What Natural Disasters Can Do to Your Mind

How the recent California wildfires upended my very sense of time.
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A sign of resilience posted on a tree in a charred neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, on October 20th, 2017.

A sign of resilience posted on a tree in a charred neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, on October 20th, 2017. 

Sunday, October 8th, 9:30 p.m., Santa Rosa, California. My wife Janet and I are at the home of two longtime friends, watching television and chatting, when we all hear a powerful gust of wind and a weird popping, like power transformers exploding somewhere in the distance. Janet and I drive home, smelling smoke. Tree branches litter the roads. Janet calls the fire department; she is told there is fire in the hills outside of town and that she should hang up the phone unless she has an emergency to report. We go to bed.

Disaster is always something that happens to other people, until it happens to us. We're busy, with plans and commitments. In this instance, I had already packed my bags for a morning flight to Boston, where I was to give two talks and meet with some of my organization's key allies.


Monday, October 9th, 3 a.m. We awaken to the insistent ringing of our doorbell. When we rouse ourselves and get to the door, we see our next-door neighbor walking quickly from house to house. She points to the northern horizon, which is glowing bright orange, and warns us that evacuations have begun.

When a disaster happens, our normal sense of time is interrupted. Our priorities are upended. Suddenly nothing matters but the immediate necessities of escaping harm and helping others to safety. People's attitudes during times of crisis tend to be sober, purposeful, and helpful. Hysteria is remarkably rare.


Monday, October 9th, 4 a.m. We have gathered our valuables (including my violin, one of Janet's paintings, and our important papers), and bundled our four sleepy hens into carriers. We pack all these, along with sleeping bags, clothes, and a pre-packed evacuation kit (containing emergency food, wind-up radio, etc.), into our two cars. I turn off the gas line to the house. Local radio station KSRO is broadcasting fire reports and evacuation instructions; we hear that the closest shelter is already full and head for another halfway across town.

Fire is a natural, periodic event in the hilly, oak woodland ecosystem of Sonoma County, California. A 1964 wildfire took nearly the same path as the one this year. But now the risk of fire is exacerbated by climate change, which heats air (stoking stronger winds) and water (leading to more evaporation and hence stronger precipitation events). Last winter was one of the wettest on record here, encouraging the rapid growth of grasses and shrubs—perfect fuel for a fast-moving fire, fed also by winds measured at up to 90 miles per hour in some locations.


Monday, October 9th, afternoon. After sitting in the evacuation shelter parking lot for five hours listening to radio reports and wondering whether our house has survived, we hear restless sounds from the chickens and decide to drive back to the home of our friends whom we had just seen the previous evening. They live in a part of town that doesn't seem to be under imminent threat. When we get there, we make a temporary space for the hens in the back yard, and everyone shares some food. (The chickens eat too.) Having heard from the radio that Janet's and my neighborhood is probably safe, at least for the time being, I drive home and assess the situation. Along the entire route the air is thick with smoke and traffic lights are out. When I arrive, all appears to be in order—except that there is no electricity. I return to our friends'; Janet and I collect the hens and drive home. There are small flakes of ash on the ground everywhere around our house. We also find some larger charred fabric chunks a few inches long that appear once to have been someone's clothes or drapes. The sun is a blood-red polka dot in a brown-gray sky.

The recent fire is just one of the ways climate change is manifesting itself locally. Our growing season is lengthening, but droughts are longer and more severe. This summer saw more 90-degree-or-above days than any summer on record.


Tuesday, October 10th. There is a lot of listening to the radio, sitting around, talking, and waiting. Without electricity, the contents of our refrigerator are slowly warming. We share dinner with our neighbors by candlelight. The following evening we do the same. Having heard that their neighborhood is close to a new evacuation zone, our friends from across town show up to spend the night at our place.

Humanity is almost certainly entering a time of worsening and more frequent disasters. In Germany, a recent study found that three-quarters of insects have disappeared during the past 27 years. If replicated globally, this finding has implications that ripple up the food chain: Insect-eating birds are indeed becoming more scarce, as well as wild predators that feed on birds. Services that insects provide, such as pollination and waste processing, aren't accomplished on the former scale. Meanwhile, we are losing 24 billion tons of topsoil per year thanks to industrial agriculture. The Amazon rainforest—lungs of the planet—continues to shrink. Aquifers are being drained. There are expanding dead zones in oceans and at the mouths of rivers, resulting in part from fertilizer runoff. The oceans are warming, leading to stronger and more frequent storms and the die-off of many aquatic species. These trends are the predictable results of rapid growth in human population and per-capita consumption levels during the last two centuries, all based on an energy bonanza from the combustion of fossil fuels.


Monday, October 13th. In our neighborhood the electricity is back, as is the Internet. I'm able to work at my computer. I go across town to shop at our local organic market. It has no fresh produce or refrigerated food—all was donated to evacuation shelters because it would have spoiled otherwise. We've learned that several friends have lost their homes and virtually all their belongings. Our cars are still packed in case the fires whip up again. And we've discovered that our disaster kit was out of date—the batteries in our wind-up radio and flashlight no longer hold a charge.

Disaster is abnormal. When a disaster occurs, help—which in Santa Rosa took the forms of firefighters and supplies—comes from outside, where things are still normal, enabling the area in crisis to regain its status quo. But when disasters are too severe, or when they recur one after another, or there is no functioning "outside" to come to the rescue, then the word "disaster" becomes insufficient. In retrospect, historians call this "collapse."


Sunday, October 19th. A light rain falls on Santa Rosa, partially clearing the air—which has been dreadfully smoky for over a week now. The fires are under control. Many stores are open, where conversations always start with: "How are you? How's your family? Was your house OK?" and end with, "Stay safe, good luck." Burned parts of town are still off-limits even to former residents. There is talk of rebuilding, and of higher rental prices now that thousands of homes are gone.

Humanity faces two great questions this century. First: Can we change the trends that are propelling us toward collapse? Second: Can we build enough resilience into our communities, and quickly enough, to enable them to weather disasters that are already inevitable given past over-growth? Climatologists and other scientists have been asking these questions with ever-greater urgency in the past few decades, but it is only during times of crisis that the general populace shows much interest. More disasters are coming, and hence more opportunities to pay attention and take action. These opportunities will not be limitless in number or duration.