So, let’s sit back and take stock for a moment. Four major hurricanes in about a month’s time, and as I write there’s another one headed for Spain and the UK (yes, you read that correctly), but on the other side of the U.S. a storm of another sort hit this week. A firestorm.
Given that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Bay Area over the years, and that I have friends & family living there, I’ve been chatting with them as the week went by – and here are a few observations…
– the air in Oakland is smokey enough to make eyes water, and that’s miles and miles away from the center of the fires.
– people are generally more nervous now about a hotter climate future, and the immediate consequences thereto, than they ever have been – even in eco-conscious California.
– residents in Mill Valley, just north of the Bay, are now reporting more instances of street flooding as (local) sea-levels begin rising.
So, need some context?
This NASA image covers most of the California coastline, from Ventura (lower right) almost all the way to Eureka on the Oregon border. The San Francisco Bay Area is just about dead-center in this image, the various Sonoma County/Santa Rosa fires just above, the Calistoga fires further north. The main smoke plume is almost 250 miles long, and keep in mind this image was acquired on the 9th, at mid-week, and the fires have only grown larger since.
California just experienced it’s hottest summer on record, with a September 1st temperature in San Francisco of 106ºF breaking all kinds of records. Now, according to NASA:
CalFire and local officials reported that at least 1,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed, and thousands more are being threatened. In some places, entire neighborhoods burned to the ground. Cellular and land-line phone communications have been lost in several areas. Authorities are still accounting for deaths and people reported missing. As of the morning of October 10, none of the fires were even partially contained, according to CalFire bulletins.
While the causes of the fires are still under investigation, we do know what helped them spread quickly: abundant dried vegetation and seasonal wind patterns.
“After more than a decade of drought, the fuel levels—dry brush and grasses—across California are exceptionally high,” said William Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Last winter’s welcome rains created more vegetation that, over the past six months, created more fuel.”
The fall season also typically brings hot, dry, and gusty winds. These Diablo winds are driven by atmospheric high-pressure systems over the Great Basin (mostly in Nevada). Winds blow from northeast to southwest over California’s mountain ranges and down through the valleys and coastal regions. These downslope winds can quickly whip up a fire and carry burning embers to the next neighborhood or patch of woodland.
“The simple formula is fuel-plus-meteorology-plus-ignition equals fire. The catalyst is people,” Patzert added. “The fires erupted in areas where wildlands meet urban and suburban development. Californians have built in what are historical fire corridors, and these high-density developments are particularly vulnerable to fast-moving, destructive fires.”
Though it is not visible in this imagery, wildfires also broke out on October 9 in Southern California’s Orange County. That fire was fanned by strong gusts of Santa Ana winds.
Some further context, from the LATimes Editorial Board, may be in order here:
Big deadly fires are nothing new to California, particularly during fire season when the Santa Ana or Diablo winds blow hot and dry, making tinder out of trees and bushes that have been baking all summer long. But the firestorm now raging through Northern California isn’t the typical wildfire. For one thing, it’s not just one fire but close to two dozen. For another, these fires are not only threatening hard-to-reach rural or mountains area, but they also have torn through suburban neighborhoods. More than 3,500 homes, commercial buildings and other structures have been reduced to ash. The Tubbs fire jumped across the 101 Freeway in Santa Rosa, for heaven’s sake.
The flames moved so fast that they caught people unaware and unprepared to flee. As of Wednesday, when the wind picked up and shifted the flames toward more populated communities, the death toll stood at 21 people, with more than 500 still missing. By Thursday morning, fire officials believe, some of the individual fires may meet and merge into one mega-fire.
At this point, the fires rank collectively as the deadliest blaze in California since the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, which claimed 25 lives. The fires are also unusually destructive; they have burned more structures than the Oakland Hills fire, the Cedar fire that raged through rural communities in San Diego County in 2003, or the Station fire that burned through the Angeles National Forest in 2009. When this is over, it may well be the state’s worst fire catastrophe in recorded history by any measure.
This is not just bad luck. Coming on the heels of other large-scale natural disasters — Houston inundated by a slow-moving tropical storm, swaths of Florida and the Caribbean ripped to shreds by a monster hurricane, much of Puerto Rico leveled by an equally powerful hurricane, a handful of Western states swept by massive fires that burned up millions of acres — one can’t help but see a disturbing pattern emerge. Those superstorms that scientists warned would result from climate change? They are here. The day of reckoning isn’t in the future. It is now.
We don’t yet know what started the fires in Northern California, but we have a good idea of what made them so destructive. Authorities blame a combination of factors: winds so strong they knocked down power lines, extremely dry conditions, and an abundant supply of combustible material from a years-long drought that killed millions of the state’s trees or left them vulnerable to insect infestations. Ironically, this year’s unusually rainy winter probably contributed to the problem by producing burnable new growth.
