The politicization of wildfires across the world shows toxic commonalities in quite different contexts. Just like the partially common causes of the fires, these similarities of politicization require us to think outside the box. If disasters are not re-politicized in a transnational way, each of us will pay an increasingly high price. My experience as a resident and parent in two disparate world regions has taught me this lesson the hard way.
For several fall seasons, forbidding smoke has prevented many Californians from taking a simple stroll. First, it was for two weeks. Then close to three months in parts of Northern California. When combined with the pandemic, this meant canceled soccer seasons and playdates for my young children and their peers. And months of heavy screen time. On the face of it, for many parents, these fires constituted just an unpleasant inconvenience. Yet the working poor especially were forced to juggle tasks other parents could hardly imagine. Also, long before the term “essential workers” became fashionable, countless laborers (especially in the agricultural industry) had to breathe the health-ruining particles day in and day out. Tens of thousands endured evacuations, with only a few eventually able to settle back into something that resembled their previous lives. Towns hit by fires produced thousands of climate refugees, which resulted in repressive criminalization of the poor (even in liberal towns). Moreover, precious months of childhood were stolen from kids across the board.
In other words, while dozens lost their lives to the fires in a few years, and thousands lost their homes, vineyards, or farms, millions suffered from less perceptible financial, psychological, and health consequences. Even though Northern California has been hit the hardest, the situation in the entire American West (all the way to Vancouver) has been deteriorating each fire season. Also, the pernicious, anti-poor politicization of the fires might be the greatest social damage the whole society ends up paying in the longer run as climate change results in more refugees (many of them internal).
Last year, stranded by the pandemic and from a distance, I watched my native Turkey fall prey to similar (if weaker) wildfires. This summer, I traveled to my grandparents’ retirement town where my parents now spend half of the year, only to witness its hills catch fire one after another. It was painful to watch the flames jump from one tree to the next, dance in circles, and then turn swaths of forest into a smoldering ember. Villages and lines of work (such as the honey business) burned along with them. The harm was again distributed unevenly, but the privileged paid a price too. Soon, huge chunks of the northern Mediterranean were on fire, along with parts of Russia. It was not only my childhood memories that perished, but my children’s right to enjoy these lands in the way I did. Where once were trees I admired with wonder, now only ashes stand.
The scope of the fires can create a sense of helplessness. The root causes are (apparently) beyond anybody’s reach. But there are ways to manage this feeling. It all starts with breaking with the entrenched patterns of political action, framing, and inaction.
A Tale of Two Burning World Regions
In both Turkey and the United States, very general references to global warming on the one hand and finger-pointing on the other are rampant. Conspiracy theories and recourse to scapegoats—Antifa in the case of the US and Kurdish activists in the case of Turkey—are also seen in both contexts. Global warming-related causes are discussed as almost natural, or out of the reach of the ordinary person, leading to a sense of powerlessness. The finger-pointing exacerbates existing polarizations and drowns incipient ecological mobilizations that could cut across them. In Turkey, the scapegoating affirms a false and ephemeral sense of unity between the dominant poles—Erdoğanists who have replaced the old secularist-elitist Turkey with a religious-nationalist one vs. old regime sympathizers. It doesn’t have the same bite in the United States (yet).
In response to the Californian fires of the last few years, the liberal press has mostly emphasized global warming. In contrast, conservatives have blamed Sacramento for bad forest management (even though a majority of the state’s forests are federal lands) and for allowing construction into forest areas (issues also brought up by some liberals, but not usually in a way that gets prime time coverage). Even if liberals correctly condemn the conservatives’ climate change denialism and underline global warming as the primary cause of the fires, their framing frequently implies that world and national leaders are the ones encumbered to take action. They obscure the ways in which each of us could contribute to a solution. “People” are a part of the problem for liberals. They can’t imagine them being a part of the solution.
