The Complicated Dread of Early Spring

6 minute read
Millet is the author of more than a dozen novels and story collections, as well as a writer and editor at the Center for Biological Diversity. Her new book, We Loved It All: A Memory of Life, is a work of nonfiction about having children in a time of extinction and climate change. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.

Spring is still the season we know from lyrics and poetry—when snow drifts melt, flowers bloom, hidden animals begin to stir, and birds fly northward overhead. But it’s also the doorway to summer.

And summer doesn’t live up to the old metaphors anymore. These days, it’s more like a rage than a song.

The summers I remember from my ’70s childhood were the season of play, idyllic days in a welcoming outdoors. We ran through sprinklers and ate ice cream; bees buzzed, trees fruited, cool breezes lifted the heat, and long afternoons settled into a velvet dusk. Schools were shuttered—less due to the rhythms of our agrarian past than to moneyed classes fleeing the cities before the advent of air conditioning—and swimming pools were open. In summertime, living was easy and life was abundant: the closest we came, in the passage of the earth around the sun, to paradise.

We didn’t think of wildfires as we played, and neither did most of our parents. Those happened, of course—have always happened and, sometimes need to happen, in the wild grasslands and forests—but rarely were they juggernauts that wiped out towns in California or burned up nearly 3 billion animals in Australia. We didn’t think of massive cyclones, churning over the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean in those ominous pixelated spirals one after another. “Heat wave” was a phrase lightly tossed out, maybe with the irritated fanning of a mother’s beaded brow. But rarely did a heat wave cause thousands in India to perish or push waters off the coast of Florida to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, forcing biologists to scoop endangered corals out of the ocean and rush them into labs.

These days, as spring winds toward summer, for many of us the carefree season has become a time of dread.

In September 2017, my family’s pecan farm in Georgia was hit by Hurricane Irma. Then, in early October 2018, it was hit by Hurricane Michael. The farm is not a coastal property: it lies over 100 miles inland from the Gulf. More than 10,000 trees were killed by those two storms. Seven years later my uncle is still supervising the replanting and repair, and the farm doesn’t sustain the family as it once did. Now, as summer wears on and the screens begin to show us those churning white spirals, we dread the prospect of yet another storm blowing through and destroying the orchards again.

Our farm is just a single example of the volatility and spread of the risks of extreme weather. Folks living along the U.S. coasts are at most imminent peril for major hurricanes and flooding, while those living in wildfire-prone areas are similarly positioned with fire. Together those groups account for about half of the country’s population, and that percentage is growing. The whole southern half of the country is a hotbed of risk; over the next quarter-century, it’s where the greatest number of people will be affected by wildfire—which, like storms, is vastly amplified by drought and heat. Sprawl development, unwise fire suppression, and old-tree logging are threat multipliers.

Read More: Don’t Ignore Your Climate Anxiety

Florida, already being battered by the landfall of superstorms, also has natural, seasonal fires to contend with in its conifer forests. The Sunshine State is absurdly vulnerable on both the storm and fire fronts, yet its population—which now stands at nearly 23 million—continues to grow and was the fastest-growing of any state’s in 2023. In fact, across the nation, people are moving in greatest number to where wildfire danger is most acute: in the southern states, Arizona, Utah, Texas, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. In the West, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota.

Some Americans move under job pressure or for affordable housing, but many do so for preference (or low state income tax: Florida has none). Some of us fear the specter of extreme weather while others seem not to be aware of the risks, possibly dismissing them as fake news or a distant chimera. Many of us cling to an idea of Florida, for instance, as a palm-decked oasis of retirement bliss, and so, if we have the means to do so, we darn well move there. The science and media outlets that try to warn us of the dangers are tricksters, after all, and isn’t fear the coward’s way?

But fear is not cowardice. Fear is the right response to danger—the emotional presentation of our survival instinct. It isn’t paranoia if they’re really out to get you, and the leviathan of climate change is marching on. Fear needs to be embraced, and the question isn’t whether we should fear but what. And how.

Read More: 7 Ways to Deal With Climate Despair

Military leaders see accurate information on their opponents’ forces as a critical requirement for successful engagement—and as we struggle against the ravages of climate change, information is the first line of defense. Knowledge is critical to both strategy and tactics in that war. And the other war that bedevils us right now—the culture war—is a simple divide-and-conquer maneuver: it’s not by accident that the same interests fomenting distrust of science and leveraging class and race resentment into political power are deeply vested in the petroleum economy, from outside actors like Vladimir Putin to insiders like Koch Industries.

Nor should we fear government, as long as that government is rational. The emergency of climate change is far-reaching and systemic—a national security crisis if there ever was one. Like it or not, only government is equipped to marshal all available forces to limit the damage. We have to entrust it with that task as we entrust it with other forms of national security. The government we need to fear is an irrational one that refuses to use the best available information in defense of the realm and its people. Say, to combat a global pandemic that left more than a million of us dead.

Those whose communities have already suffered at the hand of the new summer already know what to fear. Those who follow the facts know fear: militaries, think tanks, institutions of learning. Those whose businesses or houses have already been destroyed know fear. And the insurance underwriters that, as they suffer greater and greater financial losses, are increasingly refusing to cover high-risk homes in storm and wildfire zones are actuaries of fear.

What remains is to turn fear into action: to see the much-hyped culture war as the cynical manipulation that it is and bend our politics toward unity; to remember that we’re only as strong as the neighborhoods whose cohesion keeps us safe, the farms that bring us food, and the nature that provides our life support.

When we protect our neighbors, our crops, the forests that breathe for us, and the rivers that give us clean water, we act to allow our children to have those carefree summers too—to leave them with a season of cool breezes and abundant life.

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