Contemplating an orange-red noon-day sun almost obscured by the smoke clouds roiling in from America, burning to the south, brought vividly to mind The Sheep Look Up by British author John Brunner, an eerily prescient science fiction novel I read almost 50 years ago. (As I no longer can find my copy, I had to turn to Wikipedia for a refresher; fortunately, it has a long and quite thorough summary.)
The ending is chilling. America has descended into environmental, social and economic chaos. And over in Ireland a woman, seeing the clouds of smoke, suggests to a visitor that they call the fire department. They would have a long way to go, he replies, “it’s from America. The wind’s blowing that way.”
The book ends with these lines from John Milton’s poem Lycidas: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, But swollen with wind and the rank mist they draw, Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread.” Brunner’s sheep, like Milton’s, are the poor, neglected by those in power and condemned to starve. But I also think an element of indifference is implied here as well as helplessness — the sheep look up, but it is not their problem — they just want to get fed; the rest does not concern them.
Well before we get to that point, Brunner — writing 50 years ago — has come uncannily close to describing current politics in America. For example, the Wikipedia entry summarizes: “The right-wing government is indifferent to these problems. The President, known as Prexy, can only offer snappy quotes in response to various disasters. When poisonings and famine become rampant, the government scapegoats Honduran Communist rebels and puts the country under martial law. They resort to violence and oppression to silence their critics.”
And there is much more in this vein.
So here are the Americans, living out many elements of John Brunner’s dystopian future. But the fires are what grab our attention right now. What is going on there? Why is America burning? In brief — climate change and, underlying that, good old-fashioned American thirst for economic growth, as well as neglect of poverty and racism; the perfect storm that Brunner foresaw, and one to which we are not immune here in Canada.
Climate change is the most prominent factor, and speaking about the massive fires in California this past week, Gov. Gavin Newsom is clear: “The debate is over, around climate change … This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening.” What’s more, it’s happening a lot more quickly and severely than was foreseen only a few years ago.
“In the last few weeks alone,” said Newsom, “we’ve experienced the hottest August ever … arguably the hottest temperature ever worldwide, record-breaking temperature in Los Angeles.”
But underlying climate change are two other key factors: Fire suppression largely to preserve valuable timber, but increasingly to protect communities as — the second factor — people have increasingly moved into the wildland-urban interface, butting up against forests, scrub and grasslands. And underlying all that is the single-minded pursuit of short-term gain while ignoring long-term pain.
“By grazing livestock, logging the trees for timber and systematically fighting fires before they can run their course,” wrote BBC Earth reporter Claire Asher in 2016, “humans have changed the structure of the ecosystem and encouraged a build-up of forest-floor vegetation.”
Then along comes climate change, which heats and dries out the air, the land and the vegetation and — bingo!
Secondly, the New York Times reported in November 2018 that “there were 12.7 million more houses and 25 million more people living in the [wildland-urban interface] zone in 2010 than in 1990” in the United States, including around one million in California. Moreover, when they burn down, they are for the most part rebuilt in the same place.
“Crime and racial and civil unrest is growing,” wrote Brunner. “Travel abroad is discouraged because of terrorist attacks on planes … The number of poor people is growing while the shrinking number of the wealthy enclose themselves in walled communities guarded by armed mercenaries.”
Oh, and “and infectious disease is rampant.” And still the sheep look up, hoping for salvation.