In 2017, the weather in California was the hottest in history. It was hotter than in 2016, which was also the hottest in history. The vineyard owners spoke nervously of how difficult it was to find people willing to pick grapes in this heat. The apple trees dropped all their apples. Over the summer the smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning throughout the state gave me a chronic cough, which turned into walking pneumonia. People began to talk about how illnesses are getting weirder these days. I decided to attend a climate change action meeting I had seen announced in the local newspaper.
It was an experimental prototype course founded on the ideas in George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. After spending fifteen years studying climate change–denying microcultures, Marshall concluded that facts don’t change people’s minds; only stories do. We’re so motivated by wanting to belong that we’d rather risk the dangers of climate change than the more immediate symbolic death of estrangement from our peers. In order to address climate change in our communities, Marshall suggests, we must appeal to the same desires that religion does: for belonging, consolation, and redemption.
For this reason, the purpose of the group — or “fellowship,” as the organizers called it — was to borrow the most effective tools of religion to create a community of people who would work together when it was time to implement policy change, or even take to the streets. Their aim was to galvanize 3.5 percent of the local population — the number social scientists estimate is the tipping point for effecting social change.
You had to apply to the prototype course, so after the informational meeting I wrote the organizers the following email, thinking there’d be a lot of competition:
I attended your Information Session last night at the Sonoma County Land Trust . I marked the sheet stating that I would like to take the course you are offering but I just want to reiterate how much. I grew up with a dad who would regale us with climate change statistics over the dinner table. If my brother said he was going to a Giants game, my dad would say that he better enjoy it now because there weren’t going to be any Giants games in the future. Hanging on the wall was a color-coded map he created of what property values would be worth when ocean levels rose in the Bay Area. He terrorized all my friends by describing how the atmosphere would start to smell like rotten eggs as soon as the oceans warmed and started pluming carbon. In effect, I assumed that by 2020, life on Earth wouldn’t exist anymore. I teach environmental studies and am looking for ways that I can bring hope to my students but also help motivate them (as well as myself). I found your session to be inspiring, especially in its emphasis on fellowship and taking concrete action, and I felt a newfound joy that I hadn’t felt in a while. I feel ready to take on the commitment that this course asks for.
The organizers tried many methods for cultivating a feeling of fellowship. They’d start the session by banging a gong, or by reciting a poem by William Stafford or the former mayor. They encouraged us to discuss our vulnerabilities. But the most effective method was to scare the crap out of us with mini-lectures about the realities of climate change, which bonded us in common terror.
We were presented, at the beginning, with a self-proclaimed “humorless, brain-numbing deep dive into climate science.” They told us it wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. Climate scientists had predicted that by 2017 we would be at 380 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but we were already past 410 ppm.
The man who presented this information was, like my father, a local architect. Scrunching up his face he said, “I don’t want to depress you, but I want to tell it to you straight.” He told us that when he designs a house he has to deal with very strict building codes, which are intended to prevent worst-case scenarios. By contrast, the Paris Agreement — whose purpose is to limit the temperature increase over the second half of the century to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — doesn’t address worst-case scenarios. “Would you put a loved one on an airplane if the airplane had a 50 percent chance of making it across the Atlantic?” he asked.
The most effective glue for bonding, our organizers said, was collaboration: we needed a goal we could all work toward. Our goal was to phase out the internal combustion engine in California by 2030. They gave us questionnaires so we could spend the next week testing the public’s receptivity to this idea. Here are some of the responses we got:
What happens if the power goes out?
Where do the cars on the road go? Do we get a free car? What happens to the oil companies? Would you be punished for having a gas car?
Do I have to get rid of my brand-new car? How did we get into this mess? What can we do to ensure our children can understand so they know what is going on by the time they get through high school?
Why not just get everyone to stop eating meat instead? Agriculture creates as many greenhouse gases as automobiles. Haven’t you seen Cowspiracy?
There are so many other issues. Why electric cars? We need to change our habits!
Our schools should feature human relationships and our relationship to the Earth. The 4 Rs: Reading, ’Riting, Rithmetic, Relationships.
Could I go to Nevada to buy a car?
Isn’t solar produc tion toxic?
What will I do with my beloved van that carries all my stuff day after day?
Would there be violent, emotional reactions to such a “radical” move? How do we deal with that reaction?
I like it . Get there!
Proud of you, Bill, for being involved. It’s inspiring.
I’m not driving an electric car! I’m allergic to electricity and SMART meter rays!
2030 may be too late to avoid some of the most catastrophic climate & social issues.
We have such a gas + car culture. Why do we let high schoolers drive to school? We need to change the consciousness. Only HS kids who work should have a car.
I asked my friend who works as a photographer for the Red Cross for her take on the electric-car issue. She said it was a good idea and invited me to help her install smoke alarms on houseboats in Sausalito.
“You should come,” she said. “Get to know the houseboat community.”
