Firemen fighting fire

by Stanley Wu, Coordinator, the Resilience Project, Commonweal

When Pacific Gas and Energy (PGE) was determined to be responsible for the devastating Camp fire that killed at least 86 people and resulted in tens of billions in damage, they filed for bankruptcy and changed their tactics. The public outrage over their recent CEO bonuseslobbying, and political investments rather than fixing old and accident-prone infrastructure, was swift and accurate.

That was last year. Today as I write this in the dark at home, 185,000 people are being evacuated just north of San Francisco, and PGE has shut off electrical power to 1.3 million people. Potentially historic winds and low humidity at the end of a dry summer can develop almost any spark into a life-threatening fire that can spread faster than you can run. PGE has calculated that dealing with the public and political outrage, and plummeting stock, is cheaper than being responsible for another catastrophic fire.

The implications of shutting off power to cities and counties should not be glossed over. County hospitals and health care facilities are running on backup generators and are scrambling to ensure they can maintain diesel supplies. Public utilities that provide water and sewage are trying to calculate how long their drinking water reservoirs will last before running out. These are serious times, and as Gov. Newsom said: “I could sugar coat this, but I will not. The next 72 hours are going to be challenging.”

For the first time, many Californians are being confronted with the reality of making everyday decisions without electricity. Fundamental realizations are developing as people negotiate the basic questions of their livelihood. Will water still run from our faucets and will the toilets flush (yes, for now)? How long will the food stay safe to eat in my refrigerator (place cold ice in there to help it keep cool longer)? I have a solar system so I’ll have electricity (not likely, they are designed to turn off when the grid goes down).

In my neighborhood, after we lost power and my wifi network went down, my landline was useless and I could no longer send or receive text messages because the local cellular towers were also not being powered. People around me could not make emergency calls if they needed to, and how were we going to receive evacuation notices and updates about potential new fires in their areas? Needless to say, this is an unexpected predicament for most, and an extremely dangerous situation at the least.

We will eventually come to the end of this ever-growing fire season. Houses and infrastructure will likely be rebuilt, the power will be restored, people will go home and forget to execute on the ideas they had to ensure their safety in future emergencies. In addition to the grief thousands will endure, rage will boil, blame will fall on PGE, and calls for accountability will flow through the veins of public discourse.

Here is the thing—there is no doubt California will experience catastrophic fires again and we can be certain millions will be without power for days if not weeks in the coming future. There are over a 149 million dead trees as a result of years of drought, heat, and beetle infestation. 18 million died last year alone, and these trees could be match sticks for a careless person, lightning strike, or wind storm that topples a utility power line. Housing developments will continue to expand into fire prone areas. Yearly averaged temperatures will continue to climb upwards, and droughts will likely become more severe.

Furthermore, PGE operates 106,681 circuit miles of electrical distribution lines and 18,466 miles of interconnected transmission lines. Anyone expecting one of the largest utility companies in the United States to overhaul their aging infrastructure better not hold their breath, especially since PGE has already filed for bankruptcy. It is time for us to take a hard look at this truth in the face. The probability that we will tackle enough of these issues—climate change, infrastructure, land use policies—in a meaningful way, is low.

Reactionary preparations set in hours leading up to the power shutoffs are not enough. I visited Target, Best Buy and Home Depot to find they were all sold out of small cell phone battery packs, flashlights and people were trickling in to mill through the empty sections. At best, these products will help people maintain an extra day or two of cellphone and flashlight power before they need to be replaced or recharged. Thankfully, most people are still able to drive to packed café to charge their devices, and order takeout food.

Within hours of the shutoff, local gas stations and grocery stores were drained of their ice, batteries, and booze. In my neighborhood, Safeway was letting people shop in a dark store, one at a time, and accompanied by staff, and were not accepting credit cards. How many people actually have the recommended 2 gallons of water per day per person stored? Do people have extra cash, medical prescriptions, a first aid kits that is the base line of preparation? There are plenty of psychological barriers such as discounting the future, that make it hard to really prepare. My sense is people treat their resilience like their earthquake kits—something to knock off the to-do list. And we need so much more.

Non-government organizations, journalists, philanthropists, churches, and motivated citizens are starting to work on these difficult questions. It is time for us to start focusing on what we as individuals, families, and communities can do to increase our resilience and abilities to cope with a challenging future, especially one with limited resources.

Over my battery powered AM/FM radio, I just heard that the winds are expected to pick up, and a “red flag” warning was just issued over the next few days. It seems likely our power will be off for an extended period of time, and more evacuations were announced. My computer batteries are running low, and it is time to drive somewhere to purchase more ice, if I can find any, and connect to a network to let my family know I am okay.

landscape of mountains and clouds

For The Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
The steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valley, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light.

