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Wildfires and Mutual Aid

Keeping track of every moment of breaking news is a fool’s game. Even if one could somehow notice every highlight-event, we could never contextualize them all. The last few years - to say nothing of the last few decades - have contained so many new lows, so many record-breaking shames, that things like natural disasters are just shrugged at. We don’t know what to make of them anymore.

Oh, I guess Puerto Rico had a hurricane.

We don’t even act like it’s true. We just assume that the system will take care of itself, that 'this is what we pay taxes for.' We certainly don't think about our safety or what it will mean for the future that some new atrocity has taken place. We don’t change our habits, and within a few days, or even hours, it’s old news.

Oh, I guess there was another mass shooting today.

Still, it’s a testament to the force of American High Weirdness that an entire town of almost thirty-thousand people has been entirely erased from the map, in the richest state in the richest country in the world, and Americans just roll right on.

Oh, I guess Paradise burned down.

Confronting the monolith of American narcissism is daunting. Our natural instinct toward empathy is constrained on every side. We don’t know how to help, or what help even looks like. We're taught from a young age that helping looks like heroism. We get a five-second clip of a rescuer pulling someone from the rubble, or a brave teacher who instinctively shielded her students from gunfire. Helping is portrayed as something you do right then, in the heat of the moment, an alchemy of virtue and moxie, right-place-right-time.

With this mythology firmly bolted into our minds, by the time we hear about the latest terribleness, it's already 'too late' to 'help' as we think of it. Someone already did, or didn't, and that's how the story went. Nothing about our own lives is changed unless the terribleness happened to us, and if we weren't the hero, we were probably the victim.

What we definitely don't do is think about what things look like a day later, or a week or a month later. We just take for granted that Puerto Rico will absorb a death toll comparable to 9/11 and move on. We take for granted that its infrastructure will magically rebuild itself, because we're certainly not going to go look at what it's like a year later. We take for granted that there will be memorials and tributes and within a month it'll be old news.

This mentality compounds on itself each time it happens. With every new disaster, we give ourselves permission to ignore anything that isn't equally world-shattering. We don't have time to process the first before the next comes on its heels. Was Hurricane Harvey the one in North Carolina, or the one in Houston?

We’re pushing our planet’s fragile ecosystems into uncontrolled climate experiments. We’re discovering that rabid consumption of resources, constant demand for economic growth, and 24-hour coverage of the latest disasters is a cocktail perfectly suited for creating a sense of helplessness in human society. People with unearned power over the direction of civilization have stratified the mechanisms of humane response, leaving people feeling increasingly anxious and depressed. We're taught that the way to 'help' is to limply drop cans of food into the donation baskets at a local food bank, which might make us feel a little warm and fuzzy inside, but we abstractly know it isn’t going to rebuild a house in Paradise, and it isn’t going to turn the power back on in Puerto Rico, and it isn’t going to clean the tap water in Flint.

Knowing that, we don’t bother. We sit and watch TV and wait for the next story of misery, the next few photogenic heroes, the next faraway disaster. With our damage to the ecosystem ramping up and our infrastructure in dramatic decline, we’re guaranteed a show.

What do we do about this death spiral? (For that is assuredly what it is.) How do we regain our power over our own responses to crisis? How do we regain our feeling that we are useful to each other? How do we actually make a difference, even if we aren’t the photogenic heroes pulling people from the rubble?

Modern libertarian-leftism revolves around the notion of mutually-assured autonomy: The actions of one individual should promote the freedom of all. Organizational models that do away with power-stealing hierarchies all boil down to solidarity, a belief that an injury to one is an injury to all, and similarly (though often overlooked,) that undistributed benefits are unjust benefits. The theory of ‘mutual aid’ is at the core of this system of thought, and around the world, people are being reawakened to it as they discover that the systems they were lulled into trusting have long since betrayed them.

This is taking many different forms around the world, as cultures pursue mutualism in manners appropriate to their history. In America, the groundswell of popular leftism - rightly or wrongly - is being spearheaded by the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA.

The Camp Fire is a Capitalist-Created Disaster

The Camp Fire started under conditions of critically high wind, low relative humidity, and dry fuels. Nevertheless, numerous aspects of the fire itself, the response, and the aftermath point to the pressing need to replace the capitalist system with one that is democratically-controlled and run for human needs.

Climate Change

Large fires are documented from the very beginning of recorded history. Since the turn of the 20th century, though, fire size and intensity have steadily climbed. Fire seasons have gotten worse and longer, not just in California but all over the Western US. Fuel conditions in the Camp Fire area are more critical than they were in August and September, the normal peak of the Northern California fire season. The Camp Fire area has received around 1 inch of rain since May 1.

