Matt Hern is a co-director of Solid State Community Industries in Surrey, British Columbia.
Am Johal is the director of Simon Fraser University’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Their previous book together (with Joe Sacco) was “Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life.” They are currently working on a book on friendship in the face of ethno-nationalisms and ecological crises.
– ONE –
As you drive north from Vancouver (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, səlil̕wətaʔɬ and Skwxwú7mesh territories) up the Sea-to-Sky Highway, you are constantly reminded that you are passing through temperate rainforest. All of it, at least until you reach St’at’imc territory, is saturated with water: pouring out of the skies through mist and fog, crashing down the steep slopes of the Coast Mountains through a dense forest of giant red cedars and Douglas firs dripping with mosses and ferns, cascading over, under and through the highway out into the Howe Sound fjord (Atl’ka7tsem).*
The ocean on one side, the rainforest on the other. Everything is wet. On most fall days, it feels like the last place on the planet that’s ever going to burn. On the mid-November day we drove it though, the sun was bouncing off whitecapped waves out in the sound, the mountains were glowing with delicate frostings of snow, and we were thinking about fire.
All summer, this place was choked with wildfire smoke, trapped under a heat dome and crowded with pandemic paranoias. It was supposed to be a euphoric, hot vax season of collective release where we all got to revel together again and congratulate ourselves on getting vaccinated and getting out of this fucking pandemic. Some of us got some of that euphoria for sure. But there were also sharp reminders of what we had previously wrought.
From California all the way up to northern British Columbia, it seemed like everything was burning. And not just here — unprecedented wildfires rampaged across Ontario and Siberia and Greece and Turkey and Brazil. These flaming hellscapes were savage images of climate catastrophe; they crept to the edges of major cities, often just barely controlled and sometimes not at all.
It was only British Columbia’s third-worst fire season, behind 2017 and 2018. But somehow this felt worse — major fires forced evacuations across the province and menaced communities large and small. The province declared a state of emergency early in the summer as nearly 300 fires burned.
The Pacific Northwest heat dome set all kinds of records — Seattle and Portland both broke historical temperatures. Within a week, more fell across Europe: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Estonia, Belarus, Hungary, Malta. The next month was no better. Globally, July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. By the end of the summer, 595 people in British Columbia had died from the heat, most of them in the week between June 25 and July 1.
That heat-dome sits in our memories like a smothering, sweaty fever-dream. We watched a homeless man literally fry an egg on a Surrey sidewalk. We repeatedly called 911, multiple times a day, for people felled by the heat, only to get put on hold. Emergency phone operators were overwhelmed — it often took 40 minutes just to get someone on the line, and then ambulances were triaging, telling people to do the best they could. The streets were quiet, deserted of everyone who had anywhere cool to escape to. Even the birds were silent, all of us just trying to get through it.
Near the end of that hellish week, right in the maw of the heat, Lytton (Nlaka’pamux territory) found itself the object of international attention. A village of 250 or so people a few hours northeast of Vancouver, Lytton has always had hot summers, but trapped under the dome, it was breaking historic marks. Global media breathlessly indexed its daily record-breaking: 115.9 degrees Fahrenheit on the 27th, 118.2 on the 28th, 121.3 on the 29th. Three days in a row of the highest temperatures ever in Canada! Hotter than it has ever been recorded in Las Vegas!
It was macabre, punishing entertainment: scorekeeping global heating in real-time. And then it went from gawking to horrified in a hot minute: a fire, sparked perhaps by a passing train, turbo-charged by the heat dome that had turned the entire place to tinder. It started somewhere on the south end of town, and within 20 minutes flames had engulfed almost everything: homes, businesses, civic buildings. Everything was soon cinders. More than 1,000 people from the larger area had to flee with almost no notice. There was no evacuation, just a mad scramble to escape: north, south, east, anywhere to get out.
The Lytton fire felt like the climate emergency finally landing in our own front yard, like waking to see nightmares come true: a world of heat and fires and accelerating losses, a slow-building anxiety attack now immediate and corporeal.
