The Fires Out West

I left Seattle on an Amtrak. Heading north, I saw the Olympic peninsula burning. I was watching a rainforest on fire. Rainforests aren’t supposed to be on fire.

I felt almost nothing.

I’ve heard it called “disaster fatigue.” No one on the train reacted while the announcer told us what we were watching. I’d been a committed environmentalist anarchist for more than a decade, and I was numb.

* * *

People maybe rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic while it sank. So what. What do you want them to have done? Run around screaming?

* * *

Right now, Indonesia is on fire. It’s probably the worst environmental disaster of the 21st century, at least so far. A lot of clickbait comes across my social media feeds, asking why we don’t care that the world’s on fire.

It’s not that at all — it’s not that we don’t care. At least, not if other people are anything like me. It’s that we know we’re going to lose. Climate change is not only inevitable, it’s here. Sure, a lot of the architects of manmade climate change are still alive and they’ve got home addresses and everything, but even all the delicious revenge scenarios that float around in my head don’t mean shit. I saw a rainforest on fire.

It’s a cyberpunk apocalypse, too, apparently. This summer, I watched my friends post pictures on Facebook of their neighborhood burning. The science fiction convention WorldCon happened this year in Spokane, Washington, where the air was so thick with smoke it kept everyone trapped inside.

But hey, gas prices are down.

The people who’ve come forward with answers, as leaders, are crackpots like the transmisogynist Derrick Jensen — who wants everyone to pay him speaking fees and join his official-membership, authoritarian anti-civilization movement that doesn’t do anything — or watered-down politicians. Frankly if there’s one thing the 20th century discredited as agents of positive social change more than it discredited authoritarian revolutionists (see: Lenin, Castro, Mao), it’s Western politicians.

There are real social movements, though, grassroots, egalitarian, and brave. There’s real work being done to stop the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. There are people trying to stop pipelines, fracking, mountaintop-removal. Black Lives Matter and other movements fighting against oppression are fighting against the same machinery that has — through centuries of relentless, profit-driven, human-dismissing industrialization — set the world on fire.

* * *

I used to sit in trees when I was younger. I used to blockade forest roads and intimidate the timber companies that wanted to clearcut forests. I’m proud of that. But even then, while I could fathom the problem of clearcutting, I just couldn’t fathom mountaintop removal. For years, I put off going to the coal fields of West Virginia because I didn’t know how to wrap my head around the fact that there are people who are literally leveling mountains like it’s no big deal. It was too much problem. That was probably my first taste of disaster fatigue.

What remains of a mountaintop in West Virginia
What remains of a mountaintop in West Virginia

I got over that, eventually, and went out to photograph the oily moonscapes of what used to be mountains. I saw a town, flooded by runoff from strip mines. I saw other towns that didn’t exist anymore because the coal companies bought them up and demolished them because they didn’t want anyone around to get in the way of their destruction. I trespassed to get to a graveyard of workers who died a hundred years back, and in that overgrown graveyard there’s a stone bunker from which private security forces — the Pinkertons — used to snipe workers they suspected of union organizing. I saw bulldozers knocking down forests and burning the timber because they were coal companies, not timber companies, and what the fuck did they care about trees.

But climate change is beyond even that.

Maybe some people are sticking their fingers (or iPhone earbuds, lets say) in their ears and going “la la la I can’t hear you” because they don’t care. But I think most people are doing it because it seems, and this is a rational conclusion, that the only other option is sheer terror.

It’s one thing to know you’re going to die. It’s another to know that multicellular life on earth might be on its way out, or humanity might go extinct, or some massive percentage of all species are going away. That we, collectively, murdered the future.

Is it any wonder that we’re making a new collective push towards space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life? It would be nice, at the end of the world, to realize we didn’t murder all all the life in the universe, just our one planet.

* * *

A few years back, a short book called Desert went around the circles I run in. Its US edition was billed by its publisher as eco-nihilism. It takes, as its premise, the fact that we as environmentalists — or eco-anarchists — aren’t going to win. We aren’t going to stop global warming. Even if we stopped the global industrial machine tomorrow, the damage is done and we’re in for a wild world of rising seas and altered eco-systems and failed states.

From there, it goes on to provide suggestions for the environmentalist radical in the hotter world to come. This was presented by its US publisher as nihilism. It was presented as a politics that has abandoned hope and embraced reality.

I found it almost naively optimistic.

* * *

As far as I can figure, I’ve got two real choices.

I can freak out: I can let everything in, all the awful shit of the world, and let it shut me down. I tried this method for awhile a few years ago by accident. It didn’t go well.

Instead, I went for the second option: I pretend like we’re not doomed. That’s not to say I’ve decided to ignore the problem, it’s that I’ve decided to keep pretending like maybe there’s some chance in hell we’ll win, or that if we lose we won’t lose everything.

As far as I can figure, the only way to move toward the world I would like to see — one without domination or ecocide — is to try to influence culture as broadly as I can (for me, that’s mostly through my writing) and to intervene in society as directly as I can (through participation in and/or tangible support of direct action against the machinery of domination).

One nice thing about being an anarchist, about having my goal set to the eradication of every intersecting system of domination from white supremacy and patriarchy to capitalism and the state-form, is that I didn’t go into this fight thinking I was going to win. More than I decade back, I’d already wrapped my head around the near-inevitability of my failure.

The newly-dead oceans are going to rise, the land is going to burn, and I’ll just be doing what I love — telling stories, exploring our world in its last days, fighting oppression. I’ll also waste my time on Facebook and stick iPhone earbuds in my ears and read books about dragons and watch zombies on TV. I might even plan for my future and act like we’re not all about to die, and that’s fine too.

Because these deck chairs, they’re not in their right places, and someone’s got to get them arranged just right.

4 thoughts on “The Fires Out West”

  1. Superbly written and well put. I love everything that you write, and this is one of my favorites. I feel the exact same way. I have accepted the fact that as anarchists we probably will not win, but we just go through the motions and try while enjoying life at the same time. Explore, live free, love, and proudly stating that I am an anarchist is how I stay sane while the world around me burns.

  2. Hey! (Looking at the picture) I’m famous!

    Man that feels like forever ago now (3 years?) my parent’s house is rebuilt but they’re still arguing with the contractors since they pretty much did a really shit job of everything and the deck is falling apart.

    Also, three years after this, they’re finally getting their lawsuit money in December. Gotta love the legal system.

    Anyways, regarding your article, despite the futility of it all I can’t help but just close my eyes and keep fighting the good fight (as they say) since the alternative would be to just give up, and I’m just not that apathetic yet.

  3. This is a fantastically written piece. Gentle, almost wistful, but with a great wisdom.

    I’ve been thinking about it while working in the garden. I think you may have over-egged it. I mean, humanity is most likely facing certain eco-doom and species are disappearing off the planet faster than Apple products off the shelves. Our civilisation is well past its bellcurve and the Goths are sharpening their sacking sticks while we frantically search for a way to get out togas even whiter than white and some bastard won’t stop playing the fiddle.

    But civilisations have fallen before. They always fall. New ones rise up. Maybe humanity will go extinct. It’s bound to happen eventually. But the death of every living thing on Earth? Nah. Life is resiliant. It survived the K2 event and probably more besides. A few million years later Earth would have shrugged us off and a new species will be hunting and gathering and building cities and digging up our long dead bodies and refining them into oil and burning them. To quote Pratchett, it almost looks like justice, if you don’t look too closely :)

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