If you weren’t previously aware that those residing in the northwestern part of our nation are breathing the worst air in the world, now you know. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Better yet, put that in eighteen of your pipes and smoke all of them simultaneously, because that’s what it feels like to live in Oregon.
I recently found myself pumping my family’s dinner table conversation full of comments about how low the quality of life on the other side of the country is right now. I played know-it-all environmental journalist and shot out facts and figures like some sort of semi-automatic weapon of climate activism. So when it came time for me to book a flight back to western Montana, my mom raised an appropriate question: is it even safe for you to be there?
I did the same thing that most people who are physically distanced from larger societal threats seem to do. I completely talked down the severity of the situation. I reassured her that it was absolutely safe. It’s just part of the territory, mom. I’ll be fine. All of my friends are going on with their lives, and I should get back to mine too. As soon as the fires posed a potential roadblock to my next few months of plans, I sprayed verbal flame retardant on the topic and we returned to our previously scheduled hamburgers.
In other words, I lied.
2020 has given us plenty of opportunities to talk down the severity of situations that are most accurately described as “severe.” But climate change, pandemics, systemic and blatant racism and our cringeworthy political atmosphere only seemed to surface in our collective consciousness when their impacts really blew up in our faces. Volumes of research show us that because we are energy-preserving creatures, issues must either impact us directly or have indirect impacts that our morality can latch onto and adopt. Otherwise, we aren’t hard-wired to take much action.
COVID-19 marked the first time since the early 20th century that middle- and upper-class Americans collectively felt the impacts of a severe health crisis. Many of us have talked down the severity of the situation at one point or another, whether in conversations with ourselves or with other people, in attempt to justify taking risks and speeding up the return to comfort.
Systems that perpetuate racism have done little to loosen their grip on society. But it has taken an abhorrent number of Black executions and the ensuing nationwide activism for many white Americans to even notice that grip, let alone dedicate attention and energy to releasing it.
And it wasn’t until the presidential primaries were just whispers in bygone news cycles that we realized, yet again, that America’s Mr. Novembers look like they belong in the balcony above The Muppet Show instead of the highest office in the country.
I accept full responsibility for my own silence and lackluster response to the above three problems. I flew on airplanes over the summer and ran out of hand sanitizer on multiple occasions. I felt wildly uncomfortable arriving to my town’s BLM rally without a sign or a verifiable personal history of being actively anti-racist. And I’m a registered member of a political party whose federal leadership I hate with the fire of a million hells and refuse to vote for, in no small part due to their responses to the first two problems.
So looking at my track record, it makes total sense that I would alter my perception of the wildfires to sway my conscience towards OK-ing my return. And I did this mere minutes after preaching the sermon of fine particulate matter and climatology to my family, costing them their appetites and costing myself their attention spans.
Luckily, I can always count on my superiorly-informed friends to yank me into reality when I need it most.
My best friend Mary has taken up temporary residence in my Missoula apartment while I’ve been in Connecticut. Don’t tell my landlord, because this definitely breaches the “no sublease” clause of our rental agreement, but when it comes to watering plants and fetching mail, she’s as reliable as they come. One of the perks of my top-floor pad is a small balcony with a wide north-facing view. I get to drink my morning coffee while staring at the mountains of Lolo National Forest. Granted, I have to look past the strip mall that neighbors my parking lot and the rusty old railroad tracks that run behind it to see the snowy peaks, but they’re always spectacular. Mary was enjoying them too, until a few weeks ago.
She chose the most opportune of evenings to send me a picture of the view from my balcony. As I nonchalantly confirmed the purchase of my flight, my eyes flickered to my phone screen. It donned the dim glow of a trustworthy verification of my mom’s concern for my health and safety.
Beyond the strip mall and the railroad tracks, there was nothing. No foothills, no interstate, no mountains. The view that likely contributed to at least a fraction of my rental price was gone, as if someone had selected the “Eraser” tool and took their anger out on the image’s background. Lolo National Forest had been swallowed by a dull gray cloud. It had literally gone up in smoke.
It’s not like I didn’t know this was happening. I pay some attention to Twitter, and I knew air conditions in Missoula were far less than ideal. Smoke was standard for early September. But it was as if Missoula herself were reaching out through the picture on my phone and shaking me by my eyelids. Pay attention to me and listen to your mother. Things are not fine. Your life is being directly impacted by the fires and other indicators of climate change. Do you care yet?
Missoula kept going. She started to sound like my unintentional superiority complex during my speech at dinner. Your pilot is going to land your airplane in the poor visibility caused by that air. You are going to run at altitude for the first time in months, and that is the air you will breathe while reacclimatizing. Do you care yet?
She was really on a roll now. You are going to hike those beloved mountains for the first time in a while, and this is the air you will gasp for in the process. You are going back to your exciting independent life out there, and it will smell like bonfire for months. Do you care yet?
We compartmentalize problems in our brains as a way to protect ourselves from being overly concerned with issues that don’t pose direct threats to us. A long time ago, we needed to save our energy for the localized and impending dooms of everyday prehistoric life. We couldn’t be bothered with the faraway crises taking place on the other side of the glacier. My cavelady subconscious told me as long as the smoke wasn’t filling up my bedroom or my hometown, I could practically pretend the situation in Missoula wasn’t as dire as it obviously is. I could book my flight without second thought.
Thank goodness for Mary and her strategically timed photo.
In the grand scheme of my planning process, not much changed. I still plan on flying back to Montana in a week. But now I accept the truth about the air I’ll be breathing. And by the Pacific Northwest’s standards, I will consider myself lucky to breathe Missoula’s air. But I am also more aware of how much the air quality will worsen in western Montana over the next few weeks.
My mom knows the truth too. She was reluctant and concerned, but she calmed her own nerves with a simple and oft-repeated “well, it’s your life, not mine.” And that’s true. That’s how she compartmentalized the situation in her brain, as she should have. She knows she raised an autonomous adult who isn’t entirely reckless and stupid, and she trusts me to take care of myself.
But if the severe situations 2020 threw at our society have shown us one thing, it’s that compartmentalizing can inch dangerously close to disengaging, only to be jerked out of such near-disengagement by a sudden localization of impacts. Disengaging is easy and attractive. The television has an off button. We can silence the news notifications on our phones, we can boycott social media. Many of us are privileged enough to have quick access to “peace and quiet.” But once our at-risk relatives catch COVID-19, once our Black friends are harassed by police officers during traffic stops, once we’re the ones breathing the hazardous air, the same words echo across our seemingly fractured nation: I never thought it would happen to my family, my friends or me.
We should all ask the same question about our climate, our global health, our standards for social justice and our presidential ticket that my mother asked about my return to Montana. Will people be safe? The answer has obviously and overwhelmingly been “no.” And as long as the answer remains “no,” we should work even harder to stay engaged in the issues that aren’t on our own doorsteps. Take it from history; drought, disease, hatred and bad politics spread like wildfire. Quickly.