Most of us believe the decades-old science behind global warming to be true. Most of us understand and accept that anthropogenic climate change is a profound threat that must be met head-on and with urgency. But there is such a weird atemporality to global warming — demands to change right now for a world to come, a place and time far beyond our daily cadences, catastrophes possibly decades and continents away.
This damp place perched on the edge of the continent has always felt insulated from so much of the world: Far from major cities, British Columbia boasts a pleasantly moderate climate, robustly saturated with national delusions about Canadian virtues, ecological and otherwise. It has always felt like global warming was something that would hit somewhere else, somewhere far away, sometime after we’re gone, something that doesn’t involve us directly, yet.
Was 2021 the summer when it all became real? Is this our collective fate from here on out? Constant exposure to heat, fire, catastrophe? Was this the reckoning?
COP26 ended with a predictably deflating thud: tepid commitments to tepid changes. Sometimes it feels like fundamental ecological transformation is within reach, other times it feels like catastrophes are inevitable. But the responsibility is not evenly distributed: Some of us are doing vastly more than others to contribute to the warming. Taken collectively, Canadians are among the very worst climate pigs on the planet, producing an equivalent of 15.7 tons of CO2 per person in 2019, vastly more than Finland (10.7) or the U.K. (9.4), almost three times China (5.5) and more than four times Brazil (3.5) or India (3.3).
The colonial Canadian state remains resolutely wedded to oil and gas expansionism, especially on Indigenous territories. Our handsome and charming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has nationalized pipelines and continues to claim that extractivism is the only route to a green future. As he famously put it in 2016. “We must also continue to generate wealth from our abundant natural resources to fund this transition to a low-carbon economy.”
This is precisely the contradiction so many of us find ourselves in. Grasping for a believably ecological future while hallucinating that we can get there with little pain. Does everything have to go up in flames first?
– TWO –
That’s why we were there on the Sea-To-Sky Highway in mid-November, headed for Lillooet (Tsilhqot’in, St̕at̕imc and Dënéndeh territories), Lytton (Nlaka’pamux territory), Merritt (Syilx and Nlaka’pamux territories), Penticton (Syilx territory) and some of the most fire-ravaged parts of the province. We were looking for something new, something to dislodge stuck notions, a future not in flames.
The two of us have been thinking a lot about friendship these days. We’re trying to theorize past nationalisms (white and otherwise) via politicizing the trope of friendship. But we’re also wondering whether it is possible to be friends with the other-than-human world, and whether that is of use in trying to imagine an ecological future.
In the estimation of the Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida, exposure is at the heart of friendship, which is always bound up with grief. Being with a friend is to simultaneously enjoy their presence and mourn their death. The pleasure of friendship is inextricable from the grief and loss of that friend. The only way to “be in common” is through exposure — to finitude, to death, to grief. Derrida called this the politics of friendship.
But who can we be in common with? The crisis of racial nationalisms and accelerating ecological crises have the same foundation: an inability to be together with others, human as much as the other-than.
It is customary to claim that “we” humans are destroying “nature.” That formulation is unhelpful at best. The idea of a so-called Anthropocene is obnoxious and obscuring: a facile claim that global warming somehow exceeds differences. Claiming that “we” are all equally in peril and equally responsible to respond is an aggressive depoliticization that obscures both the causes and responses of ecological crises; it’s as galling as arguing there is “one world” or “we are all in this together.” Global warming has been produced by a small percentage of the world and by a very particular extractive worldview.
We are not all in anything together. We are left to our bodily and corporeal exposure, to each other and to the other-than-human, just trying to stay alive.
The urgencies of ecological peril bring into sharp relief the idea of a community with no conditions — a borderless freedom to move, a refusal of recognition, the disappearance of boundaries between “human” and “nature.” If nothing else, a pandemic-saturated summer of heat and fire begs us to find new kinds of relationships, with each other as much as the other-than-human.
