The smell of smoke hanging low in the air on a dry summer evening is the most terrifying sensation of country living. It is an acrid smell, accompanied by a soft shade of brown blanketing the sky and the incessant buzzing of helicopters searching for any pool of water large enough to fill their buckets. If you get the right viewing angle, perhaps by climbing a roof, you can look out over the hills and treetops to the source of the tumult. A single column of clouds standing unnervingly still in the distance, colored with shades of gray, brown, and black in disgusting contrast with the usual bright white summer afternoon thunderheads.
Fire is uninterested in human economic ideologies. Its flames do not conform to the laws of supply and demand, nor are its effects tradable in the stock market. As a logical consequence of this inherent volatility, citizens have formed organizations for their mutual protection. The most obvious historical example of this is the public fire department. In 1993 Californian citizens, state agencies, insurance companies, and non-profit groups launched the California Fire Safe Council, which aims to mobilize “Californians to protect their homes, communities and environments from wildfire.” Most Americans agree that such an organization is beneficial to rural communities susceptible to wildfires.
But if we believe right-wing activists gaining popularity with the Tea Party, an international Communist conspiracy is fooling most Americans.
The need for cooperation over competition in fire management is problematic for those who believe infallibility of the marketplace, a faith most piously exhibited by the contemporary “Tea Party” movement. This dissonance has catalyzed an assault on various forms of fire prevention at the regional, state, and national levels of government.
Within county governments, Tea Parties have fought vigorously to both discredit and defund Fire Safe Councils. At the helm of this attack is Michael Shaw, founder of Freedom Advocates, a right-wing organization based in Santa Cruz, California. Before the advent of the Tea Party, Shaw peddled his conspiracy theories to proto-fascists like Phyllis Schlafly and others hanging off the ultra-right fringe. Shaw, a wealthy Santa Cruz landowner, has now found an outlet into the mainstream by pandering to the paranoia of rural Tea Parties.
He insists that Fire Safe Councils are not what their name suggests. They are, in fact, secret communist Soviets, which he defines as a “system of interconnected councils that work to destroy individual personality, suppress individual potential, and centralize power into the hands of those who seek to control human action and human production.”
Shaw even speculates “soviet-style 'change agents' might actually be Americans living and working in our own neighborhoods.” Concerned citizens organically forming organizations for their mutual benefit is in violation of his view of human nature, and can therefore only be explained the result of a global communist conspiracy. The United Nations—a long time bogeyman of the American right—is alleged to be the puppet master behind the Fire Safe Councils and similar groups. The U.N.'s sustainable development initiative, Agenda 21, is toted as a collectivist plot to steal acreage from small property owners.
Speaking before the “Mother Lode Tea Party” this spring, Michael Shaw shared the following insight:
“The globalist invasion is happening right under our noses! Every county in America has its own Agenda 21 implementation project underway. Local governments have been hijacked by world government agents!”Shaw also bragged about defunding the Santa Cruz Fire Safe Council, which he referred to as the “Fire Unsafe Council Private Property Eater.”
|Also, why is fire retardant always the color RED?!|
It all sounds very unlikely, so for a reality-check I asked a local volunteer firefighter and fire management student for his perspective:
“Fire Safe Councils offer free, defensible space around homes within communities. Many fire safe councils in the Sierras put a lot of effort in terms of public education on fire safety, and even educating children on the dangers of fire. I do not know very many land owners that will take it upon themselves to create defensible space around their homes. Many residences in the Sierras are weekend homes or some type of vacation home, meaning that the owners of those houses sometimes fail to understand the importance of keeping fuels away from the home.”The fact that people are willing to work together outside of a competitive free-for-all to accomplish a common goal—protection from catastrophic wildfires—is a direct threat to the dogmatic worldview that the far-right clings to. An imaginary conspiratorial agency reconciles the existence of community organizations with their idolatry of free-market economics.
So far, the Agenda 21 conspiracy craze has not spread beyond the confines of county and municipal governments into the platforms of national Tea Party organizations. Other aspects of the modern American right-wing agenda have a wider appeal.