Both our extreme-right wing government and the corporations for whom they govern have stated explicitly that climate change is none of their concern. We must end fossil fuel exploration and development, and retool our infrastructure for green energy, immediately.

For-Profit Utilities

Northern California’s energy is supplied by Pacific Gas & Electric, a government-regulated monopoly. They maintain the dams, power plants, and lines that provide electricity to over 5 million Californians, and the pipelines that supply natural gas to over 4 million. But PG&E’s history of poor maintenance and resistance to life-saving (but monetarily costly) infrastructure improvements has forced Californians to pay a steep price for their utilities:

  • 1999 Pendola Fire: PG&E caused. Burned 12,000 acres of National Forest, including habitat for endangered species. 76 structures destroyed.
  • 2010 San Bruno Gas Explosion: Defective welds cause the failure of a 55-year old pipeline under the city of San Bruno. 8 people are killed.
  • 2017 North Bay Fires: PG&E equipment and infrastructure sparked numerous fires across 8 Northern California Counties, burning over 8,000 structures and killing 44 people.
  • 2018 Camp Fire: Indications so far point to PG&E infrastructure as the cause of the Camp Fire. So far the town of Paradise has been wiped out, with 7,000 structures destroyed. The death toll is currently 29, but officials are still searching the remnants of cars and homes for human remains. It is both the deadliest and the most destructive fire in California history.

PG&E has proven it cannot or will not provide Northern Californians with energy safely. The time has come for the state .

The Housing Crisis

Just days prior to the start of the Camp Fire, Chico City Council amended language to their recently-passed anti-homeless Sit/Lie ordinance, reinstating it. Now Chico is flooded with refugees from the Camp Fire disaster, and must hypocritically pretend to care for the wellbeing of the displaced. Shelters all over town are overwhelmed, and the night temperatures are dipping into the 30s and 40s, with unhealthy air quality. Housing is a human right, not a commodity -- regardless of the cause of one’s displacement, all people deserve a safe place to stay every night.

For-Profit Medicine

This Fall, Enloe Medical Center -- a huge complex of medical facilities in Chico -- issued notices terminating their contract with Anthem Blue Cross. Chico residents insured with Anthem were directed to go to the nearest medical facility that accepted their insurance: Feather River Hospital in Paradise. In the wake of the annihilation of Paradise, Enloe is now temporarily accepted Anthem Blue Cross policies.

The for-profit medical insurance industry is inhumane -- it profits from human misery and disease. We desperately need Medicare for All, now!

Mass Incarceration

As on all California fires, CALFIRE has deployed thousands of inmate firefighters, paid mere dollars per day. These men and women volunteer to leave the confines of prison cells to live in “Conservation Camps” throughout the state. They work year-round on projects of all kinds, and in the summer they are the backbone of CALFIRE’s manual fire labor force. These incarcerated workers face brutal choice -- work for next to nothing or sit in prison. Upon release they are often blocked from employment by the same agencies that utilized them because of their criminal records.

We must end mass incarceration, and the brutal forms of exploitation it perpetuates throughout our society.

Please share this statement with your groups and ally organizations, so that we can move forward with political action together.

Democratic Socialists of America| Chico

Chico DSA is a very small and very new organization. We greatly appreciate the kindness and direct aid we have been given by our comrades, particularly those in Sacramento and San Francisco DSA chapters. This crisis is still unfolding; several members have been evacuated from their homes, and the potential for new evacuations remains. In light of this extremely dynamic situation, we are trying to act deliberately to find what role we can play in the days and months to follow. We understand that many people want to help immediately, and we greatly appreciate this desire. We are still building the networks of support that will make longterm help effective. Please bear with us as we develop these, and we will push notifications about our plans as soon as they are finalized. Thank you!!

This is language that the American public hasn’t been exposed to on a wide scale in decades. It’s a call to action, at last, to a giant that has fallen back to sleep. Around the world, similar movements are stirring against the latest rise of authoritarianism and unaccountable powers. It’s disheartening that the only thing to awaken this feeling in the silent majority of humane and well-meaning people is a barrage of unanswered disasters and human suffering, but it might be the only option left.

The solution isn’t to trust the systems that are failing, like so many bridges and pipes and legislatures. The solution is to trust your neighbor, to trust your community. It’s to stop letting our minds be beaten into helplessness by neverending waves of ‘coverage’ about things we have no power over. If we all do what is possible for ourselves and for each other, we’ll discover that we don’t need people "above" us in the first place to get it done.

Let's not waste this chance. We are all we've got.

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