It’s true that I was looking for community. I’d recently sent my friend an email about Russian House #1, a restaurant on the Sonoma coast where all the waiters have PhDs and the owners post a daily philosophical question diners are encouraged to discuss with one another. But I was also looking for a house to live in. I started wondering if a houseboat could be the solution to my housing dilemma.
I scanned Craigslist and called my boyfriend, Bongjun.
“Guess what? There’s a way to live in the South Bay without paying a million dollars!” I said. “It’s possible to live there for only a hundred thousand dollars. But actually, I researched it and it’s not possible.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“A houseboat. Three bedrooms for a hundred thousand.”
“I saw a houseboat on Zillow last week,” he said. “It was the kind of boat you discover the New World in. In the picture, the seller was hanging off the mast in a Renaissance costume.”
“But these ones are actual houses. You get to know your neighbors.”
“I don’t want to live in a boat. I’d rather live in a bus.”
“But you’re always talking about how you love water, how you need to live near a river. We could go out in a kayak at night. Row to a restaurant.”
“I don’t like soggy socks.”
“The water doesn’t come into the boat.”
“But I would have soggy socks in my subconscious.”
Anyway, it didn’t matter. It turned out that residents of Docktown, the houseboat community in Redwood City, were being evicted. All the houseboats without school-age children were required to vacate by February. That’s why they were so cheap. But now I was back to negotiating with another person about a place to live in the midst of a housing crisis. “Maybe we could buy the houseboat and put it on some land,” I said. “Then we’ll be all set for when the oceans rise.”
In California, the only people who own houses are people who bought them in the 1970s, work for tech companies, or were on the receiving end of a miracle. In Oakland, the blocks of homeless tarp housing continue to expand. In the grocery store you overhear people talking about the housing crisis. “It’s called BYOH,” the bagger says to the checker. “We buy a piece of land together and you Bring Your Own House.”
In his book, George Marshall writes that people like to point to the Chinese pictogram wēijī, claiming that the character for “crisis” (wēi) is always paired with the character for “opportunity” (jī). But it turns out that jī doesn’t actually mean “opportunity” at all. It means “a moment,” “an airplane,” and, sometimes, “organic chemistry.” I started to wonder if there is a Chinese character that links “trying to solve climate change” with “trying to solve California’s housing crisis.”
The day Trump was elected, the first thing my mom said was, “Is today the day we can start smoking marijuana?” One of the consequences of California’s legalization of marijuana is that industrial agriculture is appropriating the weed business. There are a number of reasonably cheap former pot farms for sale in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Bongjun went to look at one to see if it was an appropriate place to build a sustainable community. Part of the road had been washed away by last winter’s flood, so he had to park at the bottom of the hill. “We’d have to get four-wheel drive to get up there,” he said. “You would really like the house, though. It has a grow room.”
“But I’m not interested in growing marijuana.”
“Oh, is that what grow room means?” he said. “I thought it was a place where Californians go to meditate, and, you know, grow.”
I once read a story called “An Account of My Hut,” by Kamo no Chōmei, a 12th-century Japanese hermit. Chōmei describes how after witnessing a fire, an earthquake, and a typhoon in Kyoto, he leaves society and goes to live in a hut.
Seven hundred years later, Basil Bunting, the Northumberland poet, wrote his own rendition of Chōmei’s story:
Oh! There’s nothing to complain about .
Buddha says: ‘None of the world is good.’
I am fond of my hut . . .
But even if I wanted to renounce the world, I wouldn’t be able to afford a hut in California.
A few months ago, Bongjun and I found a house in Oakland. The real estate agent said we were competing against twenty-eight other bids. She suggested that we write a love letter to accompany our offer.
“A love letter?” my former roommate from Florida said over the phone. “And everyone makes fun of people from Florida? They’re all, ‘That guy put his head in an alligator’s mouth because he smelled licorice in there, but actually the licorice was on his face!’ But that’s nothing compared to having to write a love letter to a house!”
“Well, it’s to the owner of the house,” I told him. “I have to write something like, ‘I will only use biodegradable detergents. I will only plant native plants in the garden. I will keep the bird feeder well stocked . . .’”
“Those people need to cut the cord,” he said. “It’s a house for god’s sake.”
We made an offer well over the asking price and tossed in our love letter, but got outbid by somebody who offered $400,000 over the asking price.
Another day we found a former sheet-metal factory that we thought we could turn into a community performance space. It didn’t have a sewage system, and it’s possible that the previous owner had died from the black mold that encroached on all the surfaces. The factory needed a new roof, and if it burned down it couldn’t be rebuilt because it was constructed in the 1940s, before the road got wider. We still got outbid by $150,000.
My friend from the Red Cross called to invite me to a pop-up house concert in Oakland called Songs of Resilience, a musical journey of sound healing, but I didn’t feel like going. “Is it in a community house?” I asked. “Those people are going to look at me with that condescending look of pity that means they think I haven’t set my willful intentions, that I haven’t made that list of everything I want. But I made the list. It’s just not working out.”
