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Fighting for the air we breathe

California wildfires, climate cascades and ecosocialism


Jessica Hansen-Weaver examines the larger implications of the recent surge of wildfires across the west coast.

Four million acres of burning California wildland have produced enough smoke to affect air quality across the United States, reaching as far as Western Europe.

Cascading disasters threaten our daily lives as planetary warming exacerbates destructive forces of capital that create public health and ecological crises. This article analyzes the political ecology governing California. It explains why, despite campaign promises and progressive rhetoric, Democratic politicians have failed to challenge the interests of the real estate and energy sectors that benefit from continued extraction and pollution of our ecosystems. It will argue that the ecological rift at the heart of this crisis will have to be met by a massive environmental justice movement that is both anticolonial and anticapitalist. Our movement needs to go beyond the politics on offer and explain the urgency of slowing down capitalist development to build an ecosocialist future.

We didn’t start the fire: crisis in California

A record mid-August heatwave induced powerful dry thunderstorms across Northern California. Within 72 hours, nearly 12,000 lighting strikes had ignited over 370 fires across a vast expanse that made them nearly impossible to contain. The resulting inferno was visible from space.

Thirty-seven fires in the Mendocino National Forest combined to form the August Complex. It has burned over one million acres, making it the largest fire in California history. It is still burning and is expected to merge with new fires nearby.

Wildfires have already killed 25 people across the state this year.

The amount of smoke created by California fires has been so immense that it has traveled along atmospheric jet streams to the East Coast of the U.S. and on to Europe.

Along with loss of life and destruction of habitats, buildings, and public spaces, increasingly destructive fires have worsened an already serious global health problem: exposure to concentrations of particulate matter.

Particulate matter (PM2.5) is responsible 30,000 premature deaths annually. PM2.5 are fine, inhalable particles (less than one-tenth the diameter of human hair) that can penetrate deep into the lungs. In the United States the majority of PM2.5 emissions come from industrial activities, motor vehicles, cooking and fuel combustion. Epidemiological studies have established robust causal associations between long-term exposure to PM2.5 and premature mortality from heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, and lung cancer, substantially reducing life expectancy.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly half of the U.S. population—150 million people—live in environments that do not meet national air quality standards.

Long commutes in California—driven by extensive urban development, high poverty rates, and segregation—have combined with increasingly destructive wildfires to produce some of the worst air quality on Earth. Unlike wildfires that might burn only organic matter, recent fires are burning cars and buildings that contain plastic, metal and other non-organic materials that produce toxic smoke.

For more than 800,000 Californians who have contracted coronavirus, exposure to particulate matter can increase lung inflammation, shortness of breath, and suppress immune response. Research suggests that exposure to air pollution, such as wildfire smoke, is linked to COVID-19 susceptibility, severity, and death.

The burden of air pollution is not evenly shared. Latinxs and African Americans in California breathe about 40 percent more pollution than white people. The lowest income households live in areas with 10 percent more PM2.5 pollution than the state average, while the highest income households experience PM2.5 that is 13 percent lower than the state average. This results in ten year mortality gaps between people who live in West Oakland and the Berkeley Hills less than six miles away.

Fossil fuel-powered transportation is a major source of global warming emissions and it produces the majority of nitrogen oxides in our air. Nitrogen oxide forms ground level ozone and PM2.5 that cause lung irritation and respiratory problems.

California is full of exurbs, housing developments outside of inner cities extending far beyond the suburbs into wildlands, built in areas where seasonal fires are part of the ecology. The space where wildlands and urban development meet is called wildland-urban interface. A huge expansion of housing development in this space between 1990 and 2010 created conditions that are favorable to increasingly destructive fires, according to a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study. Lead investigator Volker Radaloff explains, “ … when these fires are spreading, they are much harder to fight when people are living there … because properties have to be protected.” Dense housing development along the wildland-urban interface creates greater human-caused fire ignition risks. It contributes to longer commutes and worsens air pollution. And it leads to invasive species and spread of disease between wild animals and house pets.

Climate change drives a chain of extreme events—disaster cascades. Drought and ecosystem disruption lead to tree morbidity, which creates fuel for wildfires driven by heat waves and high winds. All of those disasters set the stage for mudslides and flooding during winter rains as sea levels rise. Mike Davis describes this “vicious circle, where extreme heat leads to extreme fires that prevent natural rejuvenation and accelerate the conversion of iconic landscapes into depauperate grasslands and treeless mountain slopes”. UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said, “We have not reached the peak, in fact no one knows where the peak is.”

Addressing these problems will require planning for an increasingly uncertain future. But the State of California has relied on slave-like labor of the Golden Gulag to fight fires rather than build public infrastructure to address public health risks posed by wildfires. Prison inmates have been fighting California fires since World War II, when they were first called up to replace firefighters who were part of the war effort. Incarcerated firefighters recently won a path towards more remunerative employment as firefighters by expunging their records upon release. This is a welcome step forward, but the state still requires inmates to risk their lives for less than $5 per day and return to inhumane prison conditions to await release.

