A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World is a monthly column about the future of climate change.
I LIVE DOWNSTREAM FROM MYSELF.
Maybe you do too.
Maybe you, like me, go about your life in a state of necessary denial, burning dinosaur fossils to get to work, nodding numbly as the TV speaks of Hawaiian fires, Californian hurricanes, and a Canada filled with smoke. Maybe you, like me, don’t fully acknowledge the state of emergency that the world keeps insisting we are in. Not off in the future. Right now.
Perhaps you actually live in a part of the world where denial is possible. Even I, sitting here in on the southern Atlantic coast, awaiting hurricane season to blow up full, manage to stuff my anxiety down and get on with life. This is partly because of how we have evolved as animals, we are told, an inability to tackle problems off in the future. But evolution has also given us the gift of adrenaline and focused intensity when we find ourselves in emergencies. Wouldn’t feeling that way now be appropriate?
To believe it we must be in it.
Ninety years ago the Dustbowl sent brown clouds blowing all the way to D.C., announcing itself to lawmakers. This summer a new environmental disaster said hello, smoke filling cities, the East Coast getting to know a little of what the West has been experiencing for years now.
Maybe it was good for our media center to get a sense of what millions of others have now long experienced. Climate disaster can so often seem remote unless it is happening to you. To become really aware of what is happening you must feel it. It must impact your daily life. Otherwise it is too easy to ignore, to repress.
But even when it does happen to us, we focus, understandably, on the immediate. We re-build, we dig out, we focus on the emergency of the moment, not the larger emergency, the real emergency. When it comes down to it replacing my roof shingles trumps any melting glacier.
Can we wake ourselves from our sleep-walking? Or will we slumber on?
I LIVE DOWNSTREAM FROM MYSELF.
I am not just a victim of environmental crimes, but also the perpetrator. I cannot blame others from a lofty place. The place where I reside is low. Maybe you reside there too.
All summer I have been burning carbon while roaming the West, from the border wall to the smoke-filled Canadian Rockies, camping at night but more often staying in hotels. “We humans are an elsewhere,” said the writer Reg Saner. Sometimes I feel more elsewhere than most. Though I am not grim by nature, I have become a tourist of the grim.
The themes of the summer have been smoke and water. I spent July in Alberta and British Columbia and every day we checked the fire reports, seeing where the plumes of smoke were drifting. We rubbed our eyes, which burned along with the fires. We grew irritable. In Banff the mountains were just a blurry outline of themselves. Calgary was lost in a colorless cloud. For a few days Waterton Park was like London in fog.
Until this summer many Americans considered Canada a safe haven, coldly reassuring, a place to flee to, not from. As I have traveled over the last three years, I asked scientists what the world will be like in 2062 when my daughter, who is twenty, will be my age. This week the Canadian magazine Maclean’s asked a similar question. The section headlines were: Summers lost to fire and smoke. Biblical floods. Dying forests. Retreating coasts. Economic turmoil and political unrest.
When I first started traveling around the country to climate-threatened places, I felt we had crossed a barrier into a new world. But I didn’t expect this summer. This summer we are, once again, in a whole new place. It is all happening so fast. Don’t you feel it?
THIS IS USUALLY THE POINT in a climate article or essay when the writer throws in a little hope. Right? I mean, we are human beings for god’s sake and can only take the drumbeat of the depressing for so long. Watching Trump news may be depressing in a different way, but at least it has a little sugar buzz to it. What did he do now? makes for the sort of titillation that climate news can’t provide.
I don’t know if I can provide hope but I will point out a kind of paradox of climate reporting. While Canada had a dry winter that set up their fires, the interior American West had the opposite. Traveling through the Rockies this summer, after a historically snowy winter, I sometimes felt as if I were in the middle of a rainforest. There was a nice irony to promoting my book, which is about drought, in a time of green fecundity. Water was churning and gushing down every creek and freshet and river, life-giving and threatening at once. The mountains streamed with flowing water. I was besotted with beauty.
This has happened again and again as I report on climate. Experiencing the beauty of the world we are losing. And this leads to the paradox. In the early 20th century, Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House: “The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” I still believe this to be true, deeply true, and my own travels have brought me to places where life feels more elemental: the disappearing but still bird-filled wetlands of southern Louisiana, the deep canyons of Utah with their echoes of gone civilizations, and more recently the high country of Colorado and Canada. These are elemental places. Places where we feel more alive.
And so, almost despite myself, I continue to celebrate water, wind, air, and fire, even as those are the very things that have seemingly turned against us. Seemingly, only, because in fact they have no agenda, and are only responding to the changes we have made to the world.
I REMEMBER HIKING INTO the charred land above Paradise, California, in the summer of 2021, the lingering burnt smells of that razed town intermingling with the smoky smell of the new fire that was threatening at the time, the Dixie fire. The burnt woods were still beautiful, the trees riding the hump of land up from the river, a pair of acorn woodpeckers drilling holes into the dead trees, and I followed deer prints through a maze of burnt-out cars. The residents, many still stunned and homeless from the last fire, were preparing to evacuate for this one. That is what the smoke signals were saying that week: be prepared to flee. Remember what happened last time. The fiery fields that the road to escape led through. The speed with which the fire moved, leaping and racing from home to home.
The recent “megafires” are of course exacerbated by climate change, but they are also aided by historic factors apart from rising temperatures and increased aridity. These factors speak to our relationship with fire and water. Primary among these is the long history of fire suppression in the West.
