Darkness at Noon


When I was a boy in the 1970s my parents would ship me off to my paternal grandmother's home in Lakewood, California for a couple of weeks every summer. Lakewood is a suburb of Long Beach immortalized, not in a good way, by Mike Davis in City of Quartz and Joan Didion in The New Yorker. One could be polite and say that Lakewood exquisitely crystallized the existential anomie of suburbia... or, one could channel my 10-year-old self and just declare that it sucked. My grandmother's address was 6732 Nixon Street, for crying out loud! (To her credit, she petitioned, without success, to have it changed.)

There was a lot that I didn't like about Lakewood, but the memory that sticks the most from that era is of how the ubiquitous summer smog turned the sun into a faded golf ball barely visible in a dead grey sky. There was a hit song that played ten times a day during the summer of 1972 that drove me bonkers with the chorus "it never rains in sunny California." It was bullshit. Sunny California was a fraud.

And the air always tasted like automobile exhaust.

I have a similar sharp recollection from my years in Taipei in the mid-80s. The typical Taiwan restaurant would include a hot towel for wiping your face at each place setting. I would park my motorcycle on the street, sit down inside, and drag the towel across my face, relishing, for a moment, blissful refreshment as I cleaned the sweat from my pores.

Then I would avert my eyes after foolishly glancing at the towel, now blackened with soot from Taipei's disastrous air pollution. That can't be good.

These remembrances of dystopias past refreshed themselves as I considered whether I dared bike to Costco this morning. The day started out an uncanny orange and then got progressively darker. Dawn? I guess we don't do dawn anymore in California. By 11 a.m., when I forced myself outside, I realized I needed a bike light. The air smelled, as it has for weeks, of smoke, and there was no shortage of grit smacking into my eyes. But all things considered, the atmosphere was actually passably breathable, due to a meteorological oddity in which off shore breezes were keeping the smoke layer high enough to block out the sun but not low enough to disastrously interfere with the proper functioning of my lungs. Or so I hoped.

The National Weather Service warned that the smoke might start sinking lower later in the day, so I hopped on my bike. I was out of coffee and beer, and if I was going to survive the End Times, I needed to get out on the road before the AQI started shooting up.

This is the Bay Area in fall 2020. We check the air quality index to see if it is safe to leave home, don our masks to defend against Covid-19, share photos on social media to see who can best capture the aesthetic dystopia of Bladerunner 2049, and do our damnedest to laugh at the madness before we are driven to tears of despair. But it's getting harder. We are good citizens and by and large we take our responsibilities seriously but we are living in the hellmouth and we are beginning to lose our shit.

Except. Hold on. Not so long ago, I used to cite my memories of L.A. smog and Taipei soot as evidence for progressive optimism. The air is much better in both cities today than it was decades ago. This is due primarily to tough environmental laws that themselves were a response to citizen outrage. Humans are funny: we like to breathe. Or at least, we used to. Hell, even Beijing's notoriously bad air is better than it was a few years ago.

This should be a point of pride for humanity. I love California for forcing catalytic converters into cars and setting the toughest tailpipe emission standards in the U.S. and passing pioneering climate change legislation. I was born here and I have always believed that California is inventing the future and will drag the rest of the country kicking and screaming along with it. When I drove home to Berkeley after taking my kids to visit their great-grandmother in Lakewood, the site of energy-generating windmills on the Altamont Pass always filled me with great satisfaction. We are going to figure this out!

So, yeah, it is way beyond annoying that a state that takes global warming more seriously than most is nevertheless on fire, along with the rest of Pacific Northwest. That really blows. But I still believe that the point of civilization is to recognize when things are going off the rails, and make a course correction. There's no way we can possibly miss what the skies are telling us now, right? They are screaming orange bloody murder!

One would hope that if the entire nation woke to a blood orange sky and smell of ash, the culture wars over climate change would end before you could say "AQI." But here is where the skies continue to darken, and the odor of sulfur and brimstone wells up anew. As I considered the orange nimbus that shrouded the Costco entrance this morning, I couldn't help but recall that the Trump administration abandoned the Paris Climate Accord, has spent four years rolling back air pollution laws, has weakened automobile emissions standards, and has actively gone out of its way to champion coal. Trump is the henchman of this apocalypse.

And California is still the future, but not in a good way. As I biked home, observing disoriented and disgruntled turkeys wandering the medians of major avenues and wondering exactly how much long term harm I was doing to my lungs by hauling a case of beer and assorted sundries for six miles, (the AQI rose a solid 50 points during my one hour trip), it was hard to avoid any other conclusion than the most distressing one.

We are not figuring this out, we are fucking this up. And this is going to get much worse before it gets better, if, in fact, it ever does.