On Southern thunderstorms and climate catastrophe

Apologies for not updating the blog in a while; if grad school does one thing, it’s make me a worse writer. Focusing on making sure each sentence is unimpeachable is a sure-fire way to ruin the whole. No matter. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will be uploading a mixture of old and new pieces.

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At the moment, I am sitting on the patio of an Atlanta coffee shop, waiting for the rain to stop. Thirty minutes ago it was sunny and muggy, the clarity of the air belying its humidity. Fifty feet away, I can see the lines of rain, reminiscent of film grain, discontinuous droplets offering an illusion of consistency. They create a fog behind them, giving the feeling that we are not sitting below a cloud but rather in the nimbus itself, having floated upwards on a current of heat until the reconstructed gas surrounded us. Already, however, this is passing. The mixed-use apartments down the road are no longer desaturated and aged; their oppressive newness has returned. The thunder is less frequent and the air is cooler. But even once the rain concludes, there will still be occasional flashes of lightning, blinding those of us out here working on our computers. I know this because the rain has already stopped.

It was a classic Georgia thunderstorm, the type that exists in every Southerner’s childhood memory, the rain barreling in out of nowhere, catching you at a swimming hole or out in the middle of a field or on your bike, forcing you to race for cover even though you know it’s futile, having stayed out until the first drop fell, ignoring the various signs in an attempt to squeeze every last moment from those long, humid days. If it was August and finally hot enough, you’d excitedly watch steam rising off the asphalt, a science project in real time. You’d get soaked and then stand around, confident this too would pass, ready to reclaim your rightful place within the field of play. And you were almost always right; it would stop, and everyone took off their shirts, if they weren’t off already, and laid them to dry, though the moisture in the air made this a fools’ errand, and you’d go back to swimming or pitching or running around semi-aimlessly. The asphalt would’ve been cooled, allowing you to temporarily run on it without burning the bottoms of your feet, though usually by that time in the summer your sole would be so calloused that it didn’t matter much one way or the other.

Montreal, where I live now, doesn’t have much of any of this, despite the summer humidity. There are rain storms and rainy days and even the occasional bursting forth of thunder and lightning, the earth’s way of reminding us of its power, but in much fewer number than in the South. I hadn’t realized I missed them so until I returned, having forgotten how just sitting and watching the storm is an activity in itself, giving you a base from which your mind can drift. Perhaps the loss of familiarity is why the rain seems so much more common now than it was when I was young. It doesn’t help that my pre-adolescent years coincided with the worst drought Georgia had seen in five hundred years; a return to normal rainfall would naturally feel like an increase. But looking at Atlanta’s yearly precipitation for the months of June, July, and August (an admittedly poor metric for thunderstorms), something begins to emerge. The average for the data set I have is 13.02 inches over the three-month span. The average from ten years before the drought was 11.9 inches, while for ten years after was 14.4 inches. This brief analysis is obviously not scientific—the data set is too small, the periodization is arbitrary, etc. But it confirms my sense that summer rains in Atlanta are increasingly common. It also tracks roughly with a two-degree increase in average temperature over a similar period. It seems that climate change is set to produce more thunderstorms in Atlanta as our planet collapses.

There is another explanation, however, one that is intertwined with climate change but reveals it to be the symptom of our world, not the illness itself. A few years ago, a group of scientists found that Atlanta births thunderstorms like few other American cities, our concrete sprawl calling forth storms from the heavy air and sending them around the metro region. In the intervening years, the city has only gotten more myopic when it comes to development, various real estate moguls paving over the urban forest to build mixed-used monstrosities, as if the abundance of trees and outposts of nature weren’t what made the city so special. And so we can assume the rate at which Atlanta’s heat islands have created thunderstorms has increased as well. It’s a stark reminder that our insistence on dominating nature is inherently destructive, climate change or not.

