Opinion: In the Bay Area, a hazy present—and future

The unhealthy air spread over the Bay Area is not just unsettling, but may be a harbinger of the future during more severe climate change. What is the appropriate response to this experience, this new reality?

Murky by Melinda Stuart

My parents arrived the day it started to get smoky here in Berkeley. Here for Thanksgiving, visiting from the East Coast, they went for a long walk on a fire trail near the little cottage they’re renting and said the air wasn’t so bad.

Nine days later, we’ve got plastic on the windows, and my dad won’t take off his mask except to eat. The kids haven’t been outside in days, and are going a little crazy. The five-year-old said this morning, jumping rope in the narrow living room, “Daddy, my nose hurts.” The two-year-old is giving little coughs in between somersaults on the bedroom rug.

It’s hard to know what the appropriate response is to it all. Many of our friends have left town, deciding they “just needed to get away” from the air. Meanwhile, a few hours north, in Paradise, dozens of people died the most violent, terrifying deaths imaginable. And in Chico, thousands more have lost everything they own and will spend their Thanksgiving in places like the tent city that’s arisen outside the Chico Wal-Mart.

At the same time, I notice this crushing guilt and shame and frustration, being unable to protect my kids from this (unhealthy; very unhealthy) air. Undeniably, this speaks to my own immense privilege—that it is my assumption that, whatever else my family’s difficulties in life, we will always be “comfortable.”

Over the past week, among colleagues, and other parents’ kids, an obsession has arisen with the air quality index (178? I heard 192! Oh no, now it’s 234!), and debating the merits of the various air quality sites. Like most things, it seems, our hunger for data occludes context or reference points. Yesterday, mildly scolding tweets began to appear in my feed: Ambarish Karmalkar (@kar_amb) writing, “#AirPollution on a regular winter day in India (with a toxic mix of vehicle exhaust, dust, industrial emissions, stubble burning) is worse than that in Northern California after massive wildfires”; Xiamoa’s (@xiaoma) chart comparing the respective air quality indices over the past week in San Francisco, Beijing, and Delhi. (Meanwhile, Clara Jeffrey writes, persuasively, “If 1000 people were missing and presumed dead on the East Coast there’d be wall-to-wall coverage.”)

So, again, what is the appropriate response to this experience, this new reality? Our friends leaving town—yes, of course, that speaks to their privilege, but does that make it wrong? Is it more virtuous to suffer in solidarity—both with those who have lost far more than us and with those who don’t have the means of escaping discomfort and inconvenience? How do we care for ourselves while acknowledging that others are suffering far worse than us? Is complaining about bad air while bodies are still being removed from devastated neighborhoods in Paradise the equivalent of crying about a papercut next to someone who’s been stabbed? And how do we consider these things in light of what the next 50 years of climate change will bring to California and the American West?

For the wealthy and wealth-adjacent of the Bay Area, this is the first time we’ve experienced real potent environmental discomfort, real suffering —  not just inconvenience like with the drought. Schools closed on Friday. It isn’t clear what happens next year, when it’s, say, a week of “very unhealthy” air, or two weeks. Not the breakdown of civil society, I’m sure, but perhaps, some reorganization of priorities, of systems, of values. It’s unclear. Hazy.

My parents just changed their flight. They’re leaving tomorrow, a week early. They’ll get a refund on their rental, and the car rental. My kids will be heartbroken; they don’t get to see them much. The internet says it’s supposed to rain on Thanksgiving and bring an end to the fire season. Until next year.

Daniel Herman is a teacher at Maybeck High School and the author of "Zen and the White Whale: A Buddhist Rendering of Moby-Dick."