“One of the problems is that Bongjun doesn’t like to drive on curvy roads,” I told my friend. “But the only cheap land available is at the end of a curvy road. There was one affordable place off Highway 17. It was more like an outhouse. The real estate agent was like, ‘Oh, that one? Well, it’s hard to make the turnoff. I might miss the turnoff.’ Instead, he drove us to a house way above what we could pay.”
“It sounds like you’re not enjoying this process,” my Red Cross friend said. “Looking for a house together should be a journey of joy.”
For a moment I believed her and felt a slow sinking feeling. Then I remembered that she’s always insisting that I need to be more open-minded about the tech world, because Silicon Valley offers many opportunities for storytellers.
“Like what?” I asked once.
“Like Fitbit. You track the Fitbit family users. After they exercise, some guys go to the sports bar; their girlfriends go to the frozen yogurt shop. Which user consumes more calories?”
“That’s a story?”
Bongjun and I found a piece of land on top of a mountain, but it didn’t have a single tree. “Why do you need a tree?” Bongjun asked. “There are plenty of neighbors’ trees to look at.” When I thought about it more, I realized that it wasn’t really the top of a mountain so much as the side of a cliff. Maybe we could have put a yurt there.
The next time I talked to my friend from Florida I asked whether he thought I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t on a journey of joy.
“Journey of joy? Ah hahahaha!”
I told him about the treeless mountaintop and the yurt. When he asked what a yurt was, I texted him a picture of the Lotus Belle yurt I’d found online.
“In California the only option is to live in a smurf house?” he asked. “A helicopter is going to be flying overhead and the pilot will look down and see this little puffball on the side of the cliff. ‘What’s that?’ the pilot’s gonna say. ‘A giant Q-tip? No! It’s a Journey of Joy!’”
On our next Journey of Joy, Bongjun and I visited a piece of land that turned out to be the receptacle for all the neighborhood runoff water. Black plastic pipes crisscrossed the marsh. Bring Your Own Boat. Here’s where we could put the houseboat.
Meanwhile, our climate change group provided a metastudy about the 97 percent scientific consensus on climate change. Because scientists never say that something is 100 percent true, and because scientists, by nature, are often poor at communicating on an emotional level and tend to resist alarmist scenarios, the climate-change deniers have been able to point to that 1 to 3 percent of doubt. (Ninety-seven percent is also the proportion of scientists who support the theory of plate tectonics.)
We also learned that 61 percent of Americans say climate change is important to them, but they rarely or never discuss it with people they know. Our homework was to become climate-change evangelists for a month. To prepare, we discussed how to raise the topic with a stranger. “Sure is hot these days,” or “How often do you take the train? Trying to save on fossil fuels?” or “Do you ever remember it being ninety-seven degrees in October?”
I decided, as an experiment in humiliation, to discuss climate change everywhere I went. The following are methods I do not recommend.
1. Bumping into someone’s shopping cart at Safeway. “Oh, sorry, I was just so distracted thinking about climate change.” (Note to self: Try using the phrase “climate disruption,” rather than “climate change.” Or better yet, “global greenhouse gas chamber,” the expression that Wallace Smith Broecker, the man who coined the term “global warming,” wished he had come up with earlier.)
2. After complaining to my boss about the measly salary I make as an adjunct professor: “I apologize for expressing myself in such a heated manner about how impossible it is to live on this salary. I was just really distressed thinking about climate disruption.”
3. During Hurricane Harvey, I was having dinner with my neighbor, whose car has bumper stickers like My other car is a broom and Never fear, the Goddess is here! So it was unsurprising to hear her say, “This hurricane is Earth Mama expressing her anger at the patriarchy!”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m not sure if the hurricane has anything to do with the Earth getting angry. It might have more to do with greenhouse gases. I’m not saying that climate change is causing the hurricane. It acts more like a hormone, or an adverb, an intensification of the qualities already present. I’m afraid things are only going to get worse.” She looked upset. “Wait, what’s the matter?” I asked.
“You’re triggering my PTSD!”
4. I went to my friend’s Blade Runner party, which was filled with fortysomething guys who kept reciting all the lines and knew all the trivia answers. During the pee break, one guy started talking about how we’d all be wearing Google Glass in ten years. “If the Earth doesn’t burn up,” I added.
“Right!” someone interjected. I thought we might be on our way to a useful discussion.
“This party just turned into a real downer,” someone else said, so we went back to the movie.
Oh, no, I thought. I’m turning into my dad. He often told stories about how the heartbeat of the ocean might stop, which would affect the wind and freeze parts of the Midwest and Europe. For this reason I think of discussing climate change as a relaxing family activity. My father’s second wife, on the other hand, got so tired of hearing about global warming that she considered getting a Stop global dooming bumper sticker for her car. When my brother announced that his wife was pregnant, my dad told him he wouldn’t need a college fund since there wouldn’t be any college in the future. My brother, who was tenderly grilling ribs, threw down his barbecue fork and said, “For once I want to talk about life, and not always be focused on the end!” After that, climate change became a forbidden topic on holidays. Now I was rediscovering what I’d understood as a kid: people don’t respond well to threats, to cajoling, to end-of-the-world scenarios, to dystopian futures, to hopelessness.