The most treacherous are the liberal framings that list “people” as a key reason behind the wildfires, especially those documents that include profit-maximizing energy companies and their downed power lines as a subset of “people.” According to this deceptive framing, the fires’ causes are either nature- or people-driven. This perspective fails to emphasize that the “nature” in question is not something inert: It is nature as re-created by capital. In the particular case of California, the liberal mainstream has been recently pushed to recognize Sacramento’s blunders, but now this is being framed as the incompetence of an individual governor, rather than a whole orientation that has prepared the scene for that individual.
In contrast to the American right, Erdoğanists are not invested in climate change denial. To the contrary, the government-controlled media have been emphasizing the devastating fires throughout the globe (in order to imply that there isn’t much Turkey could have done to prevent the now-worldwide calamity). The opposition perceives this as a distraction and draws attention to the government’s ongoing budget cuts in forest and disaster management. Like their American counterparts, conservatives blame anti-Erdoğanist (i.e. secularist) municipalities for allowing development into forest areas, not mentioning once that the government has been systematically destroying forests for two decades to build roads, bridges, malls, and residential complexes. Both sides mostly ignore fires that regularly erupt in the east of the country, which the socialist and Kurdish press (along with some ecological activists) blame on military operations.
Profit and Its Enablers: From Tales to Processes
Lost in these debates is the complicity of all major parties and institutions in the exacerbation of the fires. Governing bodies in both countries have sidelined environmental concerns. All parties have given a green light to development into forest areas. Rent-seeking behavior has been destroying forests for decades, even if in a more centralized manner in one country and decentralized in the other. Mainstream politicians have either actively fought against or ignored environmental movements that have resisted such development. They have cooperated with energy companies—the same companies whose willful neglect is a frequent source of fires. (The PG&E in California is the most prominent example). Especially in the United States, they have used misguided fire suppression techniques, which ignore native knowledge regarding forests. In the American West, this ignorance has a deep-rooted colonial past. The initial colonizers did not understand the ecology-balancing functions of Native American prescribed burns and outlawed them outright. The much-needed thinning, of which indigenous practices constituted a core part, could mitigate the cataclysm we are experiencing. Today, the logging industry deceptively markets its own practices as a substitute for the buried native customs.
California’s leading liberal politicians pay lip service to fighting for the environment, but either cooperate with the real estate industry, or fail to regulate it. As a result, more and more people settle into fire-prone zones, intensifying California’s disasters. Yes, it is true, “people” “choose” to inhabit these homes, which now appear destined to burn. However, these people are either egged on by the real estate industry and the politicians who serve it, or (in the case of the working poor) have no real choice but to leave increasingly expensive downtown areas and settle in flammable spots.
As is well-known, deforestation is one of the primary causes of global warming. Cut down forests, and you will create more wildfires, which cause more global warming….It’s the most galling vicious circle. But this is not to say forest wildfires are the only major problem or reforestation is the unquestionable way forward. Arid and semi-arid lands, and their vegetation, serve to sequester carbon too. Improperly managed and profit-oriented afforestation itself can indeed create an “incendiary” for future fires. The global challenge is rethinking development in an ecological way, which will respect forests and other elements of nature, without fetishizing any. On this particular point, the Turkish social formationhas been going in the opposite direction.
Turkey’s developmental path has become increasingly destructive for the environment. Early warning signs were abundant, in the shape of industrial smoke, coal-poisoned atmospheres, and once-pristine but now unswimmable waters. Local and national administrations dealt with the cosmetic aspects of such problems, while further eating into forests and promoting unsustainable energy. Under the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime (2002-present), this destruction was managed much more smartly by deploying many policy, ideological, and organizational tools to garner consent among considerable segments of the population, including those directly harmed by the developmental model. The governing party’s success built a virtual prison house for mainstream opposition parties, which (instead of imagining an alternative developmental model) vied with the AKP mostly with promises such as secularism and/or managing the economic model the AKP had implemented in a more democratic way. As a result, even though ecological grassroots movements that highlighted the disastrousness of this economic model proliferated, established parties refrained from combining forces with them. Rivers have dried up, forests have been willfully destroyed, and droughts and wildfires are ever more frequent.
