On June 6, residents of central New York awoke to an unprecedented phenomenon: the sky outside was colored orange, and the air was thick with the smell of burning wood. In Syracuse, New York, where the smoke was worst on June 6, school districts canceled outdoor activities and ordered all windows shut in an effort to keep out the smoke.
The heavy smoke, which spread across the Northeast region, forced the Environmental Protection Agency to warn all residents of Central New York to stay inside and forego physical activities. While some businesses closed in the region, most workers were still required to report.
“I was sneezing all day, my eyes were irritated and I was out of breath more often,” Ben Kitzel, a contractor in Rochester explained. “We have basic masks in our vans that my company provides but we were not explicitly told anything regarding the smoke at all. If this was a common occurrence it would make it difficult for me to comfortably do my job, and I don’t think they would implement any long-term changes to protect me.”
Capitalist greed drives increasing wildfires
As of June 8, 9.4 million acres of land across nine of Canada’s 13 provinces have been scorched by fire — 13 times the 10-year average for this time of year. On the surface, it might appear that these wildfires are caused by simple, unpreventable causes such as lightning strikes or the activities of ignorant hikers. However, this tidy explanation cannot account for why yearly wildfire destruction has increased from one million acres in 1980 to seven million acres in the United States alone, according to the EPA. In reality, the apocalyptic orange sky and potent smell of smoke that spread over the border and far into the northeastern United States are rooted in the ruling class’s flagrant disregard for the environment and public health.
Scientifically, wildfires are caused directly by a rapid global increase in vapor pressure deficit, which effectively measures the dryness of the air. VPD, or dryness in the air, has increased in recent years due to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.
It is obvious that this concentration of gases is a direct result of corporate and ruling class greed. Just 88 major corporations, all of which produce fossil fuels like oil, contributed to nearly half of the carbon emissions responsible for this global rise in VPD. Wildfires themselves also contribute significantly to rising VPD levels, creating a disastrous feedback loop.
These damaging wildfires have a long history which can be traced back to imperialist practices of nineteenth century settlers in the Western hemisphere. Prior to settler contact, Indigenous peoples regularly engaged in controlled burns to help maintain a healthy forest ecosystem and reduce wildfire fuel, making fires much less devastating when they inevitably did happen. As European settlers displaced, massacred and controlled Indigenous populations, the Native practice of controlled burning was outlawed across North America. These settlers ended controlled burns to preserve trees for use in the timber industry, demonstrating a commitment to profit over sustainability that has only increased in magnitude over the last years. Centuries of compounding wildfire fuel, along with climate change causing higher yearly temperatures and drier landscapes, has created the perfect environment for these immense fires to thrive, dumping billions of tons of carbon into the air and straining ecosystem recovery due to the massive scale and intensity of today’s megafires.
A new system is needed to prevent climate catastrophe
As if this weren’t enough, wildfires also have dramatic short-term effects and long-term impacts on people’s health. Lynn King, an educator in Syracuse, noted that her 14-month-old son “has developed a dry cough and eye irritation, and [she has] had chest tightness and a headache and has been short of breath.”
Respiratory illnesses aggravated by poor air quality are common in the United States, with 1 in 12 Americans being diagnosed with asthma and 1 in 10 American adults having experienced symptoms of long COVID-19, a condition that became widespread due to the negligence of the U.S. government regarding the pandemic. Working people, women and oppressed national groups are especially susceptible to negative health impacts exacerbated by the state.
As long as capitalism remains the prevailing economic system, the owners of the 88 major corporations benefiting from the destruction of our planet will continue to sacrifice the wellbeing of the majority for their continued self-enrichment. Those same ruling elite are not impacted like the majority of us who do not have the luxury of relocating out of harms way or not going to work on days when air quality is unhealthy.
This week’s fires have demonstrated once again the global impacts of climate change and the necessity of international cooperation to solve it. Wildifre smoke and fossil fuel emissions do not stop at national borders. Borders do not stop pollution originating from U.S.-owned corporations from impacting the workers or the rest of the world. The capitalist ruling class regularly redirects the harmful effects of its environmental destruction, all the while falsely claiming that its doing all that it can at this time to address climate change.
But, as Central New Yorkers who had previously been relatively unaffected by wildfires learned this week, the climate crisis is here. It will take a people’s movement, ready to radically disrupt business as usual, to fight back against the destructive greed of capitalism and preserve our health and planet.