Earth, Wind, Fire…and Less Water

"The loss of life, homes and wildlife habitats in the fires was tragic. But what could be an even greater tragedy would be if we do not learn from this horrific event how to avoid such great loss of life and property in the future." Photo: Courtesy Douglas Morrison (Los Angeles County Fire Department).

The recent fires along California’s coast have been unusually destructive this year. Many lives were lost, along with many square miles of forest burned, as well as the houses in their midst. Are we going to allow this to become the new normal? If not, we need to learn the lessons from this disaster. To do otherwise would be a disservice those who lost their lives and risk the recurrence of this week’s tragic events in the future.

The specific details as to how the fires started are perhaps less important than why these fires continued to burn for so long, enabling them to become more destructive. A contributing factor was likely the warm, dry conditions that have parched vegetation and trees alike this summer. The primary cause, however, might be traced all the way back to increased carbon emissions that have degraded our protective Ozone layer. In the past, it is this barrier that has protected us from global warming. As this protective shield thins, the earth warms at a faster rate and rainfall lessens. The combination of higher temperatures and reduced rainfall has led to the dry, arid conditions we see today. In this environment, vegetation and trees become particularly susceptible to rapid combustion as occurred with the Camp Fire that is now the deadliest fire in California’s history. It is hard to imagine how “Paradise” set amongst a tranquil forest could turn so quickly into such a raging inferno with no means of escape. Is this to be the “new normal”? I would hope not. To avoid its recurrence, however, may not be as simple as it seems. It will require that timely, and in some cases extreme, measures are undertaken not only by residents, the country as a whole, and by industrial nations globally. It is not solely a local issue but one that is occurring worldwide and therefore must be addressed globally. The longer we delay to confront this reality, the greater the chance that this warming cycle could become a “negative feedback loop” that will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. We do not have “time on our side” nor can we risk failure.

The loss of life, homes and wildlife habitats in the fires was tragic. But what could be an even greater tragedy would be if we do not learn from this horrific event how to avoid such great loss of life and property in the future. While many site-specific solutions can be considered, it is perhaps more important that we begin to address this issue on a global scale. It is only then that we might be able to improve the lives of ALL who live on our small, blue planet. Ironically, it appears that our president “cannot see the forest for the trees” when he states that this fire was due to “forest mismanagement.” As our Governor stated, it is a more significant problem than simply by thinning forests. It is a global issue that will ultimately impact all living things on the planet and particularly those in the poorer countries.

These negative impacts are already visible with rising sea levels, unprecedented storms, and droughts. The natural disasters and other environmental challenges are likely to continue unless industrialized countries can act in unison to address this impending crisis. If we fail in this quest, a “negative feedback loop” could develop whereby the earth’s warming cycle could become irreversible by human means. At that point, the very survival on the planet, and all living things would become at risk. Ironically, if that were to occur, our demise may not come directly from global warming but long before its arrival due to its ancillary effects. In his book ” Collapse,” Jared Diamond postulates that before past civilizations became extinct due lack of food or disease, wars often arose due to the competition for limited resources. Is it so far fetched to think that this could still happen in today’s world?

For example, is it possible that some the conflicts in the Middle East are as much about water as religion? Is religion, or nationality, solely the means to “draw sides” rather than the underlying cause of some wars. In a part of the world where water is a rare and essential resource for one’s survival, it is easy to imagine how it could also become the catalyst for conflict. The point is not to oversimplify this clash of cultures but to use it as an example of how environmental factors can be a tipping point in the delicate balance between war and peace between nations. It is not so hard to imagine how this and other world conflicts might also “explode” if placed in the “pressure cooker” of global warming. The continued peace on earth could become increasingly tested as nations vie for decreasing resources in a climate that could grow increasingly challenging or even hostile to life. We cannot take that risk. We need to address this problem now at all scales- from local to global.

Thane Roberts, AIA for SM.a.r.t (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Sam Tolkin, Architect; Dan Jansenson Building and Safety Commissioner, Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Chair Planning Commission; Ron Goldman, FAIA; Thane Roberts, AIA; Bob. Taylor, AIA