One of the regime’s most devastating policies has been the expansion of hydroelectric dams and coal-fueled thermal plants, which were framed publicly as a must-do for “energy independence,” essentially disarming the secularists whose main concerns include Turkey’s increasing dependence in the age of globalization. The overinvestment in unclean energy has not necessarily ended Turkey’s dependency (witness for example the increasing role of Russian energy companies in Turkey), but it has addressed some problems such as the chronic electricity supply gap. In the meantime, rogue urbanism has brought cities and their surroundings to the brink of ecological collapse, as recently evinced by the “sea snot” that covered the Marmara Sea. Even if the AKP deserves a big part of the blame for what is fancily labelled “müsilaj” (but could as well be called “capital’s excretion”), the Marmara Sea’s über-pollution is traceable back not only to the concentration of unclean industry in the whole region, but to overpopulation. Urban overpopulation throughout Turkey has multiple causes, among which are overinvestment in metropolitan areas, the destruction of agriculture and husbandry, and the forced evacuation of Kurdish towns and villages, especially during the 1993-1995 war. All mainstream parties have contributed to the creation of these disastrous processes and results. These ecologically unsustainable processes have been poisoning not only Turkey’s ecology, but the entire region’s, and the result might become more palpable as Turkish business and military expand overseas.
In other words, the climate disasters in Turkey and the United States do not have a single cause, which can be taken care of by removing one party in each nation and exterminating the scapegoats. The whole system that produces them should be challenged through a crystal-clear ecological agenda. Unfortunately, in both countries, movements with an overtly ecological agenda have remained out of the limelight. The major exception to this is the Gezi protests in Turkey in 2013, which began with ecological goals in mind. Yet the protests have not turned into a sustainable movement. In time, most supporters and opponents of the protests framed them as anti-Erdoğan flames (excuse the pun), picturing ecological issues as only secondary to them. 2013 was a missed turning point, where Turkish politics could have been reshaped along environmental cleavages.
In the United States, the Green New Deal is a frequent talking point, but movements or organized masses that could transform the country in its image are so far lacking. The few politicians and activist groups who fight for this cause deserve credit, but they cannot accomplish much on their own. The original New Deal could only be implemented after countless strikes, street demonstrations, and protests left no other choice to the ruling party. Today, too, major social change requires more than words and well-intentioned politicians and activists. Moreover, today’s transformation has to be more thoroughgoing than the original New Deal, which left the root causes of the devastation it was supposed to resolve intact. There are many activists who fight for the Green New Deal because they believe either that it is equivalent to ecosocialism or is a segue into it. Others have claimed that the New Deal, far from being socialistic, will only intensify capitalism, while shifting some of the ecological costs (e.g. to the poor, to future generations, or to sites outside of Euro-America). Conservatives use the ambiguity as a basis for their fearmongering, and repetitively claim that the Green New Deal will open the doors to socialism. Given that people under 35 are disproportionately warmer to the idea of socialism than older people, all ambiguity regarding the ambitions of the Green New Deal needs to be dropped if Americans want to really tackle the multiplicity of causes that have produced these fires.
We no longer have the luxury to be spectators as world and national leaders take only half measures. Recent climate reports once again emphasize that we are only in the beginnings of a devastating series of catastrophes. The fires across the Mediterranean and the West Coast of the United States have destroyed millions of trees and animals, but their toll on human life is, as of yet, comparatively negligible. However, if we do not act swiftly, the lives lost in each fire will exponentially increase.
