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Storms and Storms and Storms...
We have not yet begun to fear.
It felt, more than anything else, like a lazy, rainy Sunday. Until the earthquake hit. It was a 5.1 on the Richter scale, centered two hours north in Ojai. For about ten seconds, during the gentle but unmistakable shaking to our apartment, we were seized not so much by fear as by disbelief. Of all the days for an earthquake, this is the one it chooses?
There is, in the public statements of city officials, a clear sense that Los Angeles has been dodging climate bullets for some time. Hurricane Hilary, though notably destructive, has not been deadly for Southern California. Neither was the earthquake. At least according to official counts.
The last time a tropical storm of this size hit the region, 84 years ago, it killed close to a hundred people. America’s infrastructure, its ability to withstand catastrophe, had not yet reached the level it would in the years after World War II. Today it is the opposite problem. The dams and bridges, the highways and drainage systems; these have all sat neglected for decades. In the face of a truly monumental disaster, many of them will crumble, hobbling any emergency response.
The story 2,500 miles away, in the middle of the Pacific, shares a similar background. Water rights on the island of Maui have for so long been under the thumb of luxury resorts and golf courses that firefighters have been unable to stanch the flames. Lahaina has been obliterated. Its residents, mostly working class and Native Hawaiian, are unsure if, after real estate developers have their way, they will ever be able to return.
We can easily superimpose this scenario onto Los Angeles, though it would be on a far larger scale. Areas like Compton, Downey, and Pico Rivera would be left to drown should the Whittier Narrows Dam give way under the pressure of inundating rains. Which, provided its rehabilitation doesn’t happen quick enough, it very well may.
Likewise, the wildfires of Southern California have, for the most part, managed to stop at LA’s outer edges. They have been devastating enough. What happens if, fates forbid, the wind picks up? The rich will have their Malibu mansions rebuilt. Can we imagine similar resources mobilized for the displaced poor?
While the inertias of the capitalocene have worsened the severities of floods and wildfires, the earthquakes have always managed to dwarf us with ease. The world’s tectonic plates will grind against each other regardless of how much carbon there is in the atmosphere (though there is ample evidence that hydraulic fracking and oil drilling increase the frequency of seismic activity).
It’s been almost thirty years since the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, an event that killed more than fifty and injured thousands. While it is impossible to predict, let alone prevent, these kinds of disasters, one could imagine cities that are able to withstand them. That, however, would require systems already invested in preventing the disasters it can avoid.
That prisons in Southern California were willing to let Covid run rampant, that they were willing to let the crisis compound by letting the fires of 2021 get close enough to suffocate already sick prisoners, shows that this is not that system. You could say that their status as convicts and criminals makes them more expendable. Leaving aside the horror of that suggestion, on a long enough timeline, the lives of all but the most wealthy and powerful can be similarly rationalized away.
We know all of this. Even if we don’t have the language to articulate it, the dread lives in our bones. Even so, we are, for the most part, stuck in headlights. Whether it’s fear or fatigue, we are unable to move. Whatever the cause, it works out well for climate realism. We can sense the inevitable because we’ve seen others go through it. It doesn’t seem quite real, but then neither did it seem real when it happened to the people on the news.
The thing about catastrophe, though, is that even at its most predictable, it manages to surprise. And so, in the middle of a deflated hurricane, the fault-lines decide to remind us. The weirdness of geology and ecology, working in an uncanny tandem of cosmic indifference. In those moments, we feel our own inertia, and our inability to weather the coming storms.
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I will be speaking at the twentieth annual Historical Materialism conference, which is being held 9 – 12 November at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. I will be presenting a paper titled “A Great Composer of Time: The Post/Anti/Humanist Socialism of Jóhann Jóhannsson.” More details are to come, but some of what I will be speaking on can be found in this post from February. More information about HM can be found on its website.