And this is the crux of the issue. Even if we were to magically switch to a carbon-neutral system of construction, we still could not continue to build as we do and expect nothing to happen. The earliest inventions stemmed from self-preservation, a natural impulse, but worked through domination of the natural. But while for most of human history victory over nature was localized and tenuous—a rickety bridge, irrigation for a series of farms, perhaps the occasional dam or canal—The acceleration of technology over the past three hundred years has shifted so we no longer attempt to conquer aspects of nature but rather the entirety. It is downright suicidal to believe we can innovate our way of a mess caused by the conquering impulse inherent in inventiveness. Furthermore, no matter how much we wish to deny it, the natural is still within us. And so to destroy and dominate nature is to do the same to ourselves, even if we do not realize it.

It is now a new day, and I am sitting in a different coffeeshop. Though it is sunny out, the tables are still wet, carrying the marker of yesterday’s storm. Kids from a day camp run around on the grass in front, taking advantage of the ever-rarer blue skies. I check the weather radar. We’re surrounded; the rain will start by six, never to end.

 

Notes from a Bus Ride

“Well, won’t you lend your lungs to me? Mine are collapsing.”-“Lungs” Townes Van Zandt

In the distance, I see the future, burning skies and flooded forests, states swept away, leaving only the levees that enabled their destruction, bodyguards who double-crossed their mark.

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“Gather up the gold you’ve found/you fool it’s only moonlight”
Around me is the now; a man on the bus takes heroin out of his pocket and examines it. He starts to nod off, opening the bus window before doing so, letting the cold air in. There are scabs across his body, capitalism’s stigmata in the form of smack side effects. The spring melt is arriving. The snow is running quickly, cold clear water surging down Mont Royal. But there is no dirt to hold it. The result is run-off, dirty water clear enough to pass as something else. A generation raised on YouTube is coming of age: the first whose learning, entertainment, and lives were lived according to capital-hungry algorithms, codes that do not prioritize profit but are only for that. Even the most greedy human is still human. As such, they can never operate as capital might like them to. Algorithms are different.

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“You better leave this dream alone/try to find another”
Buildings grow more grotesque by the day. High rises are being built downtown; each time I walk by, I dream of Molotovs. Industrialization has put us in the guillotines. Capitalist rats chew at the ropes, unaware the blade will kill us all.

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“Wisdom burned upon a shelf/who’ll kill the raging cancer”
Fascism is capitalism’s immune system—it becomes popular when the system is sick. Yet it offers no alternative. This is by design, for it is meant only to buy ruling class time. Unwilling to give up their position, however, the elite do nothing. We look at the 1930’s and assume fascism will pass. But then we had Germany as a potential enemy. This allowed us to position fascism as anti-American. Fascism is reliant on nationalism, and stripped of it becomes politically inert. Now we have no fascist enemies—our forever war is against the poor and Muslim, not the rich and Aryan. And so, barring a fundamental system overhaul, we will careen into the abyss wearing MAGA hats and coal rolling.

 

Please stay on the trail

Please stay on the trail pleads the sign. “Streambank restoration…project ReWild.” To protect nature, we must stay within the framework of the societal organization. Society, however, is the dialectic opposite of nature. Both constantly work to destroy each other, while simultaneously relying on the opposite’s existence. To stay on the path is to save nature, but only as a vanquished foe. In such a position, it loses its dialectic tension with society, and hence loses what we might call its essence—that it is inimical to us.

When starting up a mountain hike, one does not pick a spot at random. You look at where others have gone, creating a path, and follow it for some distance. In doing so, the hiker goes beyond where they could’ve otherwise reached, opening up more of nature to their gaze.

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However, though positivism—particularly as it manifests in the supposedly objective sciences—asserts that more is better, this is not actually the case. To stay on the path is to protect knowledge of nature from being affected by nature. The corporately constructed trail promises the violent safety of the administered world. In this, it offers the false freedom of domination, which can only produce untruth. It says that one need not think of what is below your foot or behind the branch. This hides the fact that it makes such considerations impossible. On the trail, one can see the forest for the trees, unbiased by the nature’s dangers. But without the trees there is no forest; without terror there is no nature. It is only when thinking about where to place your foot that truth makes an appearance. One can only truly know nature when you are at its mercy. It is an autonomous totality affected by but independent of society. On the hiking trail, this is not apparent; the pathway is subtle, making it feel as though you are in nature, but one that is familiar and subject to the same domination as us. It obliterates the distance between us and the realm we left. As such it leads only to untruths.