The other-than-human world is not helpless: It is no hyper-gendered damsel in distress begging for white knights to save it. The Earth assaults us as callously as we do it — with viruses ending any idyllic reveries, demanding aggressive management and defense just for us to get by. We are always exposed to the more-than-human world, and to imagine an ecology has to mean being exposed to all of it. Viruses and floods and fires and death — all the violence and cruelties as much as the beauty and gentleness.
The colonial state is permanently on a war footing: Its prime directive is self-preservation as an organizational form, locked in a permanent state of insecurity. Sovereignty is determined by who has the right to kill and who and what is disposable: a necropolitics that subjugates life — human and nonhuman — to the power of death. What else are these fire-charred nightmares of global warming and sickness but necropolitics in action?
If friendship demands exposure — if friendship is always necessarily entwined with the grief of losing a friend — what kinds of loss might be encountered at the end of this world? What kinds of loss might be encountered when it dawns on us that not only will we have to leave this world, but also a substantial part of it will leave us — is, in fact, leaving us already, an early and unjustifiable death?
As species and ecosystems cascade into extinctions, what happens if we cast our relationship with other-than-humans not as supplicants to an abstract Mother Nature nor as enemies or predatory beasts — but as exposed to one another? The face of finitude is, ultimately, to be captured by an internal, in-common grief. If any ecology demands that we find good relations with the other-than-human, then why not as friends?
– THREE –
The journey from Vancouver to Lytton is spectacularly bifurcated. After the first couple hours of dense coastal rainforest, you get to Lil’Wat and turn onto the Duffey Lake Road, which heads straight up, switch-backing over and through the mountains and then boom! everything changes in an instant. You cross into an entirely different ecosystem. One minute you’re on the cool, wet coast, the next you are in the hot, high, dry, semi-arid farm and ranch country of the B.C. interior.
We spent the night in Lillooet and then headed down to Lytton, about an hour southeast, where we’ve spent a certain amount of time over the years. We were bracing ourselves, and it was exactly as we feared. The main strip of town is only about a half-mile long and remains open to traffic, but the road is straddled by high fencing blocking off all the side streets. Huge signs at each end of town implore you to keep your windows up due to the severe toxicity in the air, water and soil; stopping is prohibited. Security guards are posted at both ends of the strip to prevent gawking, so we had to make a half-dozen runs back and forth, crawling along and maybe occasionally getting out to look more closely and take photos. No one hassled us, but it did feel awkward and insensitive, staring at the remnants of a burned village.
One of the things that was most obvious was that this was not a forest fire. It really just burned the town down. The fire razed the village in 20 minutes. But it did not jump the Thompson nor the Fraser River, which border the town to the west and north, and by the looks of it, the flames barely crossed the highway to the east. Residents blame the train. Lytton is a train town and the tracks run right through. A spark might have set the whole thing off.
Videos posted on social media showed a train smoking as it went through Boston Bar, two hours south, that same day. The Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation and then issued a statement assuring the public that it was not trains that sparked the fire. Doubts remain. As Matt Pasco, the chief of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, which is based in Lytton, put it in an interview with CTV News: “There are a lot of fires in the canyon caused by rail service. A lot.”
Gordon Murray, a Lytton resident whose intense footage of the fire and his escape was splashed across international media, told us he could hear helicopters dropping water right in town. He said nearly half the residents didn’t have insurance, himself included. He argued that if the town is to be rebuilt, it needs to have a different vision that brings together Indigenous and settler communities in a better way than existed before — one that, from a design and planning perspective, accounts for the reality of more climate-related disasters to come in the near future.
Rebuilding Lytton will be no easy task. Residents are scattered across the province, there is huge anxiety about costs, the townsite is still deeply toxic and the fire destroyed all the city records, so jurisdictions, property lines and contractual relationships will largely have to be rebuilt based on interviews and oral testimonies. Trudeau hardly helped when opened his speech at COP26 by referring to Lytton in the past tense, infuriating displaced residents already on edge about the future of their hometown.