Transnational Activism Firmly Rooted in Localities
There is a way out of the despair (and rage against scapegoats) that is likely to accumulate as disasters intensify. Each of us has the capacity to participate in ecological activities or discussion groups, wherever we live. We can contribute in small and big ways, for instance, by engaging in aid activities in disaster areas, community-building for resilience in the face of disasters, and by contributing to the organizations and mobilizations that will push world, national, and local leaders to take bolder action. On the other hand, if not inserted into a larger agenda, mutual aid and community-building can distract from the larger causes of the fires and dampen the will to tackle them. Such micro activities could also reinforce the hegemonic individualist ways of thinking about how we can each contribute to resolving climate change. Mutual aid, reading groups, and similar activities could isolate communities from each other, instead of addressing our collective problems. For this reason, all our activities, small and big, should not only have an ecosocialist vision, but be connected to each other.
If organized and led carefully and smartly, mutual aid, community-building, and ecology-related intellectual activities could create feedback loops with each other and with bottom-up ecological mobilization and organization. Mass-oriented organizations and mobilizations would have impact at three levels: they would 1) transform the hearts and minds of citizen and non-citizen communities, and contribute to the reclaiming of politics by ordinary people; 2) force all major parties to cater to ecological concerns; 3) and most ambitiously, create the human skills and capacity necessary to either shut down companies most harmful to the environment or take them over and put them to nature-friendly use.
There is virtually no way of stopping these companies from corrupting the political process. The Biden administration’s latest smuggling of oil-friendly clauses into its once-apparently-green infrastructure plan demonstrates the need for radical change. Until ecologically conscious community and employee organizations take over the giant companies which contribute to global warming through deforestation, excessive mineral extraction, and exceptional carbon emission volumes, the root causes of climate chaos will remain untouched. Seventy-one percent of global warming is caused by the top one hundred companies, not by “people.” Many progressives who have been sitting on the fence regarding socialism will ultimately have to choose between the future of the earth and their lingering commitment to private property. And building a social, active, cooperative, friendly, and empathetic social base for these takeovers (through union organizing, workplace activism, but also the more micro-oriented activities listed above, such as mutual aid) would address worries about socialism’s bureaucratic tendencies. Melding revolutionary action (such as the expropriation of giant companies) with everyday community activities and “interstitial” strategies would constitute a barrier to the erosion of the democratic potentials of such takeovers.
The fights we wage in our respective localities might seem to be unrelated to the root causes of ecological collapse. Most day-to-day activism will undoubtedly have to deal with much more local causes and culprits. But still, green leaders (and increasingly, foot soldiers) must keep the root causes of the crisis within their perceptual horizon. Ecological activities need to be “trans”-“national” in a double sense: They need to start with local and national contexts and remain anchored to them; target local and national (as well as transnational) culprits and mobilize local-national constituencies; but also build towards uniting these struggles across national contexts in order to accumulate the prowess to challenge the giant companies (and governments) that will use all of their resources to hamper the transition to a new world. In this process, activists across the world could also educate each other on how to neutralize the shared toxic methods of their governments (and mainstream oppositions). The exchange of ideas along these lines should in time be articulated with the growing ecological organizations in each region and country (an articulation the beginnings of which we are already observing).
Such a virtuous cycle between mutual aid activities, reading groups, and bottom-up mobilization and organization would hopefully redefine political divisions along fresh axes. A counterpoint to the vicious circle of deforestation, global warming, and wildfires, if you will.
I write these lines while we prepare for our trip back to the United States. As my kids literally and metaphorically buckle up for months of smoke in California, I try to inhale every last bit of oxygen with appreciation, dread, and the determination to fight for a sustainable earth. This fight, and the love of animate nature on which it is built, is the only beam of hope that can cut through the blazing and stormy future that awaits us.
Cihan Tuğal is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently researching and writing about three interlocking dynamics: 1) capitalism’s generation and destruction of communities, livelihoods, and places; 2) the implosion of representative democracy; and 3) the crisis of liberal ethics.
Jadaliyya, where this article originally appeared, is an independent e-zine produced by the Arab Studies Institute. Jadaliyya provides a unique source of insight and critical analysis on the Middle East and North Africa (and beyond), combining local knowledge, scholarship, and advocacy. The site publishes posts in Arabic, English, French, and Turkish, and other languages upon occasion.