When numerous American cities have been subjected to manmade fires of late, it somehow seems timely to receive a reminder that natural infernos are depressingly regular occurrences in some of the country’s hottest spots – spots that have always been that way and need no additional assistance from man. Less than a year on from the devastating bushfires that cut such a ruthless swathe through several states in Australia, the US has been experiencing its own devastation of a similarly destructive nature. At one time – and no doubt still today in some quarters – such awful occurrences were regarded as the acts of an angry God; the contemporary faith of climate change doesn’t attribute natural disasters of this kind to a vengeful celestial father figure, choosing instead to lay the blame at the door of the creature He made in His own image. But the belief of the new religion’s devotees in the guilt of those they hold responsible is no less unswerving in its conviction than the Bible Belt brigade and their dependable standby of God reading the Riot Act whenever the sins of man ask for it.
In many respects, the sins of man are still what we’re dealing with – just different ones. With God-botherers, it usually centres around man’s carnal appetites when the outraged Almighty intervenes; with the climate change crowd, it’s down to man’s insatiable greed and his indifference towards the damage being done to the environment as long as he can make a profit. Christian fundamentalists have the Holy Book and climate change fundamentalists have science. Both have their merits as source material and both have their failings – though those for whom either the Bible or science are the Gospel will not countenance these failings. Climate change was held up as the guilty party in Australia by some, though the country’s lengthy history of wildfires tearing through the vast landmass is well documented and predates modern global warming. Equally, the climate in California that draws the public to it has also been prone to perennial outbreaks, something that has become more noticeable today in that more corners of the state are now populated than ever before.
It is true that the temperature of the planet has increased in recent years and this undoubtedly means the risk of fires wreaking havoc on the land, on wildlife, and on people will increase with it. The pollution in the atmosphere for which man and his industry does indeed need to take responsibility has certainly played its part in accelerating the process; but to ignore the fact that the earth has routinely heated up and cooled down over millennia, and to turn a blind eye to how the current situation can be viewed in that historical context, is a dishonest bending of the argument to fit one’s personal position. If anything, there are several causes at play simultaneously, with climate change merely one of them. The silhouette of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge against a toxic-looking fiery orange sky is unquestionably a dramatic, apocalyptic image; but it shouldn’t be utilised as political propaganda in the way the Democrats are predictably utilising it in the year of a Presidential Election.
I remember a few years back, watching a documentary on the English obsession with the country life and the craving for a rural idyll. The cliché of the wealthy couple departing the big city and relocating to the green and pleasant land was covered comprehensively, as was the fact that many do so on the misguided understanding that the green and pleasant land will respond to its new residents on the urbanites’ terms. A farmer spoke of recent new arrivals to his village, arrivals aggrieved by the aroma of his manure drifting in their direction or complaining about being woken by his cockerel at the crack of dawn. How bloody inconsiderate of the countryside! Wealthier Californians stretching their legs and setting up home in a great outdoors that has always seen wildfires leaving that outdoors a scorched wasteland seems like an extreme extension of this mindset; just because man has encroached further into one-time wilderness doesn’t mean nature will cease its more nihilistic activities simply to suit him and his concept of getting back to the garden – especially when the temperature is more conducive to such a scenario.
Of course, if our old friends Extinction Rebellion amounted to more than narcissistic circus performers disrupting the lives of city-dwellers with infantile glee, they’d be in California; they’d be rescuing terrified and injured animals from the wreckage, and providing assistance to families who’ve lost everything they own and no longer have a roof over their heads. But they’re not. They talk a good fight, yet are conspicuously absent when their obsession has its Ground Zero locations crying out for help. One of the regular complaints at the height of the Australian inferno was the cutting back on investment in the management of the land, and President Trump appears to have hinted that investment in California’s damaged areas might help minimise the chances of this year’s devastation being revisited on the state in the near future.
But whatever or not investment is made, the fact remains that California has been experiencing a severe drought for the best part of 20 years, and more than 2.3 acres have been lost to wildfires this year alone; the fires are going to happen, so it’s a case of being able to manage them better than the impossible task of preventing them altogether. Intense heat-waves have characterised the last few months in America’s western states, including Washington state and Oregon (where fires have also wreaked havoc); indeed, what is believed to be one of the highest temperatures ever recorded – 130F – was recorded in California recently. At the same time, and perhaps reflecting the variable conditions in such a huge country, other states such as Colorado have been experiencing record low temperatures that have spawned winds which have travelled into the fire-stricken states and contributed to the spread of the carnage. Meanwhile, down south, states such as Alabama and Florida have been battered by Storm Sally; as the hurricane has moved north-east, it has brought severe flooding to Georgia and the two Carolinas. Once again, those in the path of Mother Nature are realising Mother Nature will do as she pleases – even if her timing seems especially terrible.
One might almost conclude that the schizophrenic climactic chaos in the US at the moment is some sort of metaphor for the chaotic state of the nation as a whole; from the outside looking in, America does not appear to be a country at ease with itself. It goes without saying that for a Brit to observe this from a position of smug security would be farcical; we don’t seem to be any less divided on this side of the Atlantic; it’s just that America always does everything on a far bigger scale simply because it’s so bloody massive. Add a global pandemic and its consequently unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties to the mix and you’ve got an inevitably combustible recipe for disaster. The ‘Disneyfication’ of the natural world in recent years has turned a blind eye to the fact that life on earth has always been a battle. As David Bowie once said, ‘the Earth is a bitch’; I won’t say we’ve finished our news and that Homo-Sapiens have outgrown their use, though – not yet, anyway…
© The Editor