There is a bewildering array of competing interests at play even in a tiny village. Many folks want to move back in as quickly as possible — they are tired of shacking up in motels and spare rooms far from home, wondering who is going to pay for what. Some people are already back rebuilding, hoping that concrete houses will survive the next time around. The town council formally partnered with the Lytton First Nation to develop a fire-resistant recovery plan, but there are five Indigenous communities in the immediate area, many of whom are proposing alternative plans. Officials with the provincial preparedness program FireSmart are urging patience and new “fire-ready” practices like “vegetation management,” landscaping “only with fire-resistant species of trees, shrubs, plants and grasses,” isolating firewood and propane far away from buildings, building comprehensive community evacuation plans and installing emergency speakers on trees and poles.
Surely residents should be at the heart of the decision-making; Lytton is a deeply meaningful place for so many people near and far. Maybe the fire is an opportunity to dramatically rethink the community. The town has been a colonial settlement since the 19th-century gold rush, built on traditional Indigenous territory. There are relationships between communities both human and other-than that could be explored in a meaningful way, to mend some of the wounds and missteps of the past and present, to prepare for a future very different from the way we live now. Does anyone think the heat dome was an anomaly that will never repeat itself?
We spoke to a number of senior firefighting professionals, and every one was open and frank about how dramatically the fires and floods continue to grow more destructive across B.C. New patterns of fire behavior throw into disarray all conventional response methods. Hotter, dryer summers scramble the ability to prepare. Fires that used to take three or four weeks to develop now explode suddenly and ferociously. It’s obvious that what was once mostly a summer activity now has to be a year-round project.
There is a consensus emerging across North America among progressive fire officials, ecologists and conservation groups that a century of aggressive fire suppression has created a “fire paradox.” As firefighting practices and resources grow in sophistication and effectiveness, the vast majority of fires are extinguished very quickly — but this leaves huge amounts of unburned land and flammable material left behind. This constantly accumulating stockpile presents a huge danger: When a fire does get out of control, it has vast amounts of organic material waiting, already primed and dried by the heat of global warming. This creates disastrously dangerous conditions for more and bigger fires to become huge fires to become catastrophic, complex fires. The paradox is that there are now way too many fires and not nearly enough fires.
Troy Bikadi, a community safety officer in Mt. Currie (St̕at̕imc and Lil’Wat territories), told us the last few years of catastrophic wildfires all through the area had changed the nation’s thinking on community safety and forest fires: “We should let forests burn, as it’s a natural process. To do it in a controlled way — puts us in the driver’s seat,” he said. “It’s high time we stand up for Mother Nature. You can’t blame one person, it’s all of us.”
This is of course something that Indigenous people across the continent have been saying forever, that “good fires” are incredibly important for ecological integrity, occasional burns are an essential part of the ecosystem, fires burn clean and allow for regeneration, that fire is essential to prevent and live with fire. Indigenous nations across British Columbia, all through the regions that have burned out of control in recent years, have practiced “cultural burns” to protect their lands and communities for millennia. Chief Patrick Michell of the Kanaka Bar Indian Band (T’eqt’aqtn’mux) just south of Lytton said, “It’s like Mother Nature says, ‘I gave you too much sun. Now I’m going to give you too much rain. And now I’m going to freeze you. And you know what happens after a freeze. … So here we go again in the spring.’”
– FOUR –
We spent that night at our pals’ Jeff and Sabine’s cabin up the Nahatlatch River, talking late about whether humans can be friends with animals, or a tree, or the river. “I feel like that tree has been here for me, shading this cabin, for more than 40 years now,” Jeff said. “It feels like a friend.” We wondered if the tree could or would possibly reciprocate.
The next day we drove over to Penticton (Syilx Territory), four and a half hours east. That day and the next we crisscrossed through the South Okanagan region, past wildfires that were still burning, had recently been extinguished or had caused major disruptions and evacuations through the summer. The Okanagan is the hot, dry south-central area of British Columbia, famed for lakefront hotels, fruit-growing, pocket deserts, often-punishing heat and, in recent years, relentless wildfires.
