Author and activist Naomi Klein went home for a visit this August to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, just west of Vancouver. In a deeply personal essay for The Tyee, she shares her shocked reflections on the heavy pall of smoke that blanketed the picturesque region for weeks, as the interior of the province burned.
The mainland Sunshine Coast, reachable only by ferry or seaplane and best known to other Canadians as the setting for the fictional adventures of the classic Canadian television series, The Beachcombers, is “where my parents live, where my son was born, and where my grandparents died,” Klein writes. She visited this summer with her husband, filmmaker Avi Lewis, and their five-year-old son, Toma.
Klein was unprepared for what she found: The sky was white, the air caustic to the throat. “For about four days, it’s as if we are on a different planet, one with two red suns and no moon at all,” she recalls. “At a playground in the haze, I meet a young mother who offers advice on how to reassure worried kids. She tells hers that forest fires are a positive part of the cycle of ecosystem renewal—the burning makes way for new growth, which feeds the bears and deer.”
But that’s not how it seems to Klein. “For years, climate scientists have warned us that a warming world is an extreme world, in which humanity is buffeted by both brutalizing excesses and stifling absences of the core elements that have kept fragile life in equilibrium for millennia. At the end of the summer of 2017—with major cities submerged in water and others licked by flames—we are living through Exhibit A of this extreme world.
“These fires, which rage for months, are of a different order entirely. There are direct impacts. The huge swath of land charred. The tens of thousands of lives overturned by evacuation orders. The lost homes and farms and cattle. The industries—from tourism operators to sawmills—forced to close down.
“Then there are the less direct impacts of all that wandering smoke. Over July and August, the smoke from this conflagration covered an area spanning roughly 700,000 square miles. That’s bigger than all of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal combined.”
And Klein adds that “this is just one snapshot of a much larger season of fire. The area of Europe that has burned this fire season has been triple the average, and it’s not over yet. In June, more than 60 people died in a blaze near Pedrógão Grande [in Portugal]. Hundreds of homes have burned in Siberia. During Chile’s summer, the country battled the largest wildfire in its recorded history. Even Greenland saw wildfires this summer.”
The signature of climate change due to human activity is unmistakable in these events, as it is in the amplified power of hurricanes like the one that brought Houston to its knees earlier this month, Klein writes.
And in both fire and flood, “we learn the same lesson over and over again: In highly imbalanced societies, with deep inequalities reliably tracing racial fault lines, disasters don’t bring us all together in one fuzzy human family. They take pre-existing divides and deepen them further, so the people who were already getting most screwed over before the disaster get extra doses of pain during and after.”
As late as the Labour Day weekend, Klein notes, more than 160 fires were still burning in British Columbia.
“Our collective house is on fire, with every alarm going off simultaneously, clanging desperately for our attention,” she concludes. “Will we keep stumbling and wheezing through the low light, acting as if the emergency is not already upon us? Or will the warnings be enough to force many more of us to listen?
“Those are the questions still hanging in the air at the end of this summer of smoke.”