Living through the apocalypse
They say people can get used to anything, and now I know it's true.
During the first few months of 2017, Donald Trump's critics would respond to the new president's lies, corruption, and incompetence by repeating the line, "This isn't normal." They were right. But nearly four years later, it is no longer the case. It's as normal as the sunrise or a blue sky on a crisp fall day. As is this same president repeatedly suggesting that the results of the upcoming election will be unreliable, and his attorney general backing him up while blaming his political opponents. Professional pundits and committed partisans still work up a head of steam about such statements, but most others respond with little more than an exhausted sigh at what has clearly become the new normal.
Even mass death can be normalized. The country seemed traumatized when we passed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 late last May. Four months later, we've doubled that number, with no end yet in sight — and the response now feels more and more like a collective shrug. Yeah, people die. They always have, they always will. Stuff happens. It is what it is. The virus will just disappear. Eventually. At some point. And until then, meh.
I can't help but wonder, though, how long it will take for me to grow used to waking up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, as I did this week, with the sun and sky obscured by smoke from fires burning nearly 3,000 miles away. More than once, I rolled out of bed, unsure from the light streaming in through the blinds whether the new day would be sunny or cloudy. By mid-morning the obvious answer was both: a sky clear of clouds but smudged from one horizon to the other by a yellowish-gray fog of incinerated trees and leaves and pine needles and homes once found on the West Coast of the country and continent.
Those who live with the fires themselves are nowhere near considering them normal. A middle-aged friend from Portland who's lived most of his life in the Pacific Northwest puts it like this: "We've always had fires in the West, but never like this. We're choking on smoke and ash. It's happening this year, it happened two years ago, and it happened two years before that. It never once happened before during my lifetime. This is definitely a new pattern. And I never heard the phrase 'fire season' until a couple of years ago. It certainly wasn't a thing when I was a kid. I never even saw smoke from a wildfire until I was in my 30s."
My friend is living through an apocalypse — as are we all.
The term "apocalypse" has come to mean the end of the world, but it originally denoted a revelation, uncovering, or disclosure, especially about the first and last things. That's what we're living through now.
At one level, it's a moment of unprecedented confusion, with a barrage of partial truths and outright lies cascading down on our heads with a technology-fueled intensity that human beings have never known before. Some days it feels like it would be easier to just plug our ears and despair of ever making sense of or finding a way through it all. But from out of that cybernetic swirl can also come a bracing kind of clarity.
For decades now, scientists have been warning about climate change and its likely human consequences. Like many, I was skeptical at first — both because scientists and their predictions are fallible, and because the costs of making drastic changes to avert an uncertain future would be substantial and cause unanticipated consequences, many of them bad in their own right. When whole regions suffer economically and socially from an effort to transition away from coal and fossil fuels, for example, the result can be political reaction that seeks to stymie or reverse the change, while causing a whole new range of problems.
But the evidence has been piling up for a long time now, rendering such skepticism an exercise in self-deception. Polar ice is melting. Storms are increasing in frequency and intensity. Temperatures are rising, rendering parts of the world newly uninhabitable.
And then there are those fires in the American West. Yes, poor forest management is playing a role. But to emphasize that cause to the exclusion of others, as the president and his ideological compatriots like to do, is to embrace willful ignorance. Much more significant is the region's increasing heat, which produces hotter, drier air that sucks moisture out of forests, leaving them more prone than they used to be to explosive combustion.
The consequences are undeniable. Robinson Meyer summed them up in a recent story for The Atlantic:
In the past few months, one in every 33 acres of California has burned. This year is already the most destructive wildfire season, in terms of acreage affected, in state history. In 2018, during California's last annus horribilis, I noted that six of the 10 largest wildfires in state history had happened since 2008. That list has since been completely rewritten. Today, six of California's 10 largest wildfires have happened since 2018 — and five of them have happened this year. ...
It is the same story in the Northwest. More than one million acres have burned in Oregon, where tens of thousands of residents are under an evacuation order and officials have warned of a "mass fatality incident." And across the West, those not living in the path of fires have had to contend with a cloud of toxic fog that stretches from the Inland Empire to Idaho. [The Atlantic]
I don't know if this is the beginning of the literal end of the world. But it does appear to be a new normal — and one that at any time could, and almost certainly will, be supplanted by another that's even worse. Together with the other apocalyptic signs surrounding us, it serves as an important and deeply troubling revelation about our country.
If the United States is incapable of holding an election the outcome of which can be definitively known and trusted, does our government really deserve to be described as democratic? If our public health system can't lead the world in halting the spread of the worst pandemic in a hundred years, are we really as worthy of admiration and emulation as we like to suppose? If we respond to irrefutable evidence of climate change by continuing to deny the obvious as the consequences grow graver and more costly, is there any reason to suppose we're up to the task of saving ourselves?
What has been revealed these past few years — and this year most of all — is that we are not the country many of us supposed we were. However unedifying it is, that's a truth we desperately need to face — and somehow learn to live with.