More than half of the fire activity and damage in B.C. this summer was, as usual, focused in the Okanagan, handled out of the Kamloops Fire Center, one of the province’s six firefighting regions. The season peaked far earlier than normal due to the long-running drought and extreme heat; an average of 40 new wildfires started every day in the first two weeks of July, the B.C. Wildfire Service reported.
British Columbia declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic on March 17, 2020, and lifted it after a record-breaking run on June 30 this year. Three weeks after that the province declared another one due to the wildfires. There were major fires in and around Merritt (Syilx and Nlaka’pamux territories), Kamloops (Secwepemc territory), Princeton (Syilx and Nlaka’pamux territories), Summerland (Syilx and Nlaka’pamux territories) and Sparks Lake (Secwepemc and Nlaka’pamux territories); 181 separate evacuation orders were issued. More than 1,400 properties were evacuated on the west side of Okanagan Lake and the Okanagan Indian Band Reserve because of the White Rock Lake fire. The city of Vernon (Syilx and Nlaka’pamux territories), with around 40,000 residents and already housing thousands of wildfire evacuees from Lytton and elsewhere, was put on evacuation alert. By the end of the summer, more than 1,600 fires had burned more than 2.1 million acres.
As we drove over and through the Okanagan past many of these fire sites, it all still felt wildly flammable, even deep into autumn. Essentially all the major fires were extinguished or under control, but it was still so parched. It is a profoundly different ecosystem from the coast, all tumbleweeds and gnarled ponderosa pines, now riddled with orchards and wineries and garish gated retirement developments. It reminds so many people of the Mediterranean — Lebanese, Turks, southern Italians and Croatians often say it feels like home. We drove up to the site of the most damaging wildfire in B.C. history — the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, which forced out 33,000 residents — and wondered how the hell another fire up here could ever be controlled.
It is now orthodox analysis that the whole South Okanagan is threatened by fire year after year due to unecological forest practices and fire management. B.C.’s environment ministry notes that selective logging and fire suppression has caused a “dramatic change in the structure of low-elevation forests … from open, park-like forests with scattered large trees to the present dense stands of younger trees. With these changes in practices and structure comes a change in fire regime. Fires were once more frequent, smaller and cooler, but now are less frequent, larger and more intense.”
That feels like an exemplar of the colonial state. Prominent Indigenous voices here have long clamored that if the province had listened to them — had adopted, understood or even recognized long-standing Indigenous fire prevention strategies — these wildfires would be manageable and far less fearsome. “Forests have been mismanaged for over 100 years,” Joan Phillip, who is one half of a political powerhouse duo with her husband Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the leader of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, told us. “Cultural fires need to be part of the solution.”
This summer underlined just how intensely the domination of humans and the domination of the other-than-human world are entwined. Coloniality violently suppresses not just human bodies and subjectivities, but knowledges, ways of being and possible routes toward different futures.
– FIVE –
Does friendship offer any break in these clouds? Is it a disposition that can surpass domination and gesture at an anticolonial way of being in the world? Can the customary evocations of friendship between two people be extended to collectives? As much as we are curious about the political potentialities of interpersonal friendships, we are more interested in recalibrating political ontologies, to ask: Can one group of people be friends with another group, even other-than-humans? A cultural burn might not feel all that friendly to a tree, but as Suzanne Simard might say, it might well to the forest as a whole.
Scholars like Julietta Singh and Leela Gandhi have cautioned us against trying too hard to define friendship, that it hazards desiccating the idea of its force. We mostly concur. But we want to suggest a couple of theoretical guardrails.
First is the seemingly foundational and oft-evoked notion of friendship as requiring substantive concern for the other. Theorists of friendship often settle on this as a bland-enough launch point, but it strikes us as a simple formulation at the heart of all ecological thinking. A “substantive concern for the other” is the antipode of contemporary doxas of exploitation and extractivism.
Second, friendship is necessarily voluntary, and it has to be mutual. It is not enough to claim someone as a friend — they have to claim you back. But if friendships are always voluntary, then they are also shifty and up for grabs. They are constantly being ordered and reordered, lost, refused and revived. We always have to prove ourselves.
