By KENDALL G.
On Dec. 30, 2021, a grass fire, which has since been dubbed the “Marshall Fire,” started near Boulder, Col. It spread rapidly to the nearby suburbs, culminating in a firestorm that razed over a thousand homes and destroyed seven commercial structures. Hundreds more structures were damaged. Tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate, leading to gridlock and panic along the roads. The fire itself was contained almost entirely thanks to a snowfall on New Year’s Eve. At the time of writing, two people are missing as a result of the fire, with one probable death.
The factors that made this fire so destructive include an unusually high amount of vegetation from an unusually wet early 2021, the unusual dry spell in the latter half of 2021, and the wind speeds that reached up to 90 mph. As usual, all of these factors are either caused by or worsened by climate change.
Unfortunately, these climate disasters have become their own genre of news over the past few years. The disaster might be a hurricane, a forest fire, or even a wave of tornadoes, but the rest of the story is the same: homes destroyed, people forced to flee and lives lost. We can all recall the most famous incidents: Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Maria, the Midwest Derecho of 2020, the Camp Fire—the list goes on.
What separates this incident from those typically reported on is that it wasn’t on the coasts or near a forest. There was no obviously apparent environmental hazard nearby. The fire wasn’t the result of homes built near a flammable forest—rather, the primary fuel for the fire was actually suburban homes, not vegetation. In fact, as the climate scientist Daniel Swain has explained, this was an urban firestorm—a phenomenon that was mostly eliminated in the 20th century among developed nations but appears to have made a comeback. While the scale of this disaster and the accompanying migration it caused are not necessarily out of step with others before it, it represents a qualitative shift, which accompanies a potentially dramatic increase in the risk of fire across the entire U.S., and especially across the West.
Indeed, the combination of expanding suburban sprawl with the effects of climate change add up to a much greater risk of urban and suburban fires. One would think that the risks of living in the wilderness would at least make it uneconomical to build in dangerous areas—but in fact, it is precisely these areas that are expanding in population. In part, this is driven by the speculative frenzy for real estate in the cities, which has priced working-class people out. In part, it is driven by the American obsession with detached, single-family suburban homes.
The cumulative effect of all this is that we are running out of places we can truly call safe. The coasts? Obviously not—hurricanes! The countryside? Forest fires! Surely, the suburbs are fine, right? Not anymore—they too can burn to the ground if the conditions are right. Thanks to climate change, and the U.S. government’s unwillingness to actually address it, we all are potentially subject to a disaster that could force us to flee at any point.
It’s at this point that people ask how they can protect themselves against a coming disaster. Maybe if I keep a large enough stash of home-canned goods, I’ll have enough food to weather the storm? Maybe I just need to buy a bunker? Perhaps learn to homestead? The honest truth is that, unless you are one of the rarefied few who can afford to take a space flight of fancy while the planet burns, you can’t do much to prepare for a disaster such as this.
The political establishment isn’t of much help when disaster strikes either. Typically, after the disaster has taken its course, leaving destroyed homes and a shredded community in its wake, the land and other resources are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Reconstruction is undertaken for the sake of the profits of a few wealthy capitalists, rather than for the benefit of former and current residents.
As for preventing disasters? Considering that all it takes is a single senator to derail the Democrats from even making minor reforms to address climate change, it would be naive to rely on them for change. And obviously, considering the Republicans only recently publicly acknowledged climate change as a real phenomenon, they’re not likely to be much help either.
None of this should lead to despair, however. Despite appearances, we are not helpless. There is a power that, if wielded properly, can deal with these environmental disasters, stop them from happening in the future, and leave most people better off than they were before. That power is the power of the organized working class—that is, average people getting organized to collectively demand a better future for themselves, their families, their communities, and future generations. This is not to say that the road to change will be easy, but rather it is to say that a better future is possible, as long as we’re willing to fight for it.
But what, concretely, should we fight for? While it’s beyond the scope of this short article to outline an entire program for dealing with a problem as sweeping and complex as climate disasters, it is helpful to at least think about what our demands should be.
Some initial demands could include a program to proactively resettle people in areas affected by climate change (including those coming from outside the U.S.), public housing, updated building codes and infrastructure, etc. There is a lot that can be accomplished now, assuming the political establishment (and their wealthy donors) can be forced to concede.
But in the long run, we must recognize that capitalism created these problems, and therefore so long as capitalism continues, any gains we make will always be temporary. Capitalism’s incessant need for economic growth and profits at the expense of humanity and the environment means that it’s just a matter of time before the next disaster strikes. To solve these problems once and for all, we will need a revolution to move to a new society that prioritizes human need and the environment, rather than private profit. That society is socialism.
Photo: Homes burn on Dec. 30, 2021, in Superior, Colo. (David Zalubowski / AP)
Kendall G. is a member of Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and of the Revolutionary Socialist Network.