How to Embrace a Wildfire: A Path Out of the Smoke

Is there a path for living that acknowledges, and allows us to start from, our careful attachments in order to connect with others in politically productive ways?

As wildfires burned across Canada and smoke traveled at the end of May and the start of June this year, I heard from friends in New York, family in Minnesota, and former students and colleagues in Toronto. “We are fine,” a colleague in Toronto reported. “The air quality is not.” The next day, when I went out for coffee with a friend in St. Louis, she asked if I wanted to sit outside. I hesitated, wondering, Will it be safe? The smoke had only just started to reach St. Louis at that point. Still, most sunny days, we had been living under air quality warnings due to unhealthy ozone levels, a result of the emissions from our cars and other pollutants mixing with sunlight.

As I sipped my americano and