Fireproof (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

fire photo courtney schoenemann

(This is a work of fiction. The characters are invented, and build upon the characters in the stories Flywheel and Distracted. The painting is real, and awesome. And the fires were real. Fire photo by Courtney Schoenemann. Artwork “Burden of Guilt” is by Rogene Manas.)

“Jeez, look at that. There’s fires up ahead as far as you can see, some of them right beside the highway! I wonder if this is part of that combined mega-forest fire they’ve been fighting for a month now. Awesome.”

Rafe took his cap off as the four of us stopped our bicycle ride home to survey the flames running along the ridges ahead and to the right of us, on the far side of the highway our trail paralleled. He looked frightened and awed by the sight. There were dozens of fire trucks with flashing lights along the highway, and several helicopters hauling water from the river to the fire sites. Smoke blew across the highway and the bike and hiking trail beyond.

“Believe it or not,” said Lori, “this isn’t even big enough to make the papers, unless there’s a photo op in it. This is a grass fire not a forest fire, and it’s too far west to be part of the Deception Complex fire. If it were a serious or uncontained fire with any risk of jumping the highway they would have closed the highway. They’re probably focused on reverse-911 calls to tell area residents that they should keep the 911 lines clear unless the fire comes within a certain distance of their homes or barns. This thing’s well under control.”

“Wow, I’m impressed, Lori,” Daria chimed in. “How do you come to know so much about fires?”

“I took a Fire Science course a couple of years ago. I thought I might want to sign up as a wildfire fighter, since I figure as global warming accelerates, it will be an increasingly handy skill to have, especially around here.”

“What made you give it up?” Daria asked, watching intently as firefighters extinguished a line of fire no more than 100 yards from them.

“Too macho for me,” Lori said. “The training regimen is military, which is where a lot of firefighters come from. I decided I could do just as much good as an EMT, without all the heavy lifting, so I chose to do that instead.”

I looked up at the helicopters and commented: “I read that if the atmosphere had just a little more oxygen than it does, a single lightning strike might be enough spark to ignite and burn every tree on the planet,” I said. “Guess it’s not surprising that our messing up the delicate balance of gases in the atmosphere is having such dire effects.”

“Yup,” Rafe said. “Seeing fires like this break out almost spontaneously is going to become commonplace. Mega-fires are now expected to pretty much extinguish the boreal forests of North America and Asia by mid-century, if the north-migrating insects don’t wipe them out first. Ironically, more rain in the tropics is supposed to actually reduce naturally-occurring forest fires there as the climate changes, but the tropical forests are being cleared for crops, mostly using slash-and-burn, fast enough to clear them out by the mid ‘30s anyway. Get ready for tree museums, I guess.” He sighed.

I pondered out loud whether, as climate change made fire and flood insurance unaffordable and then unavailable, if it might cause people to become less attached to their ‘stuff’.

Rafe looked at me dubiously, and replied: “People can’t imagine things getting that bad that fast. They read Berton’s book about the Great Depression, when sisters had to take turns going to school because they had only one dress between them, and they think he’s making it up. People from the 1% in 1929 going door to door asking to do odd jobs for food in 1931. People can’t change that fast; it’s too hard. No one believes it will really happen, that the economy will collapse or that billions of people will have to migrate or that runaway climate change will wipe out all the forests in their lifetimes. Complexity and punctuated equilibrium and tipping points are all too unfathomable for the human mind to comprehend.”

I laughed. “If people can think it is even slightly sane to live in a big house in a big city or suburb that produces almost no essentials of life, and expect that civilization’s systems will always be able to provide them with whatever they want and need as long as they have this magical stuff called ‘money’, then how can we expect them to imagine anything changing that much?”

burden of guilt rogene manas

We resumed our bike ride home from the gallery tour we’d been visiting. We rode silently for a while. Then Lori said “Remember that amazing painting by Rogene Manas we saw at the mayor’s gala? That one with the woman with all the ‘arrows of guilt’ in her basket and sticking into her body, each one with a label? I really related to that as a woman. I’m curious if you guys feel guilty about the same things she and I do?”

Rafe asked what some of the labeled arrows said, and Lori and Daria rhymed a few off that they remembered from the painting.

Not calling home guilt.”
Not giving money to the homeless guilt.”
“Unhealthy eating guilt.”
Not exercising guilt.”
Not picking up hitchhikers guilt.”