But as I watched the news about Hurricane Harvey, I was astonished that not a single anchor mentioned climate change. Instead they blamed the flooding on Houston’s pavement. According to George Marshall, those who don’t believe in climate change are less likely to believe in it after a climate disaster. Every single member of our group was confounded by this. “That makes no sense!” we said to one another.
If a person believes that weather fluctuates regardless of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or that catastrophes represent some kind of punishment from God, confirmation bias will lead him to view the latest climate disaster as proof. And after a climate disaster, people feel a heightened sense of community; they don’t want to get into a politicized discussion with the neighbor who just saved their dog. Furthermore, Marshall writes, climate disasters operate according to the same psychological logic as lightning strikes. People who have been struck by lightning tend to believe they are statistically immune to it happening again, even as the actual odds remain the same. And if your house floods due to a changing climate, it is more likely it will flood again. If your house burns down, it is more likely it will burn again.
I was already mentally and emotionally enfeebled from watching so much hurricane disaster news, but I still couldn’t stop watching the hypnotic swirl of Irma. The way the news was reporting it, I thought for sure that this hurricane was going to be the end of America. I called up my friend in Florida. “I’m worried about you and that hurricane,” I told him.
“Oh, really? I haven’t been watching the news.” A few hours later he texted, “Oh, shit!”
Later we exchanged emails. “Did I mention we are binge-watching our way through this hurricane with Dexter?” he wrote. “We didn’t stock up on food so we are eating scrambled eggs and chicken potpies. But do you know what? I honestly get those guys who are shooting into the hurricane. I swear to god. It’s not about shooting the hurricane. It’s about blowing off steam. . . . I’d go outside and fire off a gun if I had one. . . . It’s not my go-to move, but there is something about blowing a big ol’ hole in something from a distance. I used to be a pretty good target shooter. OMG. A new food update from my fam. With a side of no concern for safety.”
The night the fires started in Northern California, Bongjun and I had an argument. Afterward, he took out the garbage. “Come here,” he said when he opened the door. “Check out how hot it is outside.” A little while later, the wind started to sound like airplane engines.
The following morning, my mom and my aunt both told me that they’d thought we were being attacked by North Korea.
This is how Kamo no Chōmei describes the fire that broke out in Kyoto:
It was, I believe, the twenty-eighth day of the fourth month of 1177, on a night when the wind blew fiercely without a moment of calm, that a fire broke out toward nine o’clock in the southeast of the capital and spread northwest . It finally reached the gates and buildings of the palace, and within the space of a single night all was reduced to ashes. The fire originated in a little hut where a sick man lodged.
The fire fanned out as the shifting wind spread it, first in one direction and then another. Houses far away from the conflagration were enveloped in the smoke, while the area nearby was a sea of flames. The ashes were blown up into the sky, which turned into a sheet of crimson from the reflected glare of the fire, and the flames, relentlessly whipped by the wind, seemed to fly over two or three streets at a time. Those who were caught in the midst could not believe it was actually happening: some collapsed, suffocated by the smoke, others surrounded by flames died on the spot . Still others barely managed to escape with their lives, but could not rescue any of their property: all their treasures turned into ashes. How much had been wasted on them!
Sixteen mansions belonging to the nobility were burnt, not to speak of innumerable other houses. In all, about a third of the capital was destroyed. Several thousand men and women lost their lives, as well as countless horses and oxen. Of all the follies of human endeavor, none is more pointless than expending treasures and spirit to build houses in so dangerous a place as the capital.
And this is Basil Bunting’s rendition:
On the twentyseventh May eleven hundred
and seventyseven, eight p.m., fire broke out
at the corner of Tomi and Higuchi streets.
In a night
palace, ministries, university, parliament
were destroyed. As the wind veered
flames spread out in the shape of an open fan.
Tongues torn by gusts stretched and leapt .
In the sky clouds of cinders lit red with the blaze.
Some choked, some burned, some barely escaped.
Sixteen great officials lost houses and
very many poor. A third of the city burned;
several thousands died; and of beasts,
Men are fools to invest in real estate.
Neither writer mentions the paper that falls from the sky.
On the evening of the eighth of October, in the seventeenth year of this century, severe gusts of dry winds blew across desiccated grasses and diseased trees caused by years of excessive heat and drought. A great flood that year had fattened grasses into combustible fuel. The wind knocked down power lines that lit the trees on fire. The firestorm destroyed a thousand homes in a single neighborhood. Neighbors pounded on neighbors’ doors, honking horns, trying to rescue one another. It took hours to leave town. Most people reported that drivers were calm, though a few resorted to the sidewalk, the median, and the opposite side of the road. One woman managed to stuff her pony in the back seat of her Honda Accord. Another woman had to choose between saving her car or her horse. She jumped on her horse in her pajamas and rode away from the flames. The fires burned for over a week, killed forty-four people, and destroyed more than ten thousand structures and 380 square miles of land. It was the most destructive fire in US history to date.