All of those factors are exacerbated by the warming world. Hotter summers yield more fuel for fires and stronger winds to fan the flames. And this summer was California’s hottest on record, a milestone dramatically illustrated when San Francisco hit 106 degrees on Sept. 1 during a statewide heat wave.
Similarly, scientists say climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes, but it can make them bigger and more destructive. Higher air temperatures mean more evaporation and heavier rains outside of drought zones, and warmer seas intensify the size and fury of the storms themselves. It’s a double whammy that has contributed to an unusually severe hurricane season this year.
Burning fossil fuels is not the only human activity that contributes to the destruction wrought by wildfires and hurricanes. So does the relentless march of humans to develop land in danger spots — a 500-year floodplain, an unstable hillside or a historical fire corridor. And in California, aggressive fire suppression has impeded the natural burn cycle in the state’s wooded areas so that there’s more fuel when the massive fires do take hold.
“These kinds of catastrophes have happened and they’ll continue to happen.” Gov. Jerry Brown observed at a news briefing Wednesday. “That’s the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture.”
California is fortunate to have a governor who understands the perils of ignoring climate change and is aggressively pushing policies to mitigate its future harm. Unfortunately, that puts him at odds with a head-in-the-sand president who blithely disregards the obvious connection between the warming climate and the multiple federal disaster areas he’s been forced to declare in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and, now, California.
So, should we be surprised that Mr. Trump began this week to seriously dismantle previous efforts to reign in greenhouse gas emissions? Or that three weeks after Maria slammed into Puerto Rico Mr. Trump is claiming ‘great, beautiful’ success even as basic social services on the island fail on an epic scale? No one, and I mean no one, has any idea how many people died there, as thousands of collapsed houses have yet to be searched, but even counting people that have died in hospital as a result of the storm is thought to be nearing 435. (Compare that to the death toll in Florida or Texas, or even California.) Or that Republican efforts to obliterate use of the words ‘climate change’ from the federal lexicon continue unabated?
Surprised? No, not in Trumptopia, where the sun is always shining, no matter the weather.
And no fall foliage season in New England this year. Too warm. The leaves just sort of turned away from it all and gave up in a wilted display of brown.
Maybe now would be a good time to talk about Monopoly. You know, the board game.
Well have a go at this essay before you jump all over me…
‘Buy land – they aren’t making it anymore,’ quipped Mark Twain. It’s a maxim that would certainly serve you well in a game of Monopoly, the bestselling board game that has taught generations of children to buy up property, stack it with hotels, and charge fellow players sky-high rents for the privilege of accidentally landing there.
The game’s little-known inventor, Elizabeth Magie, would no doubt have made herself go directly to jail if she’d lived to know just how influential today’s twisted version of her game has turned out to be. Why? Because it encourages its players to celebrate exactly the opposite values to those she intended to champion.
Born in 1866, Magie was an outspoken rebel against the norms and politics of her times. She was unmarried into her 40s, independent and proud of it, and made her point with a publicity stunt. Taking out a newspaper advertisement, she offered herself as a ‘young woman American slave’ for sale to the highest bidder. Her aim, she told shocked readers, was to highlight the subordinate position of women in society. ‘We are not machines,’ she said. ‘Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambition.’
In addition to confronting gender politics, Magie decided to take on the capitalist system of property ownership – this time not through a publicity stunt but in the form of a board game. The inspiration began with a book that her father, the anti-monopolist politician James Magie, had handed to her. In the pages of Henry George’s classic, Progress and Poverty (1879), she encountered his conviction that ‘the equal right of all men to use the land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air – it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence’.
Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces – poverty and progress – together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land’s value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature’s gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighbourhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.
Determined to prove the merit of George’s proposal, Magie invented and in 1904 patented what she called the Landlord’s Game. Laid out on the board as a circuit (which was a novelty at the time), it was populated with streets and landmarks for sale. The key innovation of her game, however, lay in the two sets of rules that she wrote for playing it.
Under the ‘Prosperity’ set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George’s policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the ‘Monopolist’ set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).
The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’ and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes. ‘It might well have been called “The Game of Life”,’ remarked Magie, ‘as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race, in general, seems to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.’
The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.
Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly’s implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.
So next time someone invites you to join a game of Monopoly, here’s a thought. As you set out piles for the Chance and Community Chest cards, establish a third pile for Land-Value Tax, to which every property owner must contribute each time they charge rent to a fellow player. How high should that land tax be? And how should the resulting tax receipts be distributed? Such questions will no doubt lead to fiery debate around the Monopoly board – but then that is exactly what Magie had always hoped for.
