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Fresh air and perspective follows fire
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Fresh air and perspective follows fire
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Fresh air and perspective follows fire
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Articles
7 March 2019

Fresh air and perspective follows fire

A vision of fire resilient communities rooted in connection.

Written by Erin Axelrod

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

I am from California. Here in my home state, the Camp Fire, the nation’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the past century killed nearly 100 people, virtually destroying the entire town of Paradise and shrouding large swaths of California in a two-week haze of toxic smoke. Just a year before, in 2017, my home community was engulfed in a fire which claimed 44 lives. These climate-change-related death tolls are the “new normal,” linking California with the growing masses of climate refugees around the globe. 

These disasters affected communities of colour and shelterless populations disproportionately. These are the same communities that have been subjected to centuries of oppression and exploitation by our capitalist, white supremacist and patriarchal economic systems, which created and continue to uphold inequities and competition for scarce resources across race, class and gender lines. Paradoxically, one of the roots of division—money—can be a tool to move us towards an economy rooted in connection and care. 

One example of this is how the regenerative agriculture community responded to the fires in Sonoma. Food justice organisations distributed hundreds of thousands of farm-sourced meals to evacuee shelters, donated by farmers and prepped by individuals committed to ensuring access to healthy food for everyone. Disasters appear to make the vast majority of individuals more caring and generous. 

Contrast this with the economic driver of profit. Homes are being rebuilt, and in order to maximise profits, corporate entities fall back into building the same, flammable homes. However, communities are considering other approaches, and are mobilising towards a new, collective vision. Grassroots organisers are learning that when we design for—and with—the most marginalised, we design a better system for all. 

When the aforementioned Camp Fire thrust Northern California into the category of “poorest air quality in the world” for several weeks, I along with millions of Californians attained a renewed appreciation for clean air. I realised during that time that in order to ensure clean air for all, we must regain a wildfire-adapted culture.

Doing this will involve revisiting the purpose and function of the built environment. What if I told you about a home that you could build, at a similar cost to conventional building, that was non-toxic for the workers to construct (and by extension non-toxic for you to live in), steadfast during a seismic event, would protect you and your family indoors in an extreme wildfire—and which sequestered as much as nine tonnes of carbon in the building envelope? What if I told you that during non-disaster times, this house could collect its own water and be powered off-grid, eliminating the need for the corporate-controlled and outdated powerlines that cause the ignition of wildfires? And that by building this house, farmers could increase their on-farm profit by selling their agricultural waste as straw, the very basis of the insulating component of the building, thereby increasing profitability to reinvest in regenerating landscapes? 

This vision illustrates an important point: we must not just rebuild our homes, but retrofit the political, economic and social structures that keep us beholden to models of extraction and competing against one another for claims to resources. Everyone can be involved in this vision, because everyone lives somewhere. We must all be architects of our collective home.

Here is a vision of a new story that is possible, if we align our hearts and adopt a larger sense of “home,” one that is tied up in our mutual survival. Fast-forward and imagine with me for a moment: it is the year 2029…

Ten years ago, in 2019, citizens of California realised that they could not change the systems of poverty and exploitation without a radical re-envisioning of the business-as-usual economy. As a result, white settler descendants and people of colour alike started sharing indigenous wisdom and listened to the innovations of local indigenous peoples already practicing regenerative lifeways. 

Ultimately, what grew out of this deep listening, was a proclamation to rapidly unleash sensible forest management, regenerative agriculture practices and statewide implementation of carbon farming practices. As a climate-resilience strategy, rebuilding hundreds of thousands of homes became a co-benefit of this enhanced stewardship campaign.

Collaborations of citizens, investors, government and philanthropists founded diverse development companies structured as California Cooperatives to advance the mission of building thousands of individual homes and communal wildfire response shelters. Rebuild companies were financed initially via blended-capital structures that included philanthropy from high-net wealth individuals and $1,000 investments from millions of everyday Californians. 

These development cooperatives set to work creating jobs and building affordable, net-zero energy homes that sequestered carbon in the building envelope, and were markedly more fire resilient than the standard stick/frame housing going up in droves to replace the houses that had recently burnt. The communities took the opportunity to include commons spaces and shared resources, redesigning the previous housing systems that were keeping us isolated, depressed, and separated from one another. 

The materials from the rebuild came from regenerative farms and forests statewide. The byproducts of a robust hemp textile economy, hemp hurds, went into the buildings, along with rice straw sourced from our state’s regenerative rice paddies. Selective thinning of understory trees generated poles that became sturdy structural elements. These materials sequestered carbon permanently within these buildings.

The rebuild was done in a way that connected people and communities, built social humus and networks of relations to prepare for and prevent subsequent disasters. 

A network of individuals created additional funding via financial mechanisms for Californians to move tens of millions of assets from traditional retirement vehicles into self-directed retirement accounts where that money could be allocated to local investments, and used to fund the fire rebuild. This wave of investment supported women and person-of-colour owned natural build home retrofits, contract grazing companies, landscape designers to install multi-functional fire-break food forests and hedgerows, vocational trade schools, green building companies, fire resilient farms, community organisers and natural materials advisors and manufacturers. 

B corps across the world caught wind of this strategy to “Solve the Climate Crisis Through Your Retirement Plan” and created a coalition to work together to build carbon sequestering homes and food production systems as benefit packages for their employees.

And despite the fact that wildfires continued to erupt each year, soil carbon began increasing across California and agencies and individuals learned to work more collaboratively together, so that the scale and destructiveness of the fires started to steeply decline. Californians were working together to create a safer, healthier state.

Back to present-day 2019, and our collective reality: the inertia of business-as-usual, and the money systems we are steeped in, will follow along a globally devastating path, unless we take radical action to course correct. Humans created money as an instrument, and we are still learning how to wield it. Just as we are updating our tools for fighting increasingly devastating wildfires, it is time to update our financial and social toolbox to catalyse a just and resilient future.

This article is part of our “Healing the Land” campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more stories, inspiration and ideas, purchase Issue 58 of Dumbo Feather or subscribe

Erin Axelrod

Erin Axelrod is a partner and worker-owner at LIFT Economy, specialising in accelerating the spread of climate-beneficial and land-based businesses in the Next Economy.

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