Paul Messersmith-Glavin: Any antidote to climate anxiety involves organizing

October 6, 2023 | Waging Nonviolence

By taking collective action, we step out of our sense of helplessness into a realm of working to change the conditions giving rise to those emotions.

I watch the bright orange glow of the approaching fires from our southern window. The “get ready to evacuate” line is moving ever closer, stalling out only a mile away. My partner, eight-year-old child and I roll up towels, placing them at the base of our front door to prevent toxic wildfire smoke further seeping in. We don’t have air purifiers. We are scared.

After several days, feeling claustrophobic and wanting to play, my child and I decide to venture out. Donning Portland-appropriate respirators and goggles — necessitated by the police force’s habit that year of gassing entire neighborhoods in response to a popular uprising insisting Black lives matter — we load nerf guns, secure lightsabers and open the door. Once outside, in the thick, swirling smoke and eerie glowing sky, my child says they feel like we’re on an alien planet. We kind of are. Even with our protective gear, weapons and a strong desire to play, we are quickly overcome by the overwhelming smoke. We goof around and play out scenes from “Star Wars,” only lasting five minutes before rushing back inside, marveling at how strange and awful it all is.

This was the summer of 2020, when Oregon was in the midst of a drought with unusually high summer temperatures. The Oregon fires that year burned five million acres, an area the size of New Jersey, killing 17 people and destroying thousands of homes. I feared the flames would leap into the city, setting off a block-by-block blaze, like what happened in Chicago 150 years ago.

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