During the fires I took walks, and I tried to read the paper falling from the sky. I wanted to collect the scattered notes, but they disintegrated when I picked them up, leaving the smell of poison on the tips of my fingers. The paper pieces lay curled like chocolate shavings. They were all the size of my palm. I was looking for stories, but I could only find information. Bible pages (sections from Genesis); cell phone bills; pieces of romance novels (so many of those); perfectly preserved letters so meticulously burned around the edges they looked the way letters do when you burn them in fourth grade to make them look romantic; gold-embossed stationery with someone’s name written over and over in tiny letters at forty-five-degree angles; musical scores; Swedish vacation package-tour brochures; pieces of phone books (people still have phone books); a kid’s homework (he did poorly); journal pages (so many pages of people talking to themselves); as well as tar paper and bits of insulation burned thin as paper. I walked and walked and tried not to breathe. Why was the sky directly above me blue, while everywhere else it was gunmetal gray flickering with particulate matter? Everyone spoke of particulate matter. In the hardware store all you needed to say was “Where are they?” and they’d point you to the pile of N95 masks. Someone passed me on the trail. I imagined he was judging me for not wearing a mask, but I couldn’t read his expression because he was wearing one. I looked at the dun, shoulder-high grass; that explosive fuel, the color of pale grasshoppers, was all that stood between an out-of-control fire and me. The news never reported where the active fire was. We only knew that it was completely uncontained and that all effort was focused on rescuing people, evacuating the hospital, getting elderly people out of their homes. All we could do was hope the winds wouldn’t change. I walked into the grasses to get away, to get away from the panic on people’s faces.
There was no digesting this fire. There was no beginning, middle, end. I couldn’t stop thinking about Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, which was now decimated. I hadn’t walked on Sugarloaf Ridge in years, but whenever I used the words poison oak, or gallop, or fog my mind flashed femtosecond images of the park. Now it was ash. My old high school had burned down, as well as everything along the roads to get there.
Before the fires I’d been teaching a class on ecology. We were learning about systems theory and the interdependency of ecosystems, how trees communicate and send messages and medicines to other parts of the forest, how trees draw up water to share with other plants. We watched the Stevie Wonder video about his journey to the secret life of plants. We read a book about how to enter the imaginations of plants. We read stories of how bees know the location of every flower in a sixty-mile vicinity. We learned how butterflies make tinctures of nectar-soaked pollen grains and how elephants concoct forest booze and get drunk. We learned how a chimpanzee will fold a leaf like an accordion and swallow it so that it scrapes away the worms in his digestive tract.
We learned how insects can digest the compounds in eucalyptus and create poop that inhibits the growth of encroaching plants, like mustard. This is probably one reason why the eucalyptus has been so successful as an invasive species here. But why, in the 1850s, when the government planted eucalyptus throughout California at maniacal speed because its fast-growing wood was essential for railroad ties and fence posts, did these trees, unlike the old-growth groves in Australia, twist when they dried and become so hard they were no longer suitable for building? And now the volatile oils in their leaves turned out to be extremely combustible. In seasonably dry climates, native oaks are fire resistant, but with the introduction of eucalyptus we introduced an extreme fire hazard. I stared at the eucalyptus twisting in the heat.
The weekend before the fires I attended a grief workshop sponsored by the climate change group. They told us grief processed on one’s own turns to despair, but grief processed communally becomes medicine. Now that we knew the reality of climate change, we would grieve the Earth. That way grief wouldn’t hold us back when it was time to mobilize. To prepare us, they drew two circles on the board. Your Comfort Zone was written inside one circle. In the second circle, some distance from the first, they wrote, Where the Magic Happens.
The day before the workshop I had gone to the ocean to prepare but realized I wasn’t yet ready to grieve the Earth. When I looked at the sea and the tangled seaweed on top, all I could think of was the word holdfast, the name for the dangly part of seaweed that clings to rock. Our climate group had read a poem about holdfast, and we had been encouraged to use it to steady ourselves when things got rough. Instead of reciting poems about the sea and cliffs and black rock as I used to while walking this beach, I now thought about how the oceans have been absorbing more than half of the CO2 in the atmosphere, along with 90 percent of the excess heat. I thought of pH balances and dying plankton, and of how the last time the oceans were this acidic, 96 percent of ocean life went extinct.
At the grief workshop we drummed and journaled. The facilitator said that because we are continuously bombarded by bad news, we live in a state of chronic secondary trauma. It starts as soon as we are born with our cave-child DNA, expecting to see forty pairs of eyes looking toward us, asking us what we dreamed that night, if we want to help collect firewood, if we’ll be at the ceremony tonight with the elders. Our psyches were never prepared to deal with the isolation of American culture, nor the sadness of the tragedies we see every day, nor the reality of our dying ecosystems. For hundreds of thousands of years grief rituals recalibrated the fields of trauma. These days there is no communal cup of sorrow; there is only psychotherapy, which colludes with the privatization of property, the privatization of consciousness, and the privatization of grief — with “own your sorrow.” These days, the great fear we have about grief is that we have to face it alone. And so people avoid it and it settles like sediment over our psyches. There is personal grief, but since we are all connected, there is also the sorrow we feel for the world right now. And that cannot be processed alone. We cannot think our way through this mess. Nor can we moralize our way through it. Our workshop leader suggested that the thing that will save us may be our own broken hearts, for true action can only come through these deeper feelings.
