Limits of Linearity

Lessons from Korra applied to our wildfires.

At the end of season 2 of Legend of Korra, the Avatar had ushered in a new age where spirits and humans alike could co-exist. The consequence of this union, however, is that the spirit realm starts infringing on the daily lives of humans. Large earthy vines emerge from the depths of the spirit world to take over large swaths of the city, and Avatar Korra responds with a quick fix solution to use waterbending to send back the vines to the spirit world. Perhaps in years past this would have been a reasonable solution, but the portals between both realms are wide open. So what’s the consequence? The vines immediately grew back more aggressively, widely, and intrusively than before. This scene sets the premise of my mental model of how California has dealt with it’s fires, and is a larger reflection of how we clench our teeth into a linear mental model of thinking in the face of an obvious cyclical nature. 

Much of California exists in Mediterranean climate. This means acres of land burning are meant to be part of the landscape. We’ve conveniently ignored this over the course of the years despite historical accounts noting this as a recurring feature of the land and the practices of the natives who thrived on these lands for many years before us. Yet, continually, year after year we sit in shock with faces much like the Pikachu meme as to how so much of our land could be engulfed in flames. Celebrities who’ve settled upon land that’s long overdue to be renewed by the ashes of natural fires have hired mercenaries to battle against the flames. Much like Korra, we believe we can “waterbend” our way out of this, and much like the series — the solution is far more complex. 

The proposed solution is to find ways to find ways to live with the fires. If we’re able to introduce healthy fire practices, we can hedge the destruction of the property and the deterioration of quality of life by planning our way through this. The ostensible roadblock is that we are incentivized to be at war with fire instead of living cohesively with it. It pays typically well to fight fires unless you’re part of a substantial slave labor force (that’s slowly dwindling due to COVID). A proposed answer might then be to shift the incentives, and hopefully the market will correct itself. The issue I have with this approach is that the ostensible roadblock is symptomatic of a more insidious pathology: that we can linearly consume, perhaps even exponentially, which means we can impose ourselves as masters of Mother nature. 

Criticism of our consumption habits isn’t particularly novel. By consumption habits I don’t just mean an individual’s specific tendency to want to purchase things, but the larger systemic processes that exist to facilitate that individual’s consumption. That means the true supply chain from start to finish. At the beginning of the pipeline we have the unrestricted and unchecked extraction of natural resources from Earth. Then we enter into the factories and the processing plants that unleash vast amounts of pollution back into the Earth as a thank you to her for allowing us to take from her. Then we distribute amongst the customers along the way where we pay low wages to people to keep costs of product low. Then once the consumer purchases a product, that product has a shelf life, so it eventually gets thrown away — and on occasion may get recycled but is mainly trash. In the final state, we just have heaps of trash floating about as islands in our oceans where it harms the living creatures that we actually consume in a different consumption pipeline. 

If the root of the issue isn’t abundantly clear from the above explanation of how we produce and consume products, the problem is unchecked human greed that only grows wilder from processes that linearly extract from Earth (I want to say). From our conception of morality to our sense of time, we refuse to see cycles. We want to see a clear path of progression be it positive or negative but certainly never cyclical. 

The solution is multifold and begins with several shifts in our thinking. It first requires a shift in our minds to an understanding of the world that operates in cycles, and that we aren’t necessarily linearly progressing towards something as we might think. Secondly, we must recognize that our greed will lead to our demise — continued operation from misaligned incentives are going to fuck us over. If we can accomplish the first two shifts, then thirdly we may be able to humble ourselves so that we can rely on our native neighbors and learn from them even if we may not share the same epistemic. Should we accomplish these three shifts in thinking I believe we learn to live in cohesion with the nature that we exist in, not as masters but as humble caretakers of this Earth.