—Gary Snyder, Zen poet

Has the Change come? Do you sense it? It isn’t one thing. It’s the whole. The whole enchilada. It’s a whole web of forces—environmental, economic, technological, social, and political. We call them good or bad. It depends on where we are, who we are, what we think. Everything is changing. The Change is accelerating.

In the past, I called the Change “the global problematique.” That translates as “the whole enchilada.” Policy talk. I am told Ivan Illich once said “thou shalt not commit social science.” I’ll follow Gary Snyder: “stay together/learn the flowers/go light.”

I’ve just spent two months on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, home to Commonweal Northwest.

Our work here includes:
Healing Circles LangleyHealing Circles Global, our newest cancer related project, Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, and the Whidbey Island New School conversations. Also, our Regenerative Design Institute is now based in Whidbey, and Power of Hope summer camp and Fall Gathering have come down from Whidbey partnerships.

For the second summer in a row, we’re breathing heavy smoke. My eyes sting. I get low-grade headaches. It’s hell for people with asthma. Or serious lung or heart disease. It’s seriously bad for pregnant mothers and babies. It’s merely seriously toxic for the rest of us. The air in Seattle has been worse than in Beijing, like smoking seven cigarettes a day.

A hospice nurse in Tacoma texted: “I’m trying to avoid black lung disease.” A Vancouver partner in our work wrote “the whole province is on fire.” A Whidbey friend whose son’s family is in Alaska said that they are getting smoke from the Siberian fires.

A southern California fire stopped a quarter mile from my brother-in-law’s house. California’s 4th climate change assessment predicts a dire future for the state.

The Change is everywhere on earth. Floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, melting icecaps, acidifying oceans, species dropping like leaves in a storm—those are the “natural” things. Uncontrolled technology, consolidation of wealth and power, desperate immigrant flows, and walls going up everywhere. The Change is accelerating.

The Change is a holocaust of life. The Change is reshaping life on earth. The Change is remaking what it is to be human.

Some changes are hopeful. Steve Pinker makes that case in Enlightenment Now. Don’t discount them: they are part of the Change. But Pinker ignores the hard parts of the Change. Nature bats last.

When the air is almost unbreathable, what are your choices? If you work outside you have no choice. If you have a choice, perhaps you don’t go out in nature. Perhaps you buy smoke masks if the pharmacy isn’t sold out. Perhaps you keep the doors and windows closed—and get an indoor air purifier. Perhaps you feel trapped in your house except for brief forays. Or perhaps you say “Forget it, I’m going out. I’ll breathe the smoke. It’s like this for millions of people. Let me be at peace with it.”

The smoke becomes a matter of kitchen table conversation. Kitchen table conversations change the way we think, act…and vote. Does that matter? I hope so.

I wrote about the Change here. I’ve thought about it and what it means for 40 years.

Here’s one good account of a dozen Change vectors.

I’ve talked seriously with hundreds of people about the Change.

  • Some deny it.
  • Some don’t want to think about it.
  • Some want to talk about it.
  • Some are angry, cynical, depressed, anxious or in despair.
  • Some are hopeful, idealistic, spiritual or have a sense of tragic realism.

I’ve learned to be more skillful. I don’t need to talk about the Change. I don’t need—as a friend’s daughter puts it—“to yuck your yums.”

I can’t prove the Change will be as bad as I expect. Others have more hope—that somehow we’ll find a way through. In a way, I agree. Why should I yuck their yums?

What’s the solution? I don’t have a solution. The Change won’t stop. Perhaps we can modulate the Change. Perhaps we can shift the arc to some degree. That’s what all the good fights are about. There are real victories. For health, for environment, for justice, for peace. They matter. A lot. But they won’t stop the Change.

I like what the Dark Mountain folks in the UK say:

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

—Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto

That seems to me like the real deal. “Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.” Inscribe that on your heart.

Here’s my hope. In hard times, people come together to help their neighbors—and even strangers—as best they can. Hard times bring out the best and worst in people. We each get to decide what the Change will bring out in us.

Maybe we’ll experience a change in consciousness, akin to enlightenment. Maybe we’ll find a way to translate that consciousness shift into ways of life that make things better. I sure hope so.

I try to follow Angeles Arrien’s four rules:

Show up.
Pay attention.
Tell the truth.
And don’t be attached to the outcome.

Dostoevsky believed that beauty will save the world. That seems to me as good a guess as any.

One thing is certain. We can each make a difference where we are.

Image: sunrise by Matthew Paulson at Creative Commons