Empty promises: Democrats in California

California is among the bluest of blue states. The Democratic Party currently holds the governor’s mansion and veto-proof supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. It has controlled the State Senate continuously since 1970. And it has held a majority in the State Assembly for 48 of the last 50 years. However, promises of progressive agendas have yet to materialize. Instead, political leadership in California has demonstrated an unwillingness to challenge some of the most powerful sectors of capital that contribute to climate change: energy and real estate.

Despite ongoing wildfires and a pandemic, housing prices continue to rise. The California real estate industry and political lobby are vast: multibillion dollar real estate trusts spent over $77 million to defeat a proposition that would have repealed statewide restrictions on rent-control in 2018. The big landlords are organizing again this year—while millions of unemployed people struggle to survive—to stop Proposition 21, another attempt to give local governments power to implement new rent control laws.

Most Democratic politicians in California are not climate deniers. They pay lip service to the need for changes in response to climate-driven extreme weather. However, there are plenty of “climate delayers,” such as U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. She was captured on video chastising a group of children from Sunrise Movement last year. Feinstein is just one of many California politicians who are unwilling to stand up to the multibillion dollar fossil fuel industry that has a stranglehold on our economy.

Governor Gavin Newsom campaigned on promises to oppose fracking, which accounts for 20 percent of oil production in the state. Yet, as Consumer Watchdog reported, permits to drill new oil and gas wells increased by 190 percent during the first six months of Newsom’s term. As most Californians sheltered in place or participated in protests against police violence this summer, Newsom quietly passed 12 new fracking permits to Aera Energy LLC, an affiliate of ExxonMobile and Shell.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)—energy provider for two-thirds of Northern California—filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2019 after being found liable for several devastating wildfires, including the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. But after agreeing to a $13.5 billion settlement with victims of wildfires in 2017 and 2018, the corporation emerged out of bankruptcy on July 1, 2020. PG&E was previously found guilty in 2016 of five counts of willfully breaking gas pipeline safety laws and one count of obstructing the federal investigation into a 2010 gas explosion that killed eight people. Despite this record and many statements of condemnation from California political leaders, eight out of ten statewide politicians have received money from PG&E, including Newsom.

One of the largest California oil refineries is in Richmond—where 80 percent of the population are people of color and the median household income is below the state average, despite being 20 miles from San Francisco. The Environmental Protection Agency places every community bordering the refinery in the 99th percentile for asthma. Richmond residents have also been victim to the effects of refinery explosions in 1989, 1999 and 2012. A fire at the refinery in August 2012 sent more than 15,000 people to the hospital seeking treatment for respiratory distress.

Degrowth and transformation

California is the wealthiest state in the U.S. with a net worth of six trillion dollars, amounting to $160,000 per resident. However, 300 of the 1650 zip codes make up more than two thirds of the state’s net worth. California should be able to fund mass public transit, a single-payer health plan, clean up toxic dump sites, and expand public housing. Instead, we see divestment from these very programs year after year.

Why has it been so difficult to make progress toward climate change and affordable housing? As California history has shown, stopping environmental destruction will not be voted in by Democrats. We have to confront powerful social forces that drive environmental destruction—fossil fuel, real estate, energy—with equally powerful social movements that will force politicians to act against the interests of capital.

We are up against the richest and most powerful industries who understand that their source of profits is extraction from the natural world. That means that we must find a way to challenge the very logic of capitalism: accumulation and growth. In order to respond proportionally to the ecological crisis we have to shrink the economic output of the capitalist system. Marx’s theory of metabolic rift is helpful in understanding how capitalist production “concentrates the historical motive force of society[and]…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth”.

The concept of de-growth is sometimes associated with deep ecology or anarcho-primitivist ideas that see human civilization as incompatible with nature. De-growth has also been used by “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) movements to protect property values and preserve white enclaves. We have to develop a different concept of degrowth-one that is about restricting land development and shrinking the economy as part of a green urbanism that seeks an alliance with anti-colonial movements of the past and present. Our goal must be to create green cities that are in harmony with Indigenous land rights and that preserve wildlands.

De-growth does not mean a reduction in living standards for the majority of people on this planet. The wealthiest one percent have been responsible for more than twice the carbon dioxide emissions as the poorest half of humanity, according to an Oxfam report. The report concluded, “in the next decade the carbon emissions of the world’s richest ten percent would … increase temperatures by 1.5C, even if … the rest of the world cut their emissions to zero immediately”. If we want to preserve a planet that can sustain life for the vast majority, we have to invert the social inequality at the heart of capitalism.

Many environmental justice activists have looked to the Green New Deal as a way to address the current climate crisis. It is certainly true that the Green New Deal was a beacon for activists to organize around locally and nationally when it was first proposed. While it is ambitious in scope, the Green New Deal has limited ability to shackle the forces of capital that continue to drive us toward apocalypse.

