This essay first appeared last September on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.
This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
The wildfires may be out of the headlines, but they are not out. Visual images seem the only way to comprehend the scope. The cluster of little flaming circles indicating active fires, crowded over interactive maps of the Western U.S. and Canada, covering their landmasses like an infestation of cartoon bugs, and with NASA’s hallucinatory satellite imagery color-coding them among all the atmospheric wildness in Gaia’s Revenge this summer: smoke, fire, dust, deluge, typhoon. However, the sheer acreage burned requires a return to the numerical: there’s no way to capture it in a single image. And yet whatever those numbers are, they still seem utterly disconnected from the Dow Jones, or the price of eggs at the supermarket, or flights to Spain, and so they are still inadequate.
But in Canada, with 550 fires burning last month in British Columbia alone, and smoke coating the west from border to border and beyond, someone thought to write about the mental and physical anguish of being surrounded by wildfire and its consequences, watching a familiar landscape, once vibrant, benevolent, be transformed into something fearful and toxic, in which you are trapped. When the suffocating smoke covers a thousand miles for weeks on end, where is there to run?
The article mentions the concept of “solastalgia,” a word coined to describe the experience of longing for a lost place when you are still in it—when you haven’t changed location, but it has changed character, for the worse. Uprootings, migration, exile: these, and the trauma they cause, have been endemic to civilization from the get-go, because civilization has been sustained by warfare. But to see your home place transmogrified by chthonic forces into an alien and hostile environment even as it still surrounds you—this is a sea change. (Literally, for some communities.) It means, among other things, that something is happening on a scale whereby the privilege of not being uprooted by merely human imbalances of power is no longer worth much.
There is a fearful sense that “thinking globally” will always require solastalgia now. That we are, Big Yellow Taxi-style, discovering the importance of places in our lives, and of the biosphere we grew up in, even as we lose them, forever.
The Meaning of 1968
It is also exactly half a century since the “fateful fork” year of 1968. We have just passed the anniversary of the bloody police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are already assassinated, Paris’ May uprising quelled and its energy disintegrating, the Prague Spring crushed. The final phase of the Tet offensive ends with no general revolt and staggering Viet Cong casualties, preparing the way for years of mass slaughter in a military deadlock, the U.S. defeat already inevitable, the Vietnamese victory Pyrrhic. Still ahead that year: the murder of hundreds of student protesters and fellow marchers in Mexico City in October, to make Mexico safe for the Olympics. In November: the triumph of Richard Nixon, successfully playing on the fears of Southern racists to get them to abandon the Democratic Party.
We have never escaped the shadow of that year of disenchantment. Not with the formal decolonization of Africa, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the election of a neoliberal black man as U.S. President. In the ensuing 50 years, only one revolution has had the kind of cumulative, irreversible, touching-all-lives effect that we used to mean when we used the term: the technological one. Information, communication, and the means of production have been revolutionized, without in any way diminishing alienation, systemic violence, or exploitation. “Everything has changed, except the mind of man [sic],” said Einstein after the atom was split. The second half of that sentence ought to be tagged on every time the first is used nowadays as well.