In 1985, Republican strategist and Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist famously quipped, “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." This graphic description has come to define conservative economic policy for the past 30 years. Tax cuts and consequent deficits force governments to “shrink,” allowing for the privatization of services previously provided by government. The Tea Party has made the agenda their call to arms, scribbling slogans like “stop the spending” or “don’t tax my unborn child” onto the backs of countless empty pizza boxes.
This ideologically driven austerity program has unintended consequences. In California, countless state services are on the chopping block, including CalFire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Governor Jerry Brown’s initial budget proposal for the 2011 state fiscal year planned to shift funding from CalFire to county and municipal fire departments, removing $250 million, or around one-third of CalFire spending from the state’s general fund. CalFire would have staffed each engine with three instead of four firefighters. A 2010 study by San Diego State University concluded that such a cut could lead to a 41% decrease in hose laying efficiency, lengthening the time needed to suppress a wildfire. CalFire successfully lobbied against these cuts, and they were excluded from the May budget revision. Nonetheless, the initial cuts are demonstrative of the threat austerity poses to essential services.
Presented as painful but necessary, these cuts are in fact reflective of a government drowning in Norquist’s proverbial bathtub. Corporatist think tanks like the Reason Foundation and Heritage Foundation urge the privatization of fire departments, a convenient outcome of state budget cuts. Like Fire Safe Councils, public fire departments shouldn’t be effective in the eyes of the market fundamentalist worldview.
Finally, fires associated with anthropogenic climate change—if not addressed by national policy makers and international treaties—pose a serious threat to the Western United States.
Scientific American magazine published an article in their June 2011 edition that notes that as global temperatures increase by the one or two degrees currently projected:
“Higher temperatures draw moisture out of live and dead trees and brush, making them more flammable. The heat also can alter precipitation, as well as shift spring thaw earlier, lengthening the fire season. A one degree Celsius climb in average global temperature could cause the median area burned annually by wildfires in parts of the American West to increase up to sixfold.”Indeed, wildfires in California have grown in intensity and frequency in the last few years; the fire season of 2007 and 2008 alone burned an estimated 1,700,000 acres.
|Catastrophic California wildfire, as seen from |
Carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere and subsequent climate change is another phenomenon that refuses to abide by the rules of free-market fundamentalism. British economist Nicholas Stern went so far as to call it "the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen.”
Climate change is an example of a negative externality, or when an economic transaction between two parties has a negative consequence to a third party. This decreases the net efficiency of the system, and is therefore considered to be a failure of the free-market.
Market failures are impossible in the eyes of the Tea Party right, so once again conspiracy theories must be employed to explain the presence of climate change in our political dialog. Following a familiar pattern, the United Nations has the honor of orchestrating this plot to use an imaginary climatic crisis to aid in implementing their evil environmentalist agenda.
In an increasingly dry California, robust fire safe councils and a well-funded CalFire are essential in the protection of human life and property from the ravages of catastrophic wildfires. Moreover, national policy makers need to pursue global treaties to limit carbon dioxide emissions to prevent a further warming trend. The primary obstruction to the fulfillment of these needs is not a matter of practicality or strategy, but rather a systematic denial of reality when it refuses to abide by right-wing doctrine. Instead of accepting that the supposedly “natural laws” of market fundamentalism fail to account for citizen organizations, effective public services, and global warming, the faithful invent a conspiratorial agency behind the curtains which shapes public discourse for its own diabolical ends.
As citizens, we are obligated to confront the denialism and conspiracy mongering of the far right. Despite the ease at which these claims are laughed away, the consequence of ignoring them would be disastrous. Large swaths of the American political elite already accept the notion that climate change is a myth and austerity is a necessary budget balancer, and it is only a matter of time before Agenda 21 conspiracy theories get mainstream attention.
Back on planet Earth, the people of the rural West will suffer the scorching consequences of dryer summers, inadequate fire protection, and dwindling support from community organizations.
Click here for more coverage of the Tea Party in rural California.