UNDER FIRE

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, California burned and noxious smoke consumed the West Coast. Hunkered down in my weather-sealed apartment, I was assigned to write about the fires for work. After a rather prosaic analysis of the conditions that lead to such reliably huge annual blazes (surprise! It’s capitalism!), I came to think that I was really onto something with the following idea, which I would use for the paper’s conclusion: since fire reduction efforts are 20-30 years behind and are unlikely to stop on what is now an exceedingly lethal yearly occurrence, what we really need is a psychological framework for surviving, if not thriving, in the Pyrocene.

The coping mechanisms I had been seeing in my peers were not workable, amounting to suicidal environmental nihilism. The more imaginative harbored near-paraphilic fantasies about human extinction saving the earth, which presume that some cosmic, highly Catholic idea of penance will exist even once the Catholics die out, and the reward for mankind’s sacrifice would be a world that can live on in peace (unfortunately, the world after us will continue to be filled with our microplastics and our carbon dioxide, so we cannot assume it will be kind to whatever species remain optimized for the post-anthro Anthropocene). Those less inclined to fantasy resorted to social media doomsaying, declaring ‘DON’T YOU GET IT? IT WILL NEVER GET BETTER. NOTHING WILL EVER BE NORMAL AGAIN’, an act of ugly self-commiseration in the middle of the digital agora. It wasn’t mass hysteria but mass dysphoria, the inconsolability of knowing the destruction won’t end. No life, they proclaimed, is worth this.

These sentiments amount to an intellectual death: there is no desire to persist or even regain functional equilibrium in either one. Yet I could not find an alternative that seemed useful. Mere blanket optimism is unreliable against the scale of these fire events, as one can only suspend their disbelief so far. The only positive response to climate nihilism I came across posited that we should continue to practice our individual ecological stewardship efforts not because they will have payoffs in the future, but because we can convince ourselves that they provide us with an inner sense of purpose. It sounds nice, until we consider that recycling does nothing and we console ourselves with our purchases because holistic care isn’t accessible or viable, so this individual stewardship method reads like just another failed avenue for American individualism.

What, then, is left to do? Pivot to absurdism? We need new paradigms to not only live but live well in these conditions, outside of pinning worths to lives vs. lifestyles vs. products and playing ecological calculus with all of them. We need a radical means of staying whole that isn’t rooted in existing philosophies, because people have never lived like this before, and existing philosophies won’t apply.

I thought I was truly on a roll with this. I made a big Facebook post, breathless about my new idea. I sent strings of excitable texts to my coworkers. What I failed to realize was that I had been breathing the same air for a week in my sealed apartment, and the poor oxygenation was making me loopy. This line of thinking had no place in a nonpartisan paper and I wound up cutting all but a sentence or two. Yet unwittingly, this meant I had stumbled onto something more trenchant. The psychology of surviving the Pyrocene isn’t about maintaining worth and dignity, at least not at first. At its most useful it will only teach you how to maintain baseline functionality when you can’t physically breathe the air.

A philosopher’s mistake: surviving isn’t about self-respect, at least not in the immediate sense. First, it has to be about filling your lungs with the correct molecules to sustain the electric goo in your skull, and how to avoid total derangement when those molecules aren’t readily available.

I don’t know what this would look like in practice. Some kind of death-positivist zen, most likely. This might be my project for the next fire season so I don’t fully embarrass myself before I realize what’s happening.