A couple of weeks ago as wildfires ripped through California, my sister Joyce called me from Arkansas. I had told her not to worry about my wife and me when she heard news of fires out here because we live in a perfectly safe neighborhood in the flatlands of L.A. far from the brushy hillsides where we might be endangered, but, as sisters will, she was checking up on us anyway. Turns out she was not wrong to worry. North of us in wine country in the middle of the night, embers from a wildfire that started in the hills were blown miles by near-hurricane-force winds to shower orangely down on the dark houses and the sleeping people of Santa Rosa. Ever seen pictures of Hiroshima after we dropped the A-bomb? There are neighborhoods in Santa Rosa now that look a lot like that. Dozens of people were killed, and dozens more are still missing.
It could have been Culver City. I can’t help but imagine Stefani and me fleeing half-dressed through the blazing, wind-howling night with our cats in their carriers and our dog on his leash. Chaos, people hollering, horns honking. We see our neighbors’ houses burning, we see our neighbors burning. Is there a more terrible death than that?
All this fire on the heels of all that water. There were so many monster hurricanes in so short a time it’s hard to keep them straight. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and drowned tens of thousands of homes. Hurricane Irma ravaged once-paradisal Caribbean islands and then smacked into Florida (though happily Hemingway’s polydactyl cats on Key West made it through fine). Hurricane Maria has sent Puerto Rico back to the Stone Age, with the multitudinous bodies of pigs, goats, cows, dogs, and cats rotting in the sun and poisoning the water.
Catastrophic climate change no longer is just some faintly disturbing theoretical possibility, something that might happen someday to our unlucky progeny when we ourselves have been safely tucked away in the earth or turned into ash and stored in an urn. Nor is it just something affecting impoverished, dark-skinned people on the other side of the world who are always having horrible stuff happen to them anyway. It’s here and it’s now. You may drown or burn tonight.
Aren't we being a bit alarmist? you might say. No, I don't think so. But alarming? I certainly hope so. We’re a civilization of sleepwalkers, of wheezing, overweight consumers, of zombies enslaved by our iPhones. We’re not equipped to handle what is coming our way. We’re not self-reliant and hearty like our can-do ancestors. Our young people are such delicate flowers they cannot bear to talk to one another face to face or even over their phones but must use their flashing thumbs to tap out texts. When the power goes out, they will die like flies.
If destruction awaits us, we ourselves will be its agents. It doesn’t matter whether you think we are beings with divinity in us who have somehow gone devilishly wrong, or we are just members of an out-of-control species of highly intelligent apes, the fact is that our presence on this planet is wrecking it. We’re cutting down all its forests, we’re polluting all its seas, we’re driving all its beautiful creatures into extinction, and we’re heating up the atmosphere to a calamitous degree.
If there’s a seed of hope in all this, it’s that if the mess is all on us then maybe we can fix it. Maybe it’s not too late to turn things around. But it won’t do simply to drive a hybrid and blacken our roofs with solar panels and troop to the polls every two years and dutifully vote for the Democrats. So what will do? The answer of course will be different for each of us. Each of us must ask of ourselves how far are we willing to go, how much will we give up, what will we risk? Our jobs? Our liberty? Our lives? Or maybe considerably less than that? Here’s something to chew over. Most of my friends are two things, environmentalists and meat eaters, and since industrial meat production accounts for about 15% of the greenhouse gases we put in the air, those two things don’t go together. So how about it? Will you do that? To save the planet? Will you give up eating meat?
As you read this, nature’s setting the stage for the next megafires and megastorms. She has a voice, if you will listen for it. She is always speaking to us of this or that, telling us tales about the rivers and the birds, the clouds and the mountains. Usually it’s a quiet voice, but sometimes it must be louder to be heard over the fiery roaring wind, over the crashing black waves…
Oh, you complacent ones, open your eyes! Behold the Apocalypse!
And be afraid, as Jeff Goldblum said in The Fly. Be very afraid.