Posted September 9th, 2010 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Fire

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

Fire is one of the fearsome forces of nature. We are seeing it at work in two contrasting places this morning – Boulder County, Colorado, and Detroit MI.

Stunning video of the Fourmile Canyon Fire, especially the last couple of minutes:

And then there’s what just happened in Detroit on Tuesday night. My goodness, this is tragic!

Video below from Sept 8  NBC Nightly News:

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Now I know the Boulder fire is still burning, and 169 structures have been destroyed thus far, no containment yet. But it is still striking to me how quickly this Detroit story seems to have disappeared from the news – it’s only Thursday, after all. I’m trying to find any story on the NY Times website, for example.

Hey, but it’s Detroit, depressed, many neighborhoods abandoned (some of the burned homes were empty), lots of poverty, lots of non-white people. I’m cynical. I think we don’t care much about Detroit – kind of like New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

Compare to the coverage of Boulder County.

So what happened in Detroit? The Detroit Free Press reports this clearly – old outdated infrastructure, a windstorm that downed power lines, sparks ignite, they spread to roofs and trees, more cinders blow through streets with many empty houses, abandoned when Detroit’s economy collapsed, victim of auto factory closings and then the Great Recession. Result: a raging urban inferno. Combine this with budget cuts that have left some firehouses empty and fewer firefighters, and you end up with a situation that truly got out of control.

Fourmile Canyon fire from space: NASA Earth Observatory

Now,  Boulder County. This is a different situation. I lived in Boulder back in the 70s when the town’s population was about 70,000. Most of the canyons struck by fire were pretty much empty and wild then.  Since I lived there, Colorado’s population has grown from under 3 million to over 5 million and, if current trends continue, could rise to between 6.5 and 7 million by mid-century.

This is not sustainable. But even more, we are loving it into ruin. To see the sprawl of shopping malls and condos, summer homes and Wal-Marts, to see pollution and congestion all up and down the northern front range – indeed, to see smog wafting into canyons all the way to Estes Park – is sad, even enraging. The population boom in the West continues, even as water sources, like the Denver Basin aquifer, are depleting rapidly.

Here is one research paper that ought to sound alarms: Bedrock Aquifers and Population Growth in the Denver Basin.  Here’s another, from Geotimes, looking at the Denver Basin aquifer and the High Plains aquifer.

What is this really about? That thing we hate – LIMITS. We U.S. Americans insist that we can live wherever we want, and wherever we want has put enormous stresses on the west and on the coasts. Here, too, in the Milwaukee/Chicago area where suburban and exurban sprawl has put unsustainable demands on groundwater and changed the flow of replenishing waters into Lake Michigan. [See this powerpoint presentation about water usage in Wisconsin – scary stuff.]

This is the most recent graph I could find. 30 years later, things are much worse. Source: US Geological Survey

When I write that we can’t live like this any longer, it’s not a philosophical statement; it is a statement of real planetary limits. When we consider that the human species is still experiencing rapid population growth rates (though the rate is slowing), we see that we are headed into uncharted territory in which we will have to learn, on a global scale, how to share increasingly scarce resources, while making sure we are not depleting them for future generations. One thing for sure is that we cannot allow the wealthy and the corporate world to continue to take so much of what we all will need to survive with some dignity and well-being as we go through the era of ‘the great ecological squeeze.’

This will be very difficult in this culture because we are still so firmly formed by a belief system that is in conflict with reality. We already see what fear, anxiety, and hostility surfaces when ‘government’ tries to place limits on how we live on the planet, what we take from it, how we use it for our personal thrills and enjoyment. Our survival depends on a socio-psychological shift in meaning and identity that will not be easy.

Meanwhile, Detroit, like New Orleans after Katrina, shows us that we have other cultural illnesses that must be addressed in order to successfully navigate our way through the squeeze – like how we address poverty, like racism, like the term Glenn Back hates so much but which is deeply ingrained in Judeo-Christian traditions and so much of US history: Social Justice. Without that, we commit ourselves to an awful future.


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