The borders between acquaintance, friend, good friend, close friend and best friend — and all the subtle distinctions within — are never fixed. Those commitments require us to actively maintain, make, remake and evaluate, and while it may be nice to think that we can rely on certain friends forever, it doesn’t work out all that often. That reality is somewhat unsettling, but the instability of friendship is not regrettable. It demands commitment and political fidelity.
In its porous and shifting exclusivity, we think that the political horizons of friendship might push ecological theorizing past its colonial fixities, but at the same time every assemblage of friends has to account for itself. Western philosophical orientations tend to conflate friendship with white brotherhood and fraternization, and as much as the vision of assemblages constantly moving and flowing, rhizomatically coming together and reassembling across smooth spaces, is beautifully attractive, those assemblages overwhelmingly groove the same patterns of exclusivities, reconstructing the world as it is over and over again.
If the world demands new forms of repetition, if fires and floods and pandemics are to be weathered, does friendship offer something else? Could we ever be friends with the more-than-human world?
– SIX –
We returned to Vancouver after a week of fire-chasing and settled in to write this essay. It was perfect weather for writing: cool and rainy, ideal for staying inside by a fire.
But then it just didn’t stop raining. Usually that’s standard coastal B.C. in the fall — the rain can be relentless for weeks — but this was something different. It was heavy, and then got heavier, and then it got ugly.
Turns out we were in the middle of an “atmospheric river” — a designation very few of us had ever heard of before, but which was eerily descriptive. That’s exactly what it felt like. The rain wasn’t just coming down — it was all around, dumping a month’s worth in two days. And then it got worse: landslides, flooding, dykes overflowing and mass evacuations all across the southwest of the province.
November 17: another state of emergency. There were travel restrictions and fuel rationing. Supply lines were broken, all major highways and rail lines heading east were severed. Vancouver was cut off from the rest of Canada.
The devastation traced the exact route we had traveled the previous week. Five people were killed on the Duffey Road by mudslides. Lillooet was swamped. All 7,100 residents of Merritt were evacuated on short notice. The wastewater system was overwhelmed and raw sewage flooded into rivers. The main bridges out of town failed. People were told to go to Kamloops if their home address was odd-numbered and Kelowna if their address was even-numbered. Those places are between an hour and two hours away, if the roads are clear. Abbotsford and huge swaths of the Fraser Valley were still underwater three weeks later. Hundreds of thousands of farm animals drowned.
All of a sudden, our bland little corner of the world, where most people presume almost nothing ever happens, made global headlines yet again. Friends called from all over wondering if we were ok and what the hell was going on. These last few months have felt biblical, end-of-times: back-to-back-to-back states of emergency, one catastrophe after another, each exacerbating the previous one.
The floods of course are intimately connected to the fires. Mismanaged forests burn hotter and wilder, stripping the forest floor of vegetation that soaks up water. These super-hot fires create hydrophobic (water-repellent) crusts on the soil, so water cannot be absorbed and runs freely on the surface. Water rushes downhill and adds excess sediment and debris to rivers, accelerating overflows, eroding banks and adding to property damage. One disaster cascades seamlessly into another, one town’s fire becomes a flood in the next, one person’s exhalation makes a stranger sick. We flow into one another; borders expose themselves as virulent fictions.
Ursula K. Le Guin called freedom “that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it.” If nothing else, two years of the pandemic taught us that none of us are alone, none of our bodies are exclusively ours. Our breath is your breath. We share viruses and water and air and land, humans and other-than-humans alike. We suffer alone, but that suffering, that exposure to grief, is maybe the only way we might be together.
* We have done our best to acknowledge the Indigenous territories we were traveling to and through. These territories and places do not easily match settler cartographies and there are often overlapping sovereignties and territories. Our attempts at acknowledgment here are not meant to adjudicate claims but to respect the peoples whose lands we were visiting and traversing. We consulted multiple sources and used Native Land Digital as our reference.