The world caught on fire this year—both literally and figuratively. We saw forests and homes burn as wildfires raged. We saw protesters set businesses ablaze, decrying a society that values money more than people. Racist systems the world has long run on are burning to the ground, too. The Frontline explores the flames that rage and what they mean moving into the new year.
WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
No one could predict what 2020 had in store. This year has been cursed by a deadly virus and historic wildfires; a year when many people—notably Black communities long plagued by a legacy of police violence—said enough is enough.
In retrospect, we should’ve expected this. Fires have been worsening, as have inequality and injustice. But this world wasn’t built with the least-privileged in mind. It was made for the wealthy. White supremacy and colonialism made it so that when death comes knocking, Black and brown bodies are the first to go. 2020 made that exceedingly clear.
2020 set fire to communities both literally and figuratively. In some cases, the public responded with torches in hand. And in others, families fled, but some fires you can’t outrun. These systems—from healthcare to law enforcement—don’t exist for the benefit of the underclass. In response, everyday people hit the streets, fueling their passion with one goal in mind: Light the whole thing up.
Welcome to The Frontline, where the embers are still glowing. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. For most of the rest of December, I’ll be looking back at the dumpster fire that was 2020 and ahead to next year. The literal fires around the world are one thing. The figurative flames devouring the fossil fuel industry and an economy dependent on it are another. Advocates are determined to incinerate the capitalist and racist structures that have long fueled the destruction of the planet and the death of their people.
Society has been pretty screwed for, well, a while. The pandemic might have been new to those who have never lived through a public health emergency, but America’s failing healthcare system was not. The killing of George Floyd will contribute to what will define 2020 forever, but the unpunished killing of Black people is as old as the U.S. Around the world, climate-related records broke from a never-ending Atlantic hurricane season to modern history’s first gigafire, but science has been warning us for years about this impending future should we choose to ignore it.
But 2020 came with its lessons. And what it did was grab us from the shoulders and shake us out of the dreamworld we’ve been living in: where climate change is decades away, where cops are good, and where your family survives the apocalypse. We know now this isn’t true. No one is safe from the grips of Mother Nature or an airborne virus. Some, however, are safer than others.
This reality is what sparked the explosion that erupted throughout the U.S. as social safety nets failed to catch families in need. They landed, instead, in a web of disaster: record-high unemployment, a historic housing crisis, and the loss of critical childcare with the closure of schools.
The one silver lining has been the ability to see our society for what it actually is. If our economy relies on people driving and flying or shopping and eating out, shouldn’t we question whether that’s an economy we want? What about a circular economy that doesn’t actively destroy the planet and leave people impoverished instead? If leaders value labor over life, who are they leading? If people are more outraged at burned buildings than Black, bleeding bodies, what does that say about us? If the birds outside our windows have become our only friends in isolation, what community will we lean on when shit hits the fan?
No matter how awful 2020 has felt, the worst is yet to come. This realization is something I’ve struggled with this year, but as a climate reporter, I know it to be true. The climate crisis is not forgiving, and the burning won’t end come January 1, 2021. It’ll likely worsen as the world grows hotter and drier. We can’t control weather patterns, but we can create the proper infrastructure to safeguard people from whatever inevitable trauma is headed our way.
The world may have burned this year, but the ashes give us opportunity to rebuild. We can’t unsee all the flaws with the old way of doing things, so will we be wise enough to create something entirely new? The answer isn’t always up to us, but we can’t underestimate the power of fire. Should leaders not listen, we could burn it all down again.