Over the past few years I have mostly split time between a national forest in New Mexico and my wife’s home in El Paso, Texas. Acquaintances often ask how I negotiate this bifurcated life, moving between places that are in many ways polar extremes: a fire tower in a wilderness area (cool, green, austere), and a borderland metroplex (warm, brown, friendly). But they’re not so different as they might appear. Each is just a different wing in the laboratory of our future.
The forest, to put it plainly, is burning down. Some of my colleagues in the wildfire community have argued that a recent spate of megafires represents a welcome disturbance—evidence of a landscape restoring itself to equilibrium after a century of blindly but with great conviction suppressing every single wildfire. This is a comforting idea—that in the end, despite our meddling, nature will win.
But the burns we’re seeing can no longer be classified as natural. They were primed by the long war on fire; drought and global warming seared the unnatural density of fuel until all it needed was a spark. Lightning strikes in 2012 and 2013 provided that spark, reducing much of southwest New Mexico’s mature spruce-fir and mixed conifer to blackened snags on a scale not previously seen.
For a long time the forests of the American West were a net sink of greenhouse gases. That is changing as they die from drought, disease, beetles, and fire. With each new megafire they release a few more centuries worth of stored carbon back into the atmosphere, goosing the climate feedback loop as surely as melting Arctic ice. Working a fire tower overlooking one of these forests is to have a sweeping picture-window view of the end of the Holocene.
Our picture window in El Paso looks out over the border with Ciudad Juarez, where some days we can see the Mexican flag flying just beyond the international bridge. Up the road in the other direction sprawls the US Army’s Fort Bliss, a crucial troop-deployment center in the war on terror. Homeland Security helicopters buzz along the Rio Grande on a daily basis, the loudest and most visible reminder that we live in as militarized an urban area as exists in the United States of America. Martial law could lock this city down in about fifteen minutes.
To leave El Paso in any direction is to encounter, soon enough, a Border Patrol checkpoint where a demand is made to state one’s citizenship. The government monitors the movement of people with seemingly limitless technology and resources, but the limits have not yet been reached: it’s about to have more of both. The movement of things happens somewhat more casually. Cheap manufacturing imports from the maquilas flow north, while component parts in the process of assembly flow south. Shoppers and people with binational family connections move both ways, part of a flow of commerce and culture that makes the border delightfully permeable.
In their annual reports, certain American manufacturers that shifted operations to Juarez from the old industrial Midwest speak of their most sacred duty to shareholders: scouring the world for “low-cost geographies.” This language elides the fact that it is low-cost human beings they rely on for labor—factory workers in Juarez subsist on a wage of $6 or $8 a day—in other words brown, exploitable flesh, conveniently gathered at America’s doorstep in a city where unions have been forbidden for fifty years.
It has been a decent arrangement for El Paso, which reaps the benefits of international trade with few of the drawbacks. The city used to be a source of cheap labor for American industry—it had a thriving garment trade, for instance—until NAFTA opened the door to a hunt for even cheaper labor. To adjust, El Paso reinvented itself to facilitate the flow of parts and finished products to and from those Mexican laborers, even as it mostly ignored their working conditions, their living conditions, and their uphill struggle to organize and bargain collectively.
The damage done by globalization to manufacturing workers in our own country, and the inhumane treatment suffered by their replacements in places like Juarez, is a form of economic violence long tacitly endorsed even by liberals. Is it any wonder that the objects of such violence would feel impulses toward violence themselves, inchoate and misdirected as those impulses might be?
For citizens of conscience it would be criminal to ignore the damage already unfolding from the election of an internet troll to an office that will amplify his bully pulpit—a phrase newly redolent with meaning. The usual recipients of American viciousness are being harassed and threatened with renewed vigor all across the country. Those with a secret but previously suppressed desire to express their rage in the form of hate crimes have found their great enabler. Putting the genie back in the bottle will be the work of years if not decades.
By an unearned accident of identity—my gender, my color, my sexual preference—I am well-positioned to avoid the worst for the near future. Perhaps that helps explain why I have the queasy-making luxury to think as much about threats to places as to people. For to be clear-eyed about the future is to admit that the places I call home—the biotic treasure of our remnant borderland wilderness areas, the vibrant binational and bilingual culture of America’s third-largest border city—have been targeted for the ash heap of history.
If Trump has his way on climate policy, the forests of the Southwest—already in grave peril—are finished. They will accelerate their process of desertification, and the rivers that gather in their watersheds will dwindle and dry up, creating hardship beyond imagining for the farms and cities that rely on those rivers for irrigation and drinking water.
If Trump has his way on border policy, an ever more militarized atmosphere is destined to overlay the life of the borderlands. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Mexican-Americans are not made to feel, in tangible and painful and escalating ways, the truth that their president does not view them as Americans at all.
To believe this a purely accidental result of a narcissist’s quixotic bid for attention and brand enhancement, and to imagine that cooler heads from the Republican establishment will constrain the new president’s worst impulses, would be to misconstrue the situation badly. Authoritarian ethno-nationalism has been handed a blank check, and a mad scientist now holds the keys to the laboratory of our future.