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However, the sign does not lie. Walking off the hiking trail offers the possibility of understanding nature as fundamentally different, as well as revealing that we were once subjects within that realm, before administration turned us to objects. However, we are no longer subjects—enlightenment’s march has stripped us of our humanity, replacing it with the “objective spirit” that rules society. As soon as we step off the path, we bring the administered world into nature. Nature struggles to free us from it; in this struggle there is a glimpse of truth. But it comes at a cost. The grass dies, the flowers do not regrow. In learning about the earth, we attack it. Nature responds by showing us the untruth of our system. It does so at the cost of its life.

Empty Gestures

“The house I built is burning”

The Turnpike Troubadours’ lyric echoes in my ear as I walk, the original stuck to the corner where I heard it, its copies mutating and shifting as the real becomes more distant. “The house I built is burning… the house I built burnin…the house we built…burnin…” It’s sunny and warm here in Providence, but the remnants of the bomb cyclone that stormed away weeks ago still liter the corners. Across the country, my sister’s town is covered in the scar tissue that fills the void burning brings. In Atlanta, there’s still ice on the ground. Before I left, I watched as fire failed to melt the snow around it, my understanding collapsing with each flicker. In between these coasts sit proud mountains stripped of their cold coverings, the snow refusing the peaks’ plea for modesty.
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Down in Southeast Atlanta, there’s a park centered around two ponds. The ponds were created by The South River Brick Company, who used the area as a clay quarry. They weren’t the first diggers though—the area around the park had been a quarry as far back as 3000 BC, mostly for soapstone. After SRBC closed down, an African-American family homesteaded there, only for white neighbors to burn their house and chase them out, turning the location into a dumping ground. Years later, after a billionaire philanthropist gave Dekalb County the money to turn the land into a park, local artists started using the remaining trash to create installations. Dolls’ heads and broken brick dot the hiking trail, sitting in old TV’s and playing tricks on the local copperheads. Geese land on the lakes, flapping their wings until they have a readymade whitewater ride. The dead trees have ornate tattoos, the product of termites’ artistic ambitions. Occasionally otters appear, messing with the floodplain in unexpected ways.
Yet something is off as you walk through, a palpable tension independent of the lifeless eyes that track walkers or the greedy poison ivy that reach for your legs. It comes from the nagging suspicion that though we gave this land back to nature, it didn’t forgive us. Huxley writes that English forests and marshes are “only there on sufferance, because we have chosen out of our good pleasure, to leave them their freedom.” But the truth was these wilds did not accept their enslavement peacefully—it is only now that we begin to see their vengeance manifesting, and so we desperately return what we never actually conquered. What good is a million dollars for a park, when the money came from the system that destroyed it in the first place? Our house is burning; even our most conscientious leaders are doing little more than throwing cups of water on the ever growing flames, knowing damn well it’ll change nothing. They’re in collusion with the fire, just like those in the back dumping gasoline and laughing as the flames grow. They don’t feel the heat, at least not yet. Cotton and linen, the make-up of currency, are mighty fine at cooling.
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“And all that trouble you’ve been looking for is easy in the finding
Well the devil’s into fine detail” The Turnpike Troubadours sing. Oh how I wish they were right! The devil Huxley found in nature, the alien distance that fills the tropics with dread, that asserts there is world outside of us we cannot know, is gone. With it is inimical goodness; the devil cannot exist without God to cast him out of heaven. Those details the devil loved—the ice on the corner, the burned out tree, the rock strewn peak—reveal nothing but his retreat. Climate change is the manifestation of capitalism, of our society. Every tree we plant is already dead, stripped of its essence and power.