Racism Fuels Wildfire

This post originally appeared at wclp.org.

California is burning out of control, in part, because of racism toward indigenous people and practices. We can’t afford to continue this way. 

At the beginning of the month, the Trump Administration issued a memo to stop diversity training for federal agencies; the Administration called lessons about America’s history of racism “anti-American propaganda.” This week, the president came to California, where millions of acres burn out of control, in part, due to a legacy of racism.

It’s hard to hear bad things about the country you love — it’s hard to learn about all of the times this country betrayed itself to uphold systems and philosophies founded on white supremacy. It’s frustrating to learn, if you didn’t already know, that racist practices shaped this country. It’s more frustrating to see the results play out in the form of uncontrolled burning land and stifling, apocalyptic skies.

Climate change is undoubtedly playing a role in the increasing intensity of fire season, but wildfires were a part of the California landscape before our human consumption footprint got so out of control. The path away from a dystopian America is to look ourselves in the eye, see who we really are, and move forward.

The United States, California, and every other state in this country was founded via the violent removal of people who lived here first — people who held and hold the wisdom we need to survive, live, and thrive here now. For California, the first step toward healing – for the land, for our communities, and for our people — is to resurrect practices from the land’s native ancestors, those who knew that survival requires balance, communion, and stewardship.

According to reporting by the New York Times, “In recent years, momentum has built for purposefully setting fires in certain areas to help thin vegetation and restore ecosystems that would naturally burn more frequently, if not for California’s policy of more than a century requiring that all fires be put out. Before Euro-American settlement in California in the 1800s, about 1.5 million acres of forest burned each year… roughly the same amount that has burned so far this year. That aggressive fire-suppression policy came at the expense of Native American tribes, who had for thousands of years harnessed fire to help ensure that the forests where they lived were healthy — that the plants that fed them were able to flourish, that fires didn’t burn too hot and destructively.”

Both the state and federal government “historically banned tribal burning;” for more than a century California has denied native tribes the right to practice traditional controlled burn techniques, while forcibly displacing them.

We can’t afford to continue with the paradigm of constant expansion and displacement rooted in “Manifest Destiny,” a European-colonial philosophy that ignores, disrespects, and neglects centuries of learned knowledge by native people. That fatal disconnect is illustrated by communities that overturn prescriptions for controlled burns over concerns of inconvenience, only to burn from uncontrolled wildfire years later. Or continuing to build in high risk areas, and spending millions to protect homes in those places, when it would be best for the collective if the land was allowed to burn.

Instead of outrage-laced videos taking vague, unproductive jabs at climate deniers, Governor Newsom could instead take dramatic action to reprioritize indigenous people and wisdom on this land with the full weight (and resources) of the 5th largest economy in the world. He could also stop signing fracking permits and allowing the continued pollution of low-income communities across California.

Americans as a whole do not understand that racism is an insidious illness that plagues ALL of us. Though we have the most diverse country on the planet, we cling to a system founded by men who came from Europe, who did not have generations of learned wisdom about this land. Now that centuries have passed, we don’t have time for it anymore — it’s not working, and we’re choking.

In California, to move in a healthier, more sustainable and inclusive path forward, we should start with controlled burns led by native people.

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