After the Camp Fire

For the last week, I’ve been staying indoors with my toddler and family, doing my best to stay positive while trying to avoid breathing the toxic smoke from the enormous fire burning in Butte County.

California’s Camp Fire is one of the worst wildfires in US history, with more than 900 people missing, over 70 fatalities, and all of Paradise City burnt to the ground.

We’re 150 miles away, but smoke levels are hazardous here in the Bay Area, and it feels terrible to breath the air. Schools and offices have been closing. The intensity and impact of the smoke alone has had me thinking about what we can do for the people of Paradise City and nearby, in addition to sending donations and volunteering.

What do we do when a whole city has gone up in flames and half the state is smothered by toxic smoke?

We dream big.

First we come together, of course, to fight the fire and address immediate needs. We take time to grieve and process our losses. We take stock, and then find our strength to move ahead.

The level of destruction is almost incomprehensible. It’s also a bit daunting to reconcile, but extreme disasters like this that are exacerbated by climate change are our current reality.

At the same time, the Camp fire also presents us with a huge opportunity:

We could build a new city of our modern, sustainable-living dreams.

So let’s start imagining.

What does a sustainable city in Northern California look like?

Homes. People need homes, and fast. But we can’t continue to build our standard housing, it’s not compatible with climate change or sustainable living. One idea: we could quickly build “tiny homes” that are beautiful, mobile, zero-waste, and powered by 100% renewable energy. Also needed are indoor places for work, education, community gathering, exercise, health, entertainment, etc. These are some ideas of what that could look like: tiny home communities and ReGen Villages.

Personal items. People need clothing, pots and pans, toys for their kids and pets, books, electronics. It’s helpful and desirable to own some of these items. But do we really want or need houses packed full of stuff? Let’s bring together the library system and a popular app like NextDoor to have a lending library and exchange network for the material things we need and want: tools, clothing, toys, decorations, etc, in addition to books and other media.

With smart sharing like this, we’d get everyone the things they need to get back on their feet while eliminating unnecessary manufacturing, clutter, cost, and waste generated by large individual homes. And since everything has been destroyed in the fire, this could be particularly effective. The Oakland Public Library is a good example of a library with a toy lending program. I’m still learning about many of the sharing economy innovations, and I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas there.

Food and water. Let’s have mobile food ecosystems: living roofs and walls of people’s homes that provide food for the residents and for local wildlife. Other mobile units primarily dedicated to food production, from raw produce to genetically engineered protein. Non-mobile food production via sustainable farming is also important, while keeping essentials mobile in case of evacuation. The city would need advanced water capture, purification, recycling, and restoration. That goes along with general infrastructure (roads, transportation, etc), which is also essential and needs to be updated to the most sustainably advanced models imaginable.

Environmental restoration. We can help nature rebuild on a large scale, and do so in a way that helps us navigate, reduce and hopefully eventually reverse our current climate change trajectory. Ensuring we have healthy ecosystems and biodiversity is critical, and really needs to be woven into every aspect of the city.

Meaningful Work. We’ve got a whole city of people with not a lot to do and likely plenty of worries. Let’s engage everyone in the work of reimagining the city, building the houses, setting up the lending network, growing rooftop gardens, planting trees, etc. Everyone has something to contribute: engineering experience, tech savvy, childcare expertise, humor, mediation, project management, fair governance.

Education. This new city can be based in experiential education, where our kids and all interested generations can help lead the way towards a good life that deeply and justly cares for the needs of all life on our planet, for generations to come. Most Likely to Succeed shares an inspirational educational model.

Disaster Management. The city needs to identify key localized threats from climate change, such as dramatically more intense fires, and redevelop with survival strategies built-in from the ground up. Before considering rebuilding, however, we need to understand and implement strategies for curtailing fire disasters in urban areas, and also evaluate if people should be living in areas that are so prone to fires.

These are just a few ideas. I don’t have special knowledge of sustainable design but I do know that when we all bring our ideas to the table we can create incredible new opportunities and developments, which is what we need now to speed up the sustainability revolution.

Ideally, the people of Paradise City and nearby would all participate in imagining and planning a new way of life. The city council of Paradise City has already had their first meeting to discuss how they will rebuild. I hope they will take up this challenge that we are all tasked with, and find a way to move their city forward in a way that is sustainable beyond anything we’ve yet imagined.

The rest of us in California and beyond, meanwhile, need to do some serious reimagining for ourselves, too.

While the Camp Fire and the ripple effects of its toxic smoke are disturbing and tragic, we can welcome this as an opportunity for the people of Butte County and neighbors in California and beyond to seriously change business as usual and build the modern, sustainable, desirable communities of our collective imagination.

You can check out my recent post for a look into the near future of Paradise City.

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