So, what do climate change deniers and end-stage capitalism have in common, besides a hapless propensity for self-delusion? The inability to self-regulate, perhaps? Is it a coincidence that income inequality and imminent, large-scale ecosystem collapse are the two co-emergent trends defining the immediate way ahead. We are all, as the human custodians of this planet, are on the precipice, facing an unknown and unknowable future. The deluded among us blaze forward proclaiming limitless growth potential in some sort of automated utopia, and true enough these folks are buying up Park Place and Boardwalk everywhere we look, but they seem to have overlooked one simple problem…
We all breathe the same air, drink (or breathe) the same water. We all inhabit this planet, and right now it’s the only one we have. Squandering it, without a ready alternative in mind, seems kind of stupid – from a species point of view. And I think I’ve mentioned one of my father’s old maxims more than once, too: “When there’s doubt, there is no doubt,” but just what does that mean?
Only the most terracidal among us would be willing to admit there’s no such thing as climate change, and I’d like to think that even most Republicans are willing to entertain there’s some DOUBT about the matter, and that, perhaps, as the science isn’t really quite settled the rest of us hope they’d at least be willing to keep an open mind about things. Yet, if there’s DOUBT, why on earth would any sane person be willing to gamble with the future of the human race. Why not come down on the side of caution?
Because it’s too costly?
Extinction may well turn out to be fairly costly, too, I think. In quite personal terms.
So, one last thing. What is it with Trump and sabotaging things these days? Things like health care? Like the Iran Deal? With anything Obama did? Could it be – dare we say it – over-compensating for small hands? There seems to be a kind of hypocrisy at work in all these things, too, and not just among Trump and his inner circle of the privileged few. No, this seems to be a broadly saturated disease, deeply entrenched within a certain type of deluded psychopath. To wit:
A full-blown humanitarian crisis is still underway in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last month. More than 80 percent of the island is still without electricity, there’s a daily shortage of 1.8 million meals, and hospitals are running low on medication, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In California, uncontrollable wildfires continue to ravage homes and entire economies. People are dying.
The House passed an emergency relief package this week that would direct $36.5 billion toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, California, and other communities affected by natural disasters. But 69 Republicans voted against it.
The excuse: It would be too big a blow to the deficit.
“Up here we use these casual phrases that we are going to write off the debt,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), who voted against the relief package, told reporters. “Whoosh, there it goes. But where does it go? It goes to the taxpayer.”
Brat — like many of his conservative colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus who voted against the aid — said he wanted to see ways to offset the cost of these supplemental relief packages. Those demands, which range from reforms of the National Flood Insurance Program to proposals that slash social safety net programs — would take time, and leave people already in life-threatening situations hanging.
But this wrenching concern over the deficit — particularly when the situation in Puerto Rico remains so dire — is hard for some to swallow when conservatives are simultaneously pushing forward a tax reform package that could leave a more than a trillion-dollar hole in the deficit and have signed on to spending bills that added more than $100 billion to defense spending, without the immediate promise of offsets elsewhere.
But the conservative line in the House doesn’t seem fazed by such dissonance.
“My whole thing is that if it’s emergency funding, then historically we need to look at what we do with FEMA and properly fund it,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who also did not vote for the aid package, said. “FEMA is for emergencies. Why have FEMA there if you are going to have supplementals all the time?”
Those considerations were not raised during the House’s appropriations process, which allocates money to federal agencies like FEMA — which the House Freedom Caucus overwhelming supported.
Even so, fiscal hawks are quick to raise concerns over supplemental spending requests — even emergency relief ones. Last month Congress passed a $15 billion relief package for Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, tying it to a three-month debt ceiling raise and stopgap funding measure to keep the government open. At the time, 90 House Republicans and 17 Senate Republicans voted against the package — citing the deficit, and that the relief aid was tied to the debt ceiling and continuing resolution proposal.
“Hurricane aid shouldn’t be added to the debt,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) opined in the Wall Street Journal this week. “That’s akin to going to the Emergency Room after an injury, putting the charges on a credit card, and then pretending that the Visa bill is never going to arrive.”
For those hoping for relief in Puerto Rico, the hypothetical Visa bill is far from an area of concern. They’re just awaiting electricity, food, and water. (from Vox)
So, tax cuts for the wealthy that’ll blow a trillion dollar deficit hole and that’s okay. Relief for US citizens devastated by multiple hurricanes? Take a hike, pal. Go get your water from the well that’s located under an EPA Superfund site…
Back to Monopoly again for a moment. What if all this healthcare malarky, the back-room coal deals and dismantling the EPA all have a single thing behind them. A ‘last gasp’, broad in scope redistribution of wealth before the big fall. Get all you can while the gettin’s good? A get out of jail free card for only the few, the proud, the politically connected?
BUT…when will a bunch of people come to the conclusion that, well, the game has indeed been rigged against them – no matter who was in power – no matter what promises were made? What happens when there’s no power to run the automated minions of Trumptopia, let alone air conditioning? No food on your local supermarket’s shelves? What happens to the disenfranchised then? Does anyone really think seven billion people are going to just roll over and go away?
One thing seems certain, however. People a hundred years from now won’t be able to get their hands on the people who did this to them.
(oh yes, images today from NASA, the NY Times, and the LA Times)