Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Image of Freedom

I have watched, with horror and fascination, the events of the last several days.

In Louisiana, devastation, as Hurricane Ida blasted away so much of the infrastructure that maintains our familiar day to day life.  The lights are out.  The roads, impassable.  Communities lie in ruins, blasted by wind and rising sea.  The remains are the murky umbers of mud and clay, the drab sullen green muck of mold and wet and cloying, inescapable humidity. 

In Northern California, the color palette is different.  As fires cross the Sierra Nevada for the first time, and come sweeping down into cities and towns, the destruction is different.  It is a different color.  The lowering deep-orange-grey of towering clouds of choking smoke, the fiercer living yellow-orange of devouring flame, the charcoal of ashen ruin.

Yet in so many ways, the two events are the same.

There is the same look on the faces of the human beings.  The exhaustion.  The resignation. The sorrow and fear and uncertainty.

There are the same lines of cars.  Well, not cars.  Americans no longer buy cars.  We drive Sport Utility Vehicles, the great lumbering totems of cheap gas and American consumer freedom.  They are not, as the manufacturers pitch us, cruising effortlessly across empty highways, filled with smiling picture perfect families living abundantly.  They are not, as the marketers would have us believe, driving through the deep backwoods, on the way to a secluded campsite by a shimmering moonlit lake.

Those SUVs aren't moving at all.  They're sitting useless in long lines in Louisiana, waiting for gas, a gallon here, a gallon there, idling with the air conditioning on against the stifling, intolerable heat, consuming gas as they wait for gas, a hopeless ouroboros of consumption.

They are packed to the gills near Lake Tahoe, trapped in bottlenecked traffic for hours and hours, as the fires creep closer to the one road out, doors open, drivers standing on the doorframes, peering out at the backs of endless identical SUVs, emblems of our individuality, stalled motionless as far as the eye can see.

The same faces, and the same vehicles.  And there is also the same cause, our warming, more threatening world.  

It is a painful irony, seeing the flood and the flame, seeing human fear, and those helpless columns of huge, inefficient vehicles.  Because we know, we do, that these three things are all different parts of the same fearsome painting.  The fire and the storm...and our fear and helplessness in the face of a roused and angered world...are a result of the gases that spew from the exhausts of those very same Sport Utility Vehicles.  

Which we know, but somehow cannot change, as if our addiction to an illusory image of freedom has made us forget that we are free to choose another path.

Such strange, strange creatures, we humans are.