There is nowhere that climate chaos will not harm. We’ve heard this, again and again, and yet we cannot seem to grasp it. Even those places we call Paradise—whether it’s a town called Paradise, like the one in California, destroyed by fire in 2018, or places we find so perfect we call them Paradise, like the islands of Hawaii or Seychelles or Canaries—even they are not immune.
When fire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, in August, I was shocked. I knew to expect more intense and deadly wildfires in California, Oregon, Washington, Canada; I knew to expect dangerous wildfires in Alaska where I live, too. But Hawaii?
“When we are preparing for a hurricane, we expect rain, sometimes we expect floods,” said Hawaii Lt. Governor Sylvia Luke, “ We never anticipated that in this state that a hurricane which did not make impact on our islands would cause this type of wildfires.”
My favorite thing to do in Lahaina was to arrive at the Banyan Court before sunset, sit on a bench beneath the shade of that generously spreading 150-year-old banyan tree, and watch as one, then another, then dozens of mynahs flocked in from every direction, groups of them settling onto the banyan’s upper canopy, their voices a growing cacophony, hundreds of them alighting, as many as a thousand. As the sky dimmed, their voices rose then began to fall, soften, the light fading, their ruckus quietened. This was one of the biggest roosting gatherings I’ve ever seen, and I loved it every single time.
But the fires in Lahaina turned this Paradise, this Heaven, into Hell. Any remaining delusion of immunity from climate chaos is burning up fast, exploding in our faces.
That’s the thing about climate chaos: It is unexpected. It is unpredictable. The best science in the world cannot prepare us for what’s coming next, for what we’ve unleashed on ourselves and every other living being on this planet.
We can’t adapt ourselves out of this. Early on in the climate chaos conversation, we talked about mitigation and adaptation—how to slow/reverse climate chaos, and how to adapt/adjust to the changes it brings. But most of the talk and actions are now aimed at adaptation. We’re barely trying to slow it, much less reverse it. Our technological-fix society seems deluded into thinking we can adapt ourselves out of this. The fires in Lahaina give the lie to all that.
And the underbelly of that deadly horror are the pineapple and sugar cane plantations run by corporations that destroyed the natural habitat and then abandoned the land, leaving non-native fire-dependent plants to colonize vacant fields, with no attempt at restoring fields to native plants and habitats. Corporations take what they want and then leave behind a mess, a tinder-box of a disaster in waiting. For instance, in Nigeria’s restive Niger Delta, after earning billions in profits, international oil companies are now abandoning their onshore operations, leaving an unimaginable environmental and social catastrophe of their own making behind. This is happening all over the world, usually in places where governments are corrupt and citizen power is weak and voiceless.
Aloha isn’t just a word; it’s a way of life. Every single Hawaiian I’ve met over the dozens of times I’ve visited there has been kind and generous. Just like that banyan – a spreading wide embrace, sheltering, holding Aloha.
The death toll in Lahaina—115 dead, 388 unaccounted for—surpasses another Paradise Lost: the 2018 Camp Fire in California that burned the town of Paradise to the ground. What’s it going to take for us as a society to wake up? Well, one thing’s for certain: we have no idea what disaster will happen next, except that it will not be like anything we’ve seen before, nor anything we are—or can be—prepared for.
Earth is still replete with Paradise. As Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven.” So let’s love this Paradise we call Earth. We can’t adapt our way out of a warming world, but we can become more flexible and creative, in both how we respond to the coming disasters and how we work to keep them from happening. It’s beyond clear: we must reduce emissions. Let’s keep up the good fight to reduce our emissions and to hold our governments’ feet to the fire until they do what needs to be done.
Marybeth Holleman’s most recent book is the poetry collection tender gravity. She’s also author of The Heart of the Sound, co-author of Among Wolves, and co-editor of Crosscurrents North, among others. Her award-winning work has appeared in venues including Orion, Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, Literary Mama, ISLE/OUP, North American Review, AQR, zoomorphic, Minding Nature, The Guardian, and The Future of Nature. Raised in North Carolina’s Smokies, Marybeth transplanted to Alaska’s Chugach Mountains after falling head over heels for Prince William Sound two years before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. www.marybethholleman.com
Call to action: Donate to help those who lost everything in the Lahaina fire:
Maui Humane Society: https://www.mauihumanesociety.org/