Pretty soon Rafe and I chimed in, and soon between us we were coming up with new ones every few seconds:

Watching TV guilt.”
Not spending time with the kids guilt.”
Working too hard guilt.”
Slacking off guilt.”
Forgetting birthdays guilt.” (Lots of agreement on that one.)
Driving instead of walking or biking guilt.”
Eating meat guilt.”
Not signing petitions and not demonstrating against corporatism guilt.”
“Guilt about being poor.”
“Guilt about being too wealthy.”
Yelling at loved-ones guilt.”
Eating out and ordering in guilt.”
“Guilt about our bad habits.”
Not flossing guilt.”
“Guilt about climate change and species loss.”
Complicity with factory farming and animal testing guilt.”
Calling in sick guilt.”
Sleeping in guilt.”
Not cleaning the house guilt.”
Not weeding or lawn-mowing guilt.”
Using power tools guilt.”
“Guilt about being late.”
Daydreaming guilt.”
Buying something you don’t really need guilt.”
Not listening/paying attention guilt.”
Not being good enough guilt” (More nods and sighs.)
Letting people down guilt.”
Not knowing the right answer guilt.”
Trying to ‘fix it’ instead of just listening empathetically guilt.”
Not caring enough guilt.”
Caring too much about crap guilt.”
Half a load in the washer guilt.”
Throwing out anything guilt.”
Not picking up the phone when you see who it’s from guilt.”

“It’s funny,” Daria said. “The ones that are just about guilt are funny, and probably pretty universal. It’s the ones that go beyond guilt, to shame, that are more serious, more personal, more likely to remain unspoken. The stuff that makes you shudder and blush.”

“And the ones that go beyond guilt to grief, like climate change and animal suffering and not knowing how to prevent a future full of fires like the one we just saw,” Lori added. “The stuff that makes you rage and cry and fills you with dread.”

“When our world becomes more precarious, more improvisational, more full of punctuated lurches from crisis to crisis, I’m guessing we’ll put a lot of the guilt and the shame and the grief behind us and get more focused on the real needs of the immediate moment,” Rafe said.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “How do you see this all unfolding, let’s say, for someone living in a coastal North American city, a couple with a young kid?”

“Well, to start”, he replied, “I think cities and suburbs will mostly be abandoned, over a period of several decades. In response to past Depressions, government and military spending soared and the cities were the major beneficiaries, but these days there is no money left, even before the economy fails, for those kinds of major spending rescues. So I see millions — the young and able-bodied mostly — gradually abandoning the cities, especially those cities most affected by coastal storms and growing Western and Southern droughts. And as industrial agriculture collapses, I expect most of them to take up jobs as small farmers or as service providers to small farms, living in towns near arable land. They will include the former 1%, whose paper wealth will be mostly eliminated but who will have the means to buy land and equipment. Foreclosures will be huge at first, but as the value of urban and suburban homes plummets and the jobs there disappear, they’ll be occupied by poor squatters and their mortgages will be written off, as the banks collapse one by one. I think it will be an interesting and exciting time for those healthy and resilient enough to manage the transition.” Rafe, ahead of us on the trail, looked back with an ambivalent shrug.

Guilt about being totally dependent on unsustainable systems,” said Daria, adding to our list. “Or maybe that’s shame.”

“So that means we should all expect to be sorta homeless as we migrate to our new countryside places?” I said. “Glad I bought that book on tiny homes. I was just reading a book by a guy who’s deliberately chosen to live a homeless life for 20 years. His three top pieces of advice were: (1) keep or get a car big enough to migrate and sleep in; (2) stay fit, healthy, dry, out of the sun, and accident-free; and (3) find a troop of 5-7 people who all trust and look after each other. Wanna be in my troop?” I smiled at my friends.

“You wrote that article about the four things we can all do to prepare for collapse: reskilling, community-building, helping people heal, and exemplifying presence and joy for others,” said Lori. “But you also wrote that it’s both too early and too late to do much of anything. I agree with you that it’s too early for reskilling and community-building — we can’t know what skills we’re going to need, or who or where our ‘community’ will be when the shit hits the fan. So if we focus on your other two ideas: helping people heal and exemplifying presence and joy for others, I’m curious to know how you all think we might do that, right now?”

“You’re way ahead of us on ‘helping people heal’ with your EMT work,” said Daria. “But I think before we can be of much help to others healing from ‘civilization disease’, we have to heal ourselves. And to do that we have to know ourselves better than I think most people do. And I think we learn most about ourselves when we’re stretched — when we have to deal with a crisis, when we do something hard in collaboration with others, when we travel to a foreign country and immerse ourself in their culture, when we try things outside our comfort zones. And my sense is that most people don’t do much of any of that. So most of us, I think, are not and won’t be very good healers.”

I nodded to Daria as I pulled up alongside of her: “I think the key to healing anyone is appreciating that we’re all very different, and that we’re complex creatures, that we can never hope to really understand how either our bodies or minds work, let alone our culture, and that just being open and accepting and appreciating what is is most of what we can do, to heal and to help others.”

“You sound like a woman,” Lori said, smiling at me. We stopped cycling and sat beside the river to watch the sunset. “A different kind of fire,” she said, nodding to the sun in a blaze of red and purple clouds, the result of haze from nearby forest fires. “What Daria calls ‘civilization disease’ is so much a part of our culture and our everyday lives that most people won’t even recognize it; they think it’s normal, the only way to live. It’s pretty hard to help someone heal if they can’t or won’t acknowledge that they’re even sick.”

