“What Are We Fighting For?” That’s the inspiring question High Country News (HCN) writer Brooke Larson asked in her prize-winning essay in HCN’s
November 13th edition. The piece got her readers to think about fundamentals. What are we resisting? What do we want to achieve as citizens who champion a respectful stewardship of the environment? Larson’s own answer varies throughout the essay. At one point, the fight is to save an iconic species and what it stands for —aspen and the miracle of connectivity in its forests which flourish from a single root system. Near the end, after surveying the devastation wrought by fossil fuels, Larson concludes we are fighting for “our spirit.”
I love this piece for its tenderness, resilience and strength. Driving around the Middle Rio Grande Valley this week, I kept asking myself the same question. What are we fighting for? Clean air and water in the South Valley, the viability of the Bosque, a city that understands its relationship to the land around it and to those who work that land? All of those, of course, and many more. But the big answer that stuck with me this week was harsher. Having just lived through the gorgeous and spooky Indian summer of the warmest November in recorded history in Albuquerque, the answer that made sense to me is that we’re fighting for the grace not to be utterly stupid any more.
We really don’t have time for the yapping of error and contention. For instance, Governor Martinez and her flying monkey minions whose sins of omission on the environment will have amounted to the equivalent of an 8-year mega-drought are ever closer to being swept out the door of history. Presuming Democrats don’t commit the ultimate stupidity of a circular firing squad once again, 2018 should see environmental sanity gaining ground in state government. The dozens of environmental NGO’s in New Mexico that have been battling to keep the pollution industrial complex from overrunning everything might have a chance to take the offensive if New Mexico Representative, and arch money-first-land-last climate change denier and curmudgeon, Steve Pearce, isn’t elected governor.
Now’s the time for those of us who believe in environmental stewardship to be absolutely clear about what we want and how to get there. Conservation Voters New Mexico has already cut to the chase in next year’s race for Governor, making an early endorsement of New Mexico Representative Michelle Lujan-Grisham, hoping perhaps to avoid the ridiculous primary congestion the Democrats have brought on themselves in the District 1 House of Representatives race with its eight candidates, four of whom are looking to be major players in New Mexico’s political future. Is this clogged up field a sign that the party has no internal leadership or political principles sufficiently disciplined enough to prevent good people from chewing each other up unnecessarily?
If our politics are still in disarray, our policy goals should be crystal clear. Take two powerful issues of undermining stewardship — expanding the mission of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad and what historian Mike Davis has described as the “wildland-urban interface” in a piece he wrote in the London Review of Books (LRB) about the devastating suburban wildfires in northern California wine country this summer.
The good news about WIPP is that the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), for over 30 years one of New Mexico’s most important and effective environmental NGOs, has had WIPP in its sights for decades.
Thwarting a proposal to bring all the nation’s commercial spent fuel rods, more than 70,00O metric tons of highly radioactive hazardous waste, to New Mexico and West Texas for surface storage is a major “challenge” for New Mexico communities, says SRIC. And it’s opposing the idea with a laser focus, helping grassroots community activists work effectively against it. Spent fuel rods are so heavy they have to be moved by rail, largely from the East Coast through hundreds of towns and villages and cities and most of it converging on Carlsbad in or around the WIPP precinct. Security issues would be massively complicated and national in scope, and the chances of catastrophic accidents along America’s rail system make the proposal ludicrous on the face of it. SRIC has been WIPP’s watchdog from the beginning and has long been involved in helping Native American communities cope with the health impacts of uranium mining from as far back as the 1940s. Radioactivity has plagued the health of indigenous and rural populations in New Mexico since WWII.
I haven’t been able to find out yet if there is an NGO or other organization in Albuquerque and New Mexico watchdogging the “wildland-urban interface” in towns and cities across the state. Mike Davis in his LRB piece entitled “El Diablo in Wine Country” calls sprawl development near forests and open lands with flammable weed cycles “a rustic version of death row.” The author of the 1990 book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Davis writes in LRB about the firestorm that engulfed more than four thousand homes in Oakland Hills, California, in 1991 and links it to the Santa Rosa firestorm that incinerated more than a thousand homes this summer in the wine country of Sonoma County.
The combination of wet Spring grass and wildflower growth, hot dry summers and heavy winds is an almost universal formula for creating suburban infernos where sprawl developments meet dry open lands or dry forests. Every sprawling city in New Mexico must have such a potential firestorm zone at its edges. One could say that the East Mountains and its developments, along with much of the edges of Albuquerque’s Westside, constitute such an urban wildland interface. One of most terrifying fires in the state’s history, the Cerro Grande Fire, was in a wildland-urban interface in Los Alamos seventeen years ago in May 2000. The fire destroyed over 400 homes in one of America’s most secure environments. We’re still not clear how many nuclear waste sites were compromised on the Los Alamos National Lab reservation.
What Davis and others are making us all aware of is that these kinds of suburban fires are really not anomalies anymore. And they threaten countless drought-stressed communities in the American West, from Montana to New Mexico and Arizona to Nevada and California. They spread by wind-blown embers and are next to impossible to contain or douse using current firefighting tactics. Not being prepared for such firestorms is exactly the kind of stupidity that’s a fellow traveler of catastrophe.
We know what we’re fighting for — the clarity of mind to increase our chances to adapt to the ferocious and intractable conditions of a climate-changed world, conditions that are no longer in the comforting future but sizzling right in our midst, burning our homes and communities this summer and threatening us all in the future. Imagine being caught in such a situation, evacuating your suburban home, because the politics of stupidity and climate change denial had left us all utterly defenseless to obvious dangers ruining the lives of those in communities all around us.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it