2020: The Year of the Converging Crises

The first time I saw the Bay Bridge, it was ablaze. All the way from San Francisco to Oakland. As crowded as the Embarcadero was, I was the only one who saw the flames. 

It was early 2018 and it was my first time in the Bay Area. It was my first time in California since 2003 when I went to San Diego for a family trip. I was fascinated by everything: the architecture, the hilly geography, the ubiquitous placement of the state flag, the always-cold temperature that absolutely shattered my idea of California weather. I was also struck by its unique vulnerabilities: to earthquakes, to sea level rise, and, of course, to fire. 

At the time, I was in the throes of what we now call climate grief, that complicated, neverending syndrome where you grieve the end of a stable climate, not unlike the loss of a loved one. Part of my climate grief cycle included something I’ve come to call — very, very unaffectionately — “climate vision.” It’s where you see disasters that aren’t happening as though they’re real. When I told people what I saw, they looked at me with pity or concern, maybe even disgust, and, often, dismissal.

When I was in New York, my climate vision manifested as floods and hurricanes and tornadoes. Back home in Mississippi and Alabama, it was much the same, just 10 times worse. In California, it manifested as fires. Everywhere. 

Now, though, I don’t need to imagine. The orange skies over San Francisco that I saw in my climate visions have become reality, and I’d give anything to go back to my tortured waking nightmare. For those of us who saw this coming, there is absolutely no joy in having been right, no “we told you so” parties, no gleeful vindication. Only deeper, more visceral mourning. 

I’ll never unsee the images I’ve seen coming out of the West the past few months: hellish skies over major cities like San Francisco and Portland, people stranded in rings of fire and rescued by airlift. I can’t imagine what it must do to your psyche to not just see the images, but to breathe the air, to lose your voice to the smoke and the ash. To know the fires are far too close and not know if there’s anywhere to run to.

At the same time that California burns, the Gulf Coast drowns — battered with so much rain and wind that it barely registers as news. Hurricane Laura devastated Louisiana and Texas in early September as a massive Category 4 storm nearly 15 years to the date after Katrina scarred our collective psyche. About two weeks later, Hurricane Sally sauntered onto shore, which means we skipped from the middle of the alphabet to near the end in just two weeks. Sally and Laura also intensified rapidly — a phenomenon scientists have long marked as a harbinger of runaway climate change — leaving Gulf Coast residents with no time to run. But the news and the Atlantic hurricane season have barreled on like nothing happened.

But perhaps the scariest thing about the climate crisis is that as it accelerates, it is raging out of the neat little silo it’s been placed in and running smack into every other crisis — new and old, fast and slow — and wreaking even more havoc. It’s claiming its mantle as the “threat multiplier” it was ordained as.

While the fires rage and the seas swell, so too does an unprecedented pandemic that’s killed more than 200,000 people in the United States and has now even reached the Oval Office. The nation is also embroiled in its most consequential presidential election — especially when you take the climate into consideration — in its history. And then there’s widespread civil unrest in uprisings over America’s chronic and unreckoned racial crisis up against rising white nationalism and unchecked police terrorism. 

That’s how you get an unprecedented wildfire season with a shortage of firefighters because so many of the prison firefighters we’d come to rely on have fallen victim to the pandemic because of prison conditions. And it’s how you get immigrant detainees  suffering in unbearable heat with no water or power in the wake of a Category 4 hurricane, or white nationalist militias setting up checkpoints in the midst of wildfire-induced chaos. Everywhere you look there’s some calamity wrapped in a tragedy inside an injustice — like nesting dolls. 

We’re used to thinking about mass incarceration or climate change or public health or reproductive rights or immigration as singular issues. That’s why, for example, when the pandemic kicked off in the United States in earnest, there was a pernicious drop in climate coverage. As I and others pitched stories about the climate crisis, we were told, again and again, that “it wasn’t the time.” And now we’re out of time.

We live today in the age of crisis conglomeration. It is no longer useful or honest or even smart to look at any of them through a single lens. Not even the ones that have become so endemic we don’t talk about them as crises, but as systems — like mass incarceration. Or the ones we’ve tucked neatly out of our line of sight, like immigration detention, which is a refugee crisis by another name. But dealing with one crisis at a time is over. Myopia is canceled. It is a luxury, and illusion, we can no longer afford. We are either looking at all of it, or we’re looking at none of it. 

It bears mentioning that some of us could never afford that luxury. Black people, for example, have never been able to focus on one problem at a time, in our entire 400 years in this country. The same is true for Indigenous people ever since white people brought themselves to this land. We’ve always had to live with compounding and competing crises — which means we might know a thing or two about how to deal with this moment.

When your life is a constant, orchestrated crisis, you can’t afford not to see how disease, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and disinvestment converge to create symptoms like higher rates of under- and unemployment and homelessness and incarceration and over-policing. When you’ve been so viciously and systematically marginalized, you can’t help but see yourself teetering, ever so precariously, ever so delicately, on the edge. There. But by the grace of God.

So as tragic as Our Great Crisis Convergence is, it’s also predictable. Truth be told, this is less of a convergence than it is a reconvening. If you trace any one of these crises back to their roots, you’ll find yourself at colonialism and slavery. So, of course they all bleed together now. They’re all born of the same wounds. 

When I saw the imaginary blazes in San Francisco two years ago, I also saw the growing homeless encampments and the criminal scale of income inequality. I saw San Quentin prison as I drove out of the city and into wine country for the weekend. Clearly the fires I saw on the horizon and in my imagination would collide with those disasters too. How could they not? So why weren’t we talking about it that way? Why aren’t we now? 

Mary Annaïse Heglar is a climate justice writer and co-host and co-creator of the Hot Take newsletter and podcast.