“Well that’s where the ‘exemplifying behaviour’ comes in,” I replied. “If you show people that there’s a more self-knowledgeable, more present, more healthy, more informed way to live, that is still joyful, still full of wonder, that’s far more compelling than telling them they’re sick, or living in denial or illusion. It’s like telling a story instead of telling people what they should do, except that the story is your whole body, your whole life.”

“Maybe,” Rafe said, sounding doubtful. “Or you might just make them feel jealous and resentful and they’ll rationalize that you have what they don’t because of your privilege. People want things to be easy and fun, and showing them an awesome example of what they aren’t can be intimidating, not encouraging.”

“Daniel Quinn says you have to wait until people are ready to listen, that it’s a waste of time and energy to try to convince them of anything until then,” Daria chimed in. “Maybe that applies to exemplifying as well. Or maybe your model of how to live joyfully, like the stories you tell, are just subversive seeds you plant in the hopes that they will germinate when the ‘soil conditions’ are right for those other people, until they are ready to listen. Stories have staying power, and maybe exemplifying behaviour will stick in people’s minds a while, too.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” I replied, “though it’s also true that people tend to reject anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview of how the world works, and only appreciate stuff that confirms what they already believe. Your stories need to be pretty carefully crafted and your exemplifying behaviours need to be pretty subtle and modest to avoid triggering that ‘not-my-worldview’ rejection before the story or the memory even takes root.”

We were quiet for a while until the sun had set and we busied ourselves layering up for the rest of the ride home and getting our bike lights on.

Then I realized Rafe was crying. I embraced him and asked “what’s up, man?”

He composed himself and replied “I’m afraid… I’m afraid of everything. Of not being able to handle the hardship and the suffering and the loss ahead. Of not knowing what’s ahead. Of not knowing whether we’ll even survive it, whether all the struggle will be even worth it… I’m not a believer in any religion or any higher power. I think it’s just us, and we’ve really fucked up, and it’s going to be awful and I just won’t be able to handle it.”

“We’re your troop, man, we’ll make it together. You just finished saying it’s going to be an exciting time for those who are healthy and resilient enough for the transition.” I looked him in the eye.

He looked exasperated. “No one is that healthy and resilient,” he said. “This isn’t like recovering from a storm or a war or a forest fire or a Depression. This is going to be decades long, one thing after another.”

“All the more time to cope with each thing as it comes. We’ll have time in between the struggles for recovery, for healing, for joy. We know it’s not going to be about rebuilding, about getting back to some unsustainable nirvana. It’s going to be about discovery, moving on, learning new things, discovering new places and people, learning to collaborate and help and love people, and be helped an loved in return. We’re in this together. It is going to be exciting. It’s just that it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We need to pace ourselves, learn from our mistakes.” I was making it up as I went along, trying to reassure him, thinking these thoughts for the first time, not sure if I believed them myself.

Daria and Lori joined us and we hugged, the four of us, bikes around us like a circle of wagons protecting us from this terrible, wonderful world.

“So the question for this troop,” Lori said, leaning in and putting her face against Rafe’s shoulder, “is whether this is the right place for us, as things start to change faster and faster. Remember that Sharon Astyk article about when not to ‘adapt in place’? She said there were a bunch of situations when you should move, now. Let me see if I can recall them. One was ‘if your mortgage is under water’; one was ‘if you’re living far away from family or loved ones’, One was ‘if your area is especially vulnerable to climate change’. One was ‘if you don’t share the values of the people in your neighbourhood’. One was ‘if you’re planning on moving anyway, for yourselves or because your kids will have to’. One was ‘if the culture that (once the trappings of civilization are swept away) is inherent to the place you live isn’t a culture you like’. One was ‘if you live in a suburb or exurb that is resource-poor or far from arable land’. And one was ‘if the place you live just doesn’t feel right, to your body or soul.” I think that was the list. How does our ‘home’, our ‘place’ fit with those criteria?”

We thought about the list, going through the criteria one by one. As we mounted our bikes to finish the trip home, Daria said “Awesome list. Makes me feel much better about where we live, now. This is it. This is our place. Billions may have to migrate, or choose to, but I think we’re set, we’re right to make our stand here, take on all comers. What do you think?”

Rafe said, smiling, “Yeah. We’re not there yet, but the values, the culture, the ecology of our place is pretty solid and headed in the right direction. If my troop’s in, so am I.”

“OK then,” said Lori. “Ready for anything. No guilt, no shame, and soon, no time for grief. Agreed?” She looked at me.

“Agreed,” I said, toasting my troop with an invisible wine glass as we rode. And smiling at each of them I added:

“We’re fireproof.”

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