There are many elements of the Green New Deal that could be taken up as demands of the ecosocialist movement, including a green jobs program and investment in mass public transit. But we have to ask ourselves why these reforms are being resisted by Democratic and Republican politicians alike?

The problem with the Green New Deal is that it narrows the focus of our movement to lobbying for legislation and electing supportive politicians. Instead of fixating on government policy, our movement must try to develop the capacity to apply the social force necessary to compel politicians and state managers to act against their will.

Building an anti-capitalist movement has never been more urgent or necessary. Economic growth is what drives climate change. The capitalist state will foster growth and struggle to preserve itself until threatened by a movement capable of challenging this logic. These social forces will have to be massive, bringing together Indigenous activists, student climate strikers, public health advocates, auto workers, rent-strikers, and many more.

We have to transition from individual vehicle transportation to mass transit systems to move people and goods where they need to be without polluting our air. We need expanded public housing and strong rent controls to reduce the displacement of workers that contributes to sprawling exurban development and longer commutes. This will require challenging the interests of landlords, energy corporations, real estate development and big agriculture. It will require a convergence of rural communities, indigenous communities, and urban workers, to ensure that our time on Earth is not wasted by capitalists who see us as potential labor to be exploited.

If we want to take seriously our relationship to the land we must return land rights to Indigenous people who have generations of deep knowledge about how to sustainably manage our fire ecology. As Indigenous researcher and activist Dina Gilio-Whitaker told Ragina Johnson and Brian Ward in Science For the People:

The problem with the narrative that…these radical fires are due to climate change, is that it’s really not due to climate change, not entirely. It’s due to a century of mismanaging forests so this leads to the conditions that climate change exacerbates.

Managing fires through sustainable practices requires a deep understanding about the natural fire ecology. Indigenous people across the world have developed practices to manage fires that have allowed for sustainable ecosystems and preservation of species. Spanish colonizers established slave plantations, referred to as missions, exploiting indigenous people in the place that would be called California. Indigenous tribes were punished, often by death, for their fire-setting practices, which the Spanish saw as a threat to valuable land. Regular prescribed burns were abruptly removed from a landscape that had co-evolved with those human practices for millennia.

In Northern California, the US Forest Service has collaborated with Yurok and Karuk tribes to implement prescribed burning practices that help reduce fuel loads and restore ecocultural resources to the landscape. Yurok Tribe member and president of the Cultural Fire Management Council Margo Robbins explained the importance of shifting from fire suppression policy to traditional burning practices in an interview. “A hundred and fifty years ago, all that brush did not exist. It was always maintained to be healthy and in balance… I think that the more that we are able to disabuse people of the idea that fire is bad…the more we are able to put it back into the hands of the people and not just the government agencies, the more successful we will be at keeping these wildfires to a minimum level with minimal damage.” Adopting Indigenous land management practices is part of a strategy to reduce destruction of ecosystems. In order to restore ecosystems in a way that can prevent increasingly dangerous disasters, Indigenous land rights must be recognized.

Ground zero of convergence

The environmental movement in the United States has been challenged with making the connections between racism, social inequality and ecological destruction. Many of the early environmental groups allied themselves with the colonial-settler project of the National Parks System. In 1970 the Sierra Club defended the expansion of Grand Canyon National Park into Havasupai Tribe lands. The liberal politics of conservationism and lifestyle choices has put much of the environmental movement out of touch with the experiences of those most affected by environmental racism and colonialism.

Indigenous people have nevertheless been at the center of a growing ecosocialist movement, from native Hawaiian elders defending Mauna Kea to water protectors against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Granting land rights back to Indigenous tribes is a concrete demand that will improve the ecology of California and conserve some of the most endangered woodlands.

The ecosocialist movement must also be anti-racist as segregated housing and mass displacement produce hazardous living conditions for poor, mostly Black and Brown people. Concretely, this means reparations for communities that have been treated as dumping grounds for toxic waste, green public housing to reverse displacement, and public high-speed rail for free movement between cities and protected wildlands.

Urban landscapes will remain what Mike Davis calls “the ground zero of convergence”, as they continue to be primary contributors of carbon emissions. Urban areas of the United States are the source of 80 percent of North American greenhouse gas emissions, despite being only one to five percent of the land. The horizontal development of urban and suburban land contributes to traffic growth, air pollution and downstream dumping of waste. Therefore, making radical changes to the way our urban centers are planned and built will be most effective in reducing global warming.

California is a very large canary in the coal mine, but the questions posed by the extreme weather associated with climate change must be answered across our planet. As Mike Davis wrote nearly a decade ago:

we must be able to envision alternative configurations of agents, practices and social relations, and this requires, in turn, that we suspend the politico-economic assumptions that chain us to the present.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at editors@tempestmag.org.

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