Fire suppression, of course, was supposed to be a good thing. Like the introduction of erosion-aiding tamarisk on the banks of western rivers, it was meant to help with an existing problem. In this case the problem was the “Big Blowout” fires that ravaged the west in 1910. Millions of acres were burned and the flames eventually ignited not just forests but also the country’s imagination. Fire fighters became national heroes, and fighting fires, all fires, became the driving purpose, the idee fixee, of the Forest Service. But as often happens when we intrude on natural processes, this created a problem. It turned out that by suppressing fires, we stamped out even the smaller fires that had beneficially rid forests of excess fuel in the form of deadfall, scrub growth, and other organic debris. It was as if a giant had come along and arranged things perfectly in the fireplace of our forests, with plenty of kindling and paper below the big logs.
Finally, the trees have changed in another way. The changing climate is effectively turning the West into a powder keg by reducing snowpacks (with the delightful exception of this year) and lifting temperatures, with these extreme temperatures effectively sucking the moisture out of trunks and branches. This means that the trees are perfectly built for ignition, the wood so dry that they are always a spark away from burning. The result has been that, in recent years, we have had our own Big Blowouts, and have witnessed the largest and hottest fires that have ever been recorded in the West.
AS WITH SMOKE, so with water. Not long after Hurricane Sandy hit, I traveled up the East Coast, doing a kind of post-mortem with my friend, the coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey. Sandy was a prime example of how the elemental still asserts itself in our virtual culture. Consider that the storm hit at high tide on the night of the full moon. On that night, October, 29, 2012, the winds came in out of the east, then cranked around to the north and northeast, turning with the storm, gusting to eighty miles per hour and sustained at sixty, for about three hours. Not the strongest of winds, really—double that is possible next time—but Sandy made up in size what it lacked in speed, with storm force winds five hundred miles offshore that meant for a huge wind fetch (the amount of distance wind can travel unimpeded). “Straight from Casablanca,” as Orrin put it.
We stopped at Long Beach Island, New Jersey, which the eye had passed over. Water and sand had churned down the streets. Houses were bullied off their foundations, left in splinters, knocked clean across the island and out into Barnegat Bay. Orrin studied the artificial dunes that had protected the houses. The trouble was, they weren’t consistent. Before Sandy many of the homeowners hadn’t signed the easement that allowed the dunes to be built in front of their homes, complaining that it ruined their view. During the storm, the ocean wasted no time finding those openings and barreling through. All it needed was a single gap. The homeowners’ view that night was of water charging at them like a freight train.
Walking back from the beach, we bumped into Dennis and Sean Cleary, father and son, who lived right on 82nd street. Like everyone else they were still digging out, four months later.
“There was a ten-inch-thick concrete slab under this entire house,” Dennis said. “Now it’s completely gone.”
“Was it pulled out into the ocean or swept through town?” I asked.
“One of those,” he said with a smile.
Dennis and Sean had been on the damage assessment team and had stayed the night of the storm.
“The next day we drove around and saw no houses where houses used to be,” Dennis said. “But there would be this hissing noise. The gas lines hadn’t been shut off yet and were spewing out gas.”
He told us that the storm couldn’t have had a more perfect name. They found the streets covered with four to five feet of sand, through which they eventually dug single lane roads, the sand piled up in banks on the roadside like snow. In those cross cuts you could see geologic layers of mulch, sand, wood, and stone.
“This guy didn’t sign the easement,” Sean said, pointing at a neighbor’s crumpled house. You could almost argue that this neighbor got what he deserved, but it wasn’t really worth looking for justice in the storm’s wake: the man’s destroyed house, for instance, had come unmoored and taken out the house behind it, which belonged to a friend of the Clearys’.
After the storm there was a great rush to sign the easements, but there was still one neighbor holding out.
“A monumentally selfish act,” Orrin said. “How idiotic to be worried about their views.”
After we said goodbye and headed north again, Orrin started to shake his head.
“It’s hopeless anyway,” he said.
I knew what he meant. If the sea rises anywhere close to the same height as the island’s current elevation, dunes won’t help. Even with a more modest rise, the island didn’t stand much of a chance, though as usual this fact hadn’t given pause to the many who were already re-building. Included in the sixty billion dollars in the government aid for Sandy relief, rushed through in a patriotic fervor, were millions of dollars for thousands of houses just like these, houses in the worst of the flood zones. It was, as Orrin had said, like re-building on a train track and then telling the owners to keep their fingers crossed.
“Hopeless,” he repeated, this time with more enthusiasm.
“That’s not much of a political platform,” I said.
Sandy of course is just a preview, a taste for northerners of the storms that southerners know well. But as a wake-up call it had a few things going for it, not least the fact that one of its main targets was the nation’s media epicenter.
And at least one thing did change after Sandy. It marked the first time that the weather channel jocks, so proud to always be the only ones standing out in the storms (and so outraged when mere civilians dare to go outside and stand next to them) were suddenly admitting that things like climate change and stronger storms might just be real after all.
WE LIVE DOWNSTREAM FROM OURSELVES.
I know you are busy, I know you don’t want to hear this. But consider: What if we have really entered a new world? What if there is no hopeful plot twist at the end? Would that change anything? Or will we just continue to do what we have always done? For instance will we, blinders on, continue to build in places right in the line of disaster? Trophy homes in the mountains and on the shore. Homes that will soon be kindling and driftwood.
You will perhaps at least admit this: Life everywhere is suddenly more primal. Right? It is taking more and more work to ignore the fact that we seem to be in the midst an elemental comeuppance. Like many people of my generation, I first came to the idea of an altered future theoretically, through books like The End of Nature and films like An Inconvenient Truth. But while we may have already been at the end of nature, it always seemed to me that there was plenty of nature left, and back then it felt like they were talking about a time that was far away.
Time is strange that way: then becomes now.