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Climate change: a cause or a symptom?
When the fires came and swallowed whole towns, we did nothing. Now, we have floods. Will we continue trying to solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them or will we wake up?
“We need to be nicer to Mother Nature,” Ellen Degeneres said in a Twitter video, where behind her a stream rages with brown, silty water from California’s recent Biblical flooding. “Mother Nature is not happy with us.”
“Climate change is here,” a Santa Cruz woman told The Washington Post.
But it’s worth asking: was this flooding in California a result of climate change or our decoupling and mismanagement of our local ecosystems?
In a state most known for drought and wildfire, it’s easy to think this is “unprecedented” weather caused by climate change from activities done elsewhere.
Only it’s not.
Floods exceeding 25 feet of water in the Central Valley occur every 100-200 years.
The last deluge of this year’s ferocity was in early 1862 when California was a much different place than it is today.
“Late in 1861,” writes Tom Philpott in Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It, “the state suddenly emerged from a two-decade dry spell when monster storms began lashing the west coast.”
“America has never before seen such desolation by flood as this has been, and seldom has the Old World seen the like,” reads an account from late January 1862. However, the people who once lived in these lands had seen similar storms before, and they had already fled to higher ground.
“We are informed that the Indians living in the vicinity of Marysville left their abodes a week or more ago for the foothills predicting an unprecedented overflow. They told the whites that the water would be higher than it has been for thirty years, and pointed high up on the trees and houses where it would come. The valley Indians have traditions that the water occasionally rises 15 or 20 feet higher than it has been at any time since the country was settled by whites, and as they live in the open air and watch closely all the weather indications, it is not improbable that they may have better means than the whites of anticipating a great storm.” - Nevada City Democrat, January 11, 1862
The Great Flood killed thousands of people; homes were destroyed and dead cattle littered the Central Valley.
This was a time when only 500,000 people lived in the entire state and when California wasn’t the world’s 5th largest supplier of food, cotton fiber, and other agricultural commodities.
California, now violently decoupled from traditional, ecological knowledge, has been absorbed by social and transcontextual factors which have made California ill-equipped to cope with the extreme weather that characterizes its climate.
We’ve dammed, diverted, and “controlled” every river system. Thousands of miles of canals traverse across the land. Wetlands are drained.
Now, when the water comes, it has nowhere to go. The organic matter in the soils is long gone and the rivers are blocked and diverted by concrete.
California is a landscape known for extremes. Instead of learning from the people who knew how to live there, settlers opted to control the landscape…a habit we’ve continued into today.
Impressive, yet destructive, engineering feats like the Central Valley Project, disrupt the ecosystem’s ability to regulate extreme weather. The destroyed wetlands that used to cover the majority of the Central Valley sucked rain into vast aquifers and created floodplains that hosted immense biodiversity. Without the ancestral memory required to understand this landscape, we default into being hapless victims to a climate that will always be at war with our modern desire to control, reap, and sow at the expense of everything else. The consequences from devastations like these floods do not merely come from climate, but our disconnection with and destruction of the natural world in the name of domination.
Chalking this weather system up to only “climate change” absolves us from taking responsibility for the true problem: what we’ve done to the land and our relationship to it. Climate change is a symptom of our disease: our disconnection from nature and our abuse of our local ecosystems.
Climate change is a symptom of our disease: our disconnection from nature and our abuse of our local ecosystems.
We can’t keep “combatting climate change” as a way to continue living exactly the same minus carbon. We must redefine “climate change” to mean the localized results of our mismanagement of natural systems in our attempts to control them and the many social, cultural, and political factors that have bifurcated humans from nature.
Does “offsetting” the CO2 emissions from our transcontinental flights really matter when our world is drowning when we could have restored wetlands and created healthy floodplains? Will our vegan diets make us feel better about ourselves when our entire food systems are flushed away because we couldn’t figure out how to work with each other and with nature to create regenerative systems that build soil and protect the land from runoff and flooding?
The instant gratification of buying vegan leather or electric vehicles will not save us; they’ll only render us more useless against the increasing threats of natural disasters.
We must unlearn the ontology of separation of humanity and nature and relearn what it means to work and live within the bounds of our landscapes.
Our abuse of our local ecosystems and the resilience they provide us is what makes these weather patterns catastrophic, but we can still change. Regenerative farms like Paicines Ranch and Mariah Vineyards weathered these floods well. Why? Because they’re working with nature, not against, fostering healthy, porous soils that can absorb the rain.
“Many are also mimicking the varied vegetation of natural ecosystems with perennial shrubs, hedgerows, and trees that create windbreaks to shelter more vulnerable crops, slow rainfall in canopies to a more easily absorbed pace, protect the soil surface, hold soil in place with varied and deeper root structures, and create shelter for many creatures that contribute to healthy ecosystems.
“These farmers may suffer some losses from the severity of this weather. No one is immune. But their systems are far more capable of bouncing back,” reports Ryan Peterson.
These rains and other natural disasters will return, but the way we farm and interact with our ecosystems can put us on a path toward resilience.
Yes, Ellen, we need to be nicer to Mother Nature, but without understanding the whole, we’ll never adapt to weather the storms that will inevitably keep coming with increasing ferocity.
Mother Nature isn’t angry - she’s reminding us who’s actually in control. She’s not our enemy to conquer; she’s our wise elder inviting us to listen and understand how we are a part of her.
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. I recently reread this 2007 NYT Bestseller in light of the recent events in California. It’s as relevant today as it was when it was published. While contentious and conflating at times, Klein illuminates how chaotic events can be used and sometimes created to impose drastic economic, social, and political reorganization in vulnerable economies.
Mariah Vineyard’s Land to Market Wines. As mentioned above and detailed in a story for a different day, Mariah Vineyards in the Mendocino Ridge AVA weathered the Biblical flooding well. Their regenerative, dry farm techniques enliven the soils, creating a loam that’s not only teaming with life but also allowed the water to infiltrate without runoff or drowning the vines. As the Savory Institute’s first Land to Market Verified vineyard, Mariah is an example of how we can collectively move towards a “beyond sustainable,” resilient future and their wines are a reflection of the vineyards. Try Mariah Vineyard’s natural wines here.
Sheep Inc. regenerative Merino wool knitwear. My love affair with Merino began on my thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail. Nothing was as soft (or odor-resistant!) as Merino to wear day-in-day-out in unpredictable weather conditions. Sheep Inc. transformed my hobo-chic wool wardrobe into a timeless capsule of unisex, yet stylish, comfortable designs. Each piece is traceable back to the regeneratively raised, highest welfare-certified, happy sheep. They’re transparent about their emissions and continued quest to be the world’s first carbon-negative fashion brand. No, they’re not paying me. Yes, I get this excited about high-integrity brands. I’ve been living in “The Hoodie” during these temperamental, Texas temperatures. Give them a try for yourself here.
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