Press Rogue — May 16, 2019, 4:00 pm

Playing With Fire

California’s fire season is quickly approaching, and as New York magazine argued this week, it may never end. In the cover story, climate reporter David Wallace-Wells describes the fires that devastated greater Los Angeles last year as “a portent of something new”: by mid-century, the “area burned each year by forest fires across the western United States will at least double, and perhaps quadruple.” Not only are these fires growing, they’ve become more terrifying than ever before. “They’re producing not just firestorms but fire tornadoes,” Wallace-Wells writes, “in which the heat can be so intense it can pull steel shipping containers right into the furnace of the blaze.”

Wallace-Wells’s report focuses on the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, which burned close to a hundred thousand acres of the spectacular hills that press Malibu up against the Pacific. Though the sheer size of the fire took Southern California by surprise, it is hardly the only blaze to have threatened Malibu in recent decades. “Since 1970,” Wallace-Wells writes, “the city has endured 57 fires of more than 5,000 acres.” The force lurking behind these bouts of devastation is, of course, climate change—not that such knowledge makes the fires any easier to contain. As Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti says in the piece, “To turn the corner on something like global warming, it’s like grasping at clouds. You’ll never hold it.”

This sort of dramatic fatalism is all too common in climate reporting, harkening back to an era when natural disasters were described as “acts of God.” In his report, Wallace-Wells gestures at a future where people have made peace with their inability to address the spiraling effects of emissions, and instead seek only to “endure in a world increasingly defined by the brutality of climate change by normalizing that suffering as quickly as warming produces it.” His message is stark: climate change is here, and life as we know it is over. True enough, but what gets lost is the fact that the suffering promised by climate change has as much to do with societal inequality as it does with the wrath of nature.

Remember, this is Malibu. “No one I spoke with who lost a home expected a long reprieve from fire,” Wallace-Wells writes, “but all planned on rebuilding anyway.” A prime reason he cites for such pertinacity is financial: were these residents to leave, they would forfeit substantial insurance payouts, including some “generous enough” that the homeowners “can talk, with some guilt, of erecting ‘dream homes’ from the burn scar.”

If suffering is to be normalized, I suppose it helps to be a multimillionaire. Meanwhile, poor residents of South Florida are struggling to preserve their livelihoods against not only the approaching sea, but the rich South Beach denizens it’s driving inland. Last year in The Believer, the journalist and poet Mario Alejandro Ariza reported on Miami’s ineffective response to “a future sea-level rise of several feet,” which would erase the beach, cause “constant flooding,” and transform at least one neighborhood into “a wastewater-infused bog.” He details activists’ efforts to push Miami-Dade County to invest “the billions of dollars it will take to successfully adapt an urban region of seven million people to frequent, unstoppable sunny-day flooding,” as well as to address the more immediate concern of what one of his subjects, a Haitian-American community organizer who goes by Vee, describes as “climate gentrification.”

The economic dynamics Ariza describes border on the surreal: because many of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods occupy the city’s high ground, speculators have begun buying up properties they hope to eventually flip to refugees from oceanfront condos. Compounding the problem is the extreme heat, which forces many of the people Vee works with to spend their summers deciding whether to make rent on time or pay monthly electricity bills that can reach two thousand dollars.

Clearly, for folks on either coast, the story of climate change is also a story about extreme wealth disparity. How reporters acknowledge this can go a long way in determining the reader’s sense of scope. Wallace-Wells writes of Angelenos who once drove “past the same flickering flames along the 405 and thought, California,” now seeing them and thinking “Climate change”—suggesting the most lasting effect of the fires has been cerebral. Ariza, on the other hand, equates what is happening in Miami to “trauma,” how it “often makes you vulnerable forever, no matter which socioeconomic group you belong to.” In many ways, the differences between Wallace-Wells and Ariza’s articles come down to the communities they’re profiling, but it’s not like these places were picked out of a hat—the first and most fundamental choice a reporter makes is what to cover.

Of course, wildfires and sea level rise are only two of the innumerable symptoms of climate change. A new United Nations-backed panel report found that “as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction,” as the New York Times put it. To ballast the heady topline conclusion, the Times gave specific examples of what these mass die-offs would entail for humans, like that “the decline of wild bees and other insects… is putting up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk.” In a Times “Insider” note about the article, the writer pointed out that many scientists now feel it is necessary to “quantify in dollar terms all the benefits that nature provides to humanity, in order to make an economic case for conservation.” The reporter explains that he then mirrored that strategy, an attempt to “appeal more forcefully to humanity’s own naked self-interest.”

However calculated that seems, quantifying climate change in such a way is a strong method of guarding against total fatalism. Not that it works for everyone—the dollars-and-cents case didn’t seem to resonate with Times columnist Margaret Renkle, who wrote on Monday, “Devastation on this scale is beyond the reach of imagination.” She bemoans her lack of power to reclaim “soil degraded by industrial farming” or persuade “equatorial countries to protect their rain forests,” but finds comfort in what little earthly real estate she does control: her garden. “I can make my yard a haven for insects,” she writes, “I can keep my yard free from chemicals and let the wildflowers go to seed.”

Renkl’s op-ed, like Wallace-Wells’s reporting, plays into the notion that climate change is an inexorable force, one that ordinary people cannot hope to address. However blinkered Renkl’s reasoning, she’s hardly alone in turning inward after reading warnings like the Times’ that “piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient.” But what if the media dwelled, instead, on the quantifiable? By foregrounding the financial costs of climate change, reporters could expose outright submission as a luxury reserved for the select few—those with the resources to preserve a comfortable standard of living no matter what natural disasters intrude. Perhaps the residents of Malibu have decided they’re willing to endure regular wildfires in exchange for ocean views—and why not, since they can off-load the cost onto insurers? Meanwhile, those sweltering in Little Haiti can’t even afford air-conditioning.

“There’s a difference between doing something and doing nothing,” Renkl writes. But that “something” should be more than gardening, or embracing the “bargain” Wallace-Wells describes that places “intuitions of doom alongside everything beautiful the world has to offer.” Renkl thinks only of herself; Wallace-Wells focuses on the aggregate. In between, though, there’s space for reporting like Ariza’s, reporting that details the efforts ordinary people go to when coping with an existential threat.

Share
Single Page

More from Kyle Paoletta:

Press Rogue May 23, 2019, 2:59 pm

One Horse Town

Press Rogue May 9, 2019, 4:00 pm

Boys on the Bus

Press Rogue May 2, 2019, 3:41 pm

Correct the Record

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Wood Chipper·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

After not making a public appearance for weeks and being rumored dead, the president of Turkmenistan appeared on state television and drove a rally car around The Gates of Hell, a crater of gas that has been burning since it was discovered in 1971.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today