[October 8-10 marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied that tragedy and four other historic fires, leading up to this somber special post on the crucial context for our current crops of horrific wildfires.]
On the longstanding history of defining environmental disasters, and how it’s not nearly enough to understand the present.
In one of my very first posts, just under eleven years (!) ago, I highlighted (as a context for the great film Chinatown) one of my favorite works of AmericanStudies scholarship: David Wyatt’s Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California (1997). As you might expect from his title, Wyatt’s focal fires are mostly metaphorical/symbolic (specifically around issues of race and culure), although he does feature the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the accompanying, actual fire as one of those five. But there’s certainly also a case to be made that natural disasters, including that 1906 catastrophe among the many other floods and hurricanes and volcanic eruptions and the like that I’ve written about in this space during this week’s series and beyond, offer a potent way to frame and analyze American history. After all, while virtually everything about America and the world has changed over the last few centuries, the presence and potency of natural disasters, and their ability to affect and reshape so much of society, has remained a constant.
One of the first major global news stories of 2020 was a horrific such natural disaster, the wildfires that absolutely ravaged so much of Australia for more than six months (from September 2019 through March 2020). And here in the United States, that news story foreshadowed our own year-long, historically horrific California wildfires, which by the year’s end had burned more than 4% of the state’s land, making this the worst wildfire season in recorded history (and it was a season that extended and has continued to extend well beyond the Golden State). For those of us on the East Coast, it was at times possible (if not ideal) to forget just how much of the United States was devastated, affected, and threatened by wildfires throughout 2020—but I try as best I can not to suffer more from such East Coast bias than is inevitable for someone who has pretty much only ever lived along the I-95 corridor, and from a national perspective there’s no doubt that these catastrophic wildfires were one of the biggest stories (if not indeed the single biggest story) of last year—and that they’re shaping up to be just as big of a story here in 2021.
And that very ubiquity illustrates a complicated but crucial fact: the long history of environmental disasters can’t quite capture the realities of our present, climate change-driven moment. Indeed, I think it’s no longer accurate to think about such things through the lens of individual disasters—the globe as of October 2021 is one overarching environmental disaster, reflected through so many different trends from wildfires to the constant “worst hurricanes ever” to tornadoes (more complicatedly, although debatable causes doesn’t change their destructive effects) to so, so much more. When I want to get really depressed, particularly about the world into which my sons are growing up, I read the stories about how we’re already past the point of no return when it comes to global climate change. But when I want to counter that feeling, I think about my sons and their generation, about for example my older son’s proposal-in-progress for a climate change-battling project for part of his high school’s community service requirement (more on that in this space as the contours develop!). Both depression and inspiration seem important emotional states when it comes to wildfires and climate change here in late 2021.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Fires or other historic disasters you’d analyze?