2020: a year of pandemic, George Floyd’s murder followed by sustained, sometimes violent protests in Portland, and the worst wildfires in Oregon’s history.
2020 also includes the death of one Oregon’s greatest writers, Barry Lopez. Lopez lived near the McKenzie River, an environmental icon. Ironically, the fires that destroyed Lopez’s original manuscripts almost certainly had their origins in climate change.
How ought we to respond?
In A Distant Mirror (1978), an account of the Black Death during the Middle Ages, historian Barbara Tuchman insists, with an eye to the Holocaust as well, “An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world,” and if “it does not,” she argues, then “disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.”
The great agony of the 2020 fires will be bearable only if we Oregonians believe somehow the wildfires will bring about a better world.
That means we must change a way of life that produces both global warming, according to a strong scientific consensus, and the conditions of Floyd’s death.
Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander writes, “It’s what Hegel called ‘the cunning of history.’ It’s a tragedy that George Floyd was murdered. But it’s almost like the killing of Jesus Christ. A death can become an opportunity for a revelation about inclusion, incorporation and transcendence.”
May the 2020 wildfires inspire environmental legislation corresponding to the sublime if not divine value of the natural environment Lopez’s work did so much to articulate.