When news of the pandemic broke in California and we were ordered to shelter at home, many of us rifled through our closets for our bulk packages of protective N95 masks that we’d worn in last year’s fire, and the fires the year before that, and the fires the year before that, and wondered if we should donate them to the hospitals or keep them for ourselves.
This time, wearing masks was about protecting the vulnerable and at-risk from ourselves. But we will need the masks to protect ourselves from the fires that will likely come back this summer and fall. Presumably, there won’t be any N95 masks left by that time, when we’ll need protection from the smoke if we’re ordered to evacuate, as we had to last year, for more than a week, when the Kincade fire scorched 77,758 acres of our county of Sonoma.
In 2018, fires burned nearly 2 million acres in California. And in 2017, fire charred through a significant portion of my hometown. When the university where I teach recently closed for the semester because of shelter-at-home orders, it was the fourth closure in three years (the other three due to fires or smoke from fires). You could hear the weary tone in the administrators’ emails, thanking us for being attentive, yet again, to the needs of our traumatised students.
During the first disorienting week of shelter at home, we whispered to our climate emergency friends: “Psst! Isn’t this what we’ve been hoping for? The sudden reduction in air travel? The shrinkage in fossil fuel emissions? Did you hear greenhouse gases dropped 25% in China during February? And people are taking online classes in carbon sequestration gardening techniques? And that judge finally cancelled a key permit for the Dakota Access pipeline?”
It felt, at first, like some sort of divine intervention. I couldn’t get the Anna Akhmatova poem out of my head: “Everything is plundered, betrayed, and spent / the wings of black death have flown by / why, then, do we feel so radiant?” In any case, this stay-at-home remedy for the pandemic was a far superior experience to what we go through during fires. We could breathe fresh air! At least, those of us who didn’t have the virus.
But as the reality of the economic toll set in, as well as the realisation that Donald Trump was using this opportunity to roll back more environmental restrictions, and realised that marginalised people were the ones dying in largest numbers, it became evident that there was no real silver lining. All around were the same symptoms of a system heading in the wrong direction. One student wrote to me: “I’m looking forward to things getting normal again.” The only problem is that things weren’t normal before.
And when the winds pick up this October, electricity and gas provider PG&E will, most likely, turn off the power for one, two or maybe more weeks to try to avoid another catastrophic conflagration due to a drought-diseased tree crashing onto a live power line and burning up the region. If we are still sheltering at home, no power means no internet, no Zoom, no Netflix. More importantly, when the fires come, where and how will we evacuate while physical distancing?
After the fires, any illusions we had held that humanity could triumph over nature came apart. When Covid-19 erupted, it felt a little like a “Hold my beer. We’ve got this!” kind of moment, not because we had any control – quite the opposite – but because we’d had an apprenticeship with our own powerlessness against the forces of nature. But that powerlessness realigns us to the patterns of a more profound reality than our own.
I’m deeply heartened, even astonished by the unprecedented rising global solidarity, this communitas, in response to the pandemic, and what it promises we are capable of. It’s too soon to measure how this global pause will affect global greenhouse emissions. Early estimates predict a 5% decline this year, but short of the 7.6% needed every year for 10 years to limit warming to 1.5C. Clearly this stay-at-home method, leading to a potential economic collapse, isn’t the best way to bring down emissions. Others have written convincingly how a New Green Deal makes more economic sense than trying to prop up a collapsing fossil fuel industry, how, in the US, 5.2m permanent clean-energy jobs could replace the 2.2m fossil-fuel job loss.
Having said that, I think we have put too little emphasis protecting the planet by understanding, honouring, and facilitating its life-sustaining processes and carbon sinks. Perhaps staying home gives us some time to observe these processes. We must stay six feet apart from each other, but not from the Earth.
• Christina Nichol is the author of the novel Waiting for the Electricity. She lives in northern California