The night after the workshop, I got into an argument with Bongjun. I was sitting on the floor because all the other flat surfaces were covered by lab equipment and mechanical parts. There were boxes of electronics, wires, sensors, laser parts, and, in the kitchen, an old dentist’s light he’d accidentally bought on eBay. On shelves were laser-diode-current supplies, an oscilloscope probe, a function generator, a piezoelectric transducer driver, a microscope, boxes of lab snacks (just the boxes, not the snacks), a laser temperature controller, and, his favorite item, Marvin, the perpetually depressed robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“What is this?” I asked, pushing aside some sort of mechanical part.
“It’s a transmission gear piece. They were getting rid of it at my work.”
“You should get out of the Silicon Valley rat race and dedicate yourself to transitioning to a green economy,” I heard myself saying. “You’re a scientist. You can help develop technologies. This article says we have to treat climate change like we are fighting World War II. For example, we have to start movements where everyone paints their roofs white to try to dissipate the heat before it reaches a 2 degree Celsius rise. We have to cut carbon emissions now,” I said. “Here’s an article about what we can do to stay below a 2 degree rise. There are solutions. If you were to really internalize that we are the first generation to see the effects of climate change and the last generation to be able to do anything about it, would you change your life?” Even while I spoke I could hear myself sounding like a maniac. I kept reminding myself that people don’t respond well to threats, to cajoling, to end-of-the-world scenarios. But I couldn’t help it. I was in a bad mood because it was so hot outside.
Many years ago I lived in Korea. During the summers it would get so hot by eight in the morning that I’d have to stop at 7-Eleven on my way to the subway to buy honeydew-melon popsicles, or cold cans of pine-bud sodas, the drink invented by Korea’s forest service. On the radio station inside the 7-Eleven, the announcers would warn everyone to be careful and avoid arguments in their work environments because the “uncomfort” index was high. Studies have shown that people’s tempers flare in high heat.
“Yes, it’s the right thing to do,” Bongjun finally said calmly, in response to my grief workshop–induced rage. “But if it were really that bad, as bad as you say, don’t you think Google would be doing something about it?”
On the fourth night of the fires, the humidity plummeted again, and anxiety peaked. A dry wind was expected to blow almost as strongly as on the night the fires started.
I packed a suitcase full of clothes and looked around my room. Should I pack the vase I bought in Turkey? How about the old Soviet tourist books about Tbilisi? How was it possible to choose between items of sentimental value? Better to leave it all.
“At least we have the public pool across the street,” my mom said. We’d heard about the couple who took refuge in their neighbor’s pool while their own house burned. They stayed in the water for six hours, covering their faces with wet shirts whenever they had to come up to breathe. “How long does it take for a house to burn?” the woman had wondered underwater.
My sister-in-law called and said, “Remember how when your brother and I first got married and your dad was always talking about global warming? Turns out he was right!” My dad called: “I’ve been needing Ambien to sleep. I’ll forgo that tonight.”
The next day, having survived the night and craving fresh air, I drove to the ocean. I was searching for clean air, but smoke covered the soot-colored sea all the way to the horizon. I could have felt guilty for driving a car with an internal combustion engine, but guilt goes on hold during fires. I sped on my way home, because the rule of law no longer applies during fires. This is the wildness that descends. This is the triggered reptilian brain. During the fires we craved sugar and fat and ordered take-out pizza and didn’t mention that we usually never order pizza. During the fires my neighbor, the goddess, forgot she was gluten intolerant. During the fires all I could think of was the word holdfast.
We made a plan. It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. If the wind blew the fire this way we’d get in our cars and head to the ocean. If the fire kept following us, we would drive into the ocean.
My friend who hosted the Blade Runner party texted me: “I bought a fog maker for my upcoming Halloween party. But now with all the smoke outside I don’t need it anymore.”
A student of mine complained that he still had to work at the bank during the fires, since his branch was the only one open in the region. In one day customers deposited $600,000 in cash — a record — which they must have been keeping under their mattresses. My student said that all day his nerves were on edge because people kept walking into the bank wearing N95 masks. The firemen told us that the masks don’t actually help much.
A friend who was evacuated said he grabbed his two dogs and two banjos and hustled into his car. Driving away he realized he had forgotten to pack any clothes. During fires you hear, over and over, “I lost everything, but at least I have my life.” A couple of people, after losing everything, knocked on the door of a man whose house was for sale. They said, “We’ve lost everything. Can we buy your house and everything in it?” He left everything he owned to them, including his toaster and bath towels.
