following us. We filled our days scanning our devices for news of our home, of our neighbors, family and friends, and that palpable hyperobject, as Timothy Morton would have it, the fire. Up-to-date information, it turns out, was the first casualty of the event; maps generated by Ventura County and the state portal, CAL FIRE, consistently lagged well behind news channeled in the chaotic argot of social media – those fractal fictions sometimes gelling, amongst our three devices, sets of ‘friends’ and platforms, into real, current news. Out of it all we determined to conduct a reconnaissance run on Thursday, not altogether sure whether we would be able to get back into our neighborhood.

We were stopped six miles short of our goal by a road closure, but parked the car planning to walk in – confident, once inside the perimeter, that we could cadge a lift. Barely a mile into the google-projected two-and-a-half-hour walk, a friend drove by and took us to our properties.

Having confirmed the miracle of survival for both our house and newly completed guest-house, and mourned the loss of the house in which our neighbor had been staying (its owner in Los Angeles), we returned to the smoky, palm-etched Santa Barbara and next day we all three returned to Upper Ojai where standing and collapsed structures were set alike in an amazing chaparral landscape. Here stood skeletal trees, scorched rocks and ash in a grey scale that we realized reflected the intensity of the burn – the hottest areas beneath oaks bleached white while the bunch grasses’ impoverished fire-offerings of cellulose smudged the land an inky black. That evening I wandered our twenty-some acres (the minimum lot area for a single-family house in this zone). Starkly illuminated by my flash-light, the land was grotesquely shadowed like some bleakly expressionist stage set for a post-atomic butoh performance. Sharp, chemical smells of burnt wood were carried in the breezes that stirred trails of white ash from the runnels threading the land towards the gaping gorge of Bear Creek which channeled the hottest fire, focusing the explosive Santa Ana wind like the rifled barrel of a gun and driving the flames before it. The creek-side location of my neighbor’s house was fatal that Monday night as flames shot from it (we surmise) hungry to consume the caloric content of the wood framed house.

In the morning, I again tramped the land, less bewitched by the chiaroscuro of white ash and blackened branch and more enthralled by the opportunity to understand its revealed shape and behold this once in a generation burn cycle of the chaparral. The owner of the neighboring house, a landscape restoration ecologist, cherished her home but loves the land: indomitable, she will rebuild and is already counting the days to the explosion of wild flowers that will surely follow the winter rains. My survivor’s guilt is somewhat assuaged.

On the weekend before the fires, I had begun reading The Great Derangement, Climate Change and the Unthinkable, 2016, by Amitav Gosh. He writes that “the Anthropocene is precisely a world of insistent, inescapable continuities, animated by forces that are nothing if not inconceivably vast”.  Caught up in the fire-fueled Ojai diaspora, I was a tiny part of the global dislocations that are now, and will continue to be characteristic of our unfolding geohistory. In the immediacy of personal peril and threatened property loss, we may lose sight of our part in the great ideological, cultural and geographic shifts now upon us.  It may be of comfort to some that our domestic political arrangements are but awkward laggards in this epochal transformation.

That, indeed, is a part of Ghosh’s thesis: the domestic, human world of the novel (a primary source by which modern society has historically described itself) and where society has been situated within a “sense of place” – in Ghosh’s telling, one of the form’s “great conjurations”- is incapable of expressing the vast cataclysm of climate change, which can only be expressed in epics such as Gilgamesh, Ramayana or even the Odyssey which encompass multiple universes of the human and non-human. The “regularity of bourgeois life” supported by global networks of imperialism and now neo-liberalism threatens to be entirely displaced by the end of Modernity whose signature achievement, as Jacob Burkhardt has it, was in the “discovery of the world and man”. In the Anthropocene, we are discovering that we are not alone!

Upper Ojai is an area, like much of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, of intense oil production.  The oil seeps that still smolder at the bottom of our road were the source of tar to caulk Chumash tomols (reed canoes) and the first indication to Americans that there might be an exploitable resource beneath the chaparral. ‘Ojai 6’, just a mile away, was the first commercial well in California, drilled in 1865. Now, the air that we breathe here is laced with the toxins from burnt brush and from the burnt-over oil and gas production facilities in the area. The resource that generates great wealth in the counties and contributes, in its application as a fuel and industrial chemical, to the shift in planetary weather patterns, is thus doubly responsible for our present discomfiture.

The novel, in its portrayal of the “regularity of bourgeois life” has been displaced by a vast and unfolding petrochemical epic as the appropriate form for the recordation of our puny lives. We are freshly conscious of how society describes itself. We are freshly conscious of the agency of non-human actors as they intrude into the settled (and unsettled) patterns of domesticity in which we have ensconced ourselves. As I write, huge thunderclouds of bruised smoke arise to the west as the fires run their inevitable course to the sea.

But am I now fully awakened from the long sleep of Modernity, ready to eschew the comfortably pernicious trappings of the Neolithic mind?