My friend from the Red Cross described the evacuation center in Napa where she worked. There was face painting, acupuncture, aromatherapy, medicinal teas, massages, a whole Sikh temple feeding five hundred people with blessed food. “And Dreamers,” she said, crying over the phone. “You know the Dreamers? Red Cross doesn’t take donations, but there were so many donations we didn’t know what to do with them. And then this woman, this random woman off the street, came in and said she would organize it all. She took it all out to the racquetball courts, arranged care packages of shoes — different sizes — and food, put it in backpacks. And for three days cars would pull in, ten at a time, and these Dreamers, behind the scenes, afraid for their lives, distributed all these packages.”
The songs on the local radio stations were especially upbeat during the fires. They interspersed Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” with quotes from locals who had lost their houses. “Fires are burning in eight California counties,” the news announcer said with the Tom Petty beat in the background. A woman’s voice: “I came out to get my dog and looked down the ridge and saw a glow and I looked at the wind and I told my parents that they might want to pack up something just in case, and my mom said that the fire was already at the bottom of the hill . . . No I won’t back down, no I won’t back down. You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down . . .” Another woman: “I just want to thank all of you first responders. I love you all from the bottom of my heart. I thank you all for being there. For being away from your families, to help everyone else out there . . . Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out. Hey . . . we are Sonoma County strong . . .”
I cried when the song came on, though I’d already heard it five times. I cried while driving, and when I saw the banners on every highway overpass: Thanks, first responders. Thank you, firefighters. Or the signs in front of the cafés: Firefighters eat for free. Even as the fire raged on.
All the Mexican restaurants were closed except one. I went in to get a burrito and found it full of evacuees. “Sure is busy here,” people kept saying. One man said to the cashier, “It’ll have to be bulldozed. Totally demolished. How was yours?”
My family decided to go for a picnic. When we called the Point Reyes ranger station to check the weather and the recording said “Smoke,” we stayed home instead. But still had a picnic. Outside. In the smoke.
Over the beet salad, I brought up the need to join together to find climate change solutions to a young relative who works in tech. He said, “Evolutionary theory says that diverse species never collaborate. People only want to take care of their families.”
“But humans have never encountered the reality of climate change,” I said. “Maybe this will rearrange our biology.”
He shrugged. “Why worry? Technology will take care of everything. If the Earth goes, we’ll just live in spaceships. We’ll have 3D printers to print our food. We’ll be eating lab meat. One cow will feed us all. We’ll just rearrange atoms to create water or oxygen. Elon Musk.”
“But I don’t want to live in a spaceship.”
He looked genuinely surprised. In his line of work, he’d never met anyone who didn’t want to live in a spaceship.
When I told my aunt that in my class we were trying to read the minds of plants, she said, “Can you teach me how to read the mind of a plant?”
“I haven’t really figured it out yet, but according to the book, you first have to believe that you can do it.”
Bongjun said, “The only way you’ll be able to read the mind of a plant is if you slow your metabolism way down. Humans can’t slow their metabolisms to the rhythm of a plant. Plant thoughts are too slow for humans to understand.”
But I’d been practicing the long, slow view. Nature’s metabolism works much more sluggishly than ours; the cumulative effects of CO2 are slow but steady, like a tortoise, or a bionic woman in slow motion. I tried to listen. I took a rock and used it as a clock. I started thinking in geologic time. Started thinking one thousand years into the future, after the great extinction. Started thinking about the time after the age of heat and darkness when that other version of humanity would need solar and wind technology.
In 2004, Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, wrote State of Fear, one of the few novels about climate change. Crichton’s book is about a group of “eco-terrorists” from the Environmental Liberation Front who set out to trigger natural disasters in order to foment mass panic about climate change and install a “green” dictatorship. It includes a dense technical appendix to “prove” climate change is a myth. George W. Bush spent an hour with Crichton in the Oval Office and then presented the novel as “scientific” evidence to the US Senate that climate change was a hoax.
In his book The Great Derangement, the novelist Amitav Ghosh writes that not too long ago, everyone who lived in the Sundarbans, the dense jungle along the Bay of Bengal, had a family member who had been killed by a tiger. Those who escaped would describe the weird, uncanny look of mutual recognition when they met the tiger’s gaze: an expression of preternatural wildness and intimate communication with the nonhuman. Ghosh says that now, in the age of anthropogenic climate change, we will confront that wildness again, this time in the eye of the hurricane, the tongue of a flame. Stories will become more alien, less human, more strange. The stranger the stories, the more we will recognize them and be recognized in them. They will speak, in his words, of the “interconnectedness of the transformations that are now under way.”
After the fires we watched Josh Fox’s documentary How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. We realized that indigenous movements are the most active in facing climate change. And every one of them knows how to dance. We realized that if we want to save the planet, we have to learn how to dance.
Bongjun finally read the peer-reviewed articles by climate scientists. He spent a long time studying the graphs, in the same way he once studied the medley of eight prescription medicines his mother had accidentally mixed together, and finally announced about the square-shaped ones, “Actually, these are chewing gum.”
“It’s scary,” he said, pointing at the West Coast on the map. “The West Coast will burn up. Korea, and the rest of Asia, will go through a famine. The only problem with solar is storage capacity. I could try to get a job in a national lab experimenting with hydrogen fusion. But I don’t know if they’ve made much progress on that since I was in the seventh grade.”
It was still hot: ninety-five degrees in late October. We wondered if winter would ever come again. You can’t get into a pumpkin-carving mood when it’s so hot. On Halloween a few kids came looking for candy, but it seemed like everyone else went to the movies. The parking lot at the theater was full.
I had a dream that I had to evacuate, and the only thing I grabbed was the leftover bag of Halloween candy. I handed out Kit Kats to people as we ran from the fire.
After the fires people posted the most random item they grabbed when they evacuated.
daughter’s piggy bank with $2.35 in coins in it
Grandmother’s Christmas cactus
the cat-scratcher tree
a Hermione wand
the cookie cutters
all the beer
kids’ pinewood derby trophies
the sewing machine
the spice rack
son’s Darth Vader alarm clock
husband’s Hawaiian shirt collection
jury duty notice for the next day
the cat-litter box and all the cat litter
a toothbrush (even though the man who grabbed this one was evacuating to a dentist’s office)
a jar of Miracle Whip (because they were evacuating to a mayo-heavy household)
Bongjun and I finally found a hut in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was part of a co-op with twenty other little houses. Maybe this was it! Maybe this was our sustainable community. The day we were set to drive down there, the whole region caught on fire. It burned for a while. “I can’t take much more of this,” I thought.
The fires didn’t discriminate between the houses of the rich and the poor. Everyone’s pearls melted, no matter how large. Nor did they discriminate between the houses of the “realists” and the “idealists.” After the fires, the realists wanted to rebuild as fast as possible with the same footprint. The original developers of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, which was destroyed by the fires, offered to use updated versions of their old floor plans in rebuilding efforts. Homeowners were upset to learn that they were now required to rebuild in adherence with the 2016 California Green Building Standards Code. They argued that they shouldn’t have to.
Before the fires, the builders who showed up to city council meetings were the same people every time — they all seemed to be on a first-name basis. But after the fires, something changed. People began presenting ideas to install rain-catchment and gray-water systems, community gardens, and bike paths. They wanted to revamp the land-use laws, change the zoning for tiny houses, use fire-resistant straw-bale construction and concrete and foam. The city council was inundated with people wanting to rebuild with green roofs and walls, to rebuild in a way that would promote bees and carbon-capturing methods, even permaculture methods and composting plants. City officials looked a little frightened as they listened to a large group of people talk about a town in Kansas that rebuilt with renewable energy after getting hit by a tornado. More than seven hundred people showed up for a breakfast sponsored by Daily Acts, an organization that builds community by working with neighborhoods to turn lawns into drought-tolerant gardens. A farmer who had lost his farm and all of his bees spoke at the podium: “Why can’t Sonoma County always be able to feed its poor?” My neighbors started talking about “agrihoods,” a new trend in which affluent, slow-foodie millennials move to neighborhoods surrounding a farm, instead of to the golf-course communities of their parents’ generation. My dad even wrote an op-ed about it.
After the fires, I started reading a book by Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean French filmmaker/poet/therapist who maintains an unusual psychotherapy practice. If someone feels poor in spirit, or even in material wealth, he’ll prescribe that they glue coins to the bottoms of their shoes so that they feel like they are always walking on money. He describes how Chile, being “a poetic country,” graciously accepted his poetic acts. He and a friend once decided to walk in a straight line across the city, disregarding any obstacles they encountered. Sometimes this would mean having to walk through people’s houses. This is how he describes it:
Having rung the bell of a house and having explained to the lady of the house that we were poets in action and that our mission required us to cross her house in a straight line — she understood perfectly and had us leave through the back door. For us, this crossing of the city in a straight line was a grand experience, the way we managed to avoid all the obstacles. Little by little, we went about inventing more extreme acts. . . . Another day, we put a large quantity of coins in a bag full of holes and traveled to the center of the city. . . .
Also, we dedicated ourselves to very innocent acts that were no less powerful, like putting a beautiful shell in the hand of the conductor when he came to take our bus tickets. The man stood there stupefied for a long time without saying anything.
He goes on to say,
Life is like that, you understand? Totally unpredictable. You think things will happen this way or that way and, in reality, while standing on the corner talking to a friend, you can be run over by a truck; you can run into an old lover and go to a hotel to make love; or the roof can fall on your head while you work. The telephone can ring to announce the best or the worst of news. Our acts as young poets were performed to prove this, to swim against my parents’ rigid world. . . .
My father practiced Psychomagic without knowing it: He was convinced that the more merchandise he had, the more he would sell. He had to give shoppers the image of superabundance. . . .
What is generally called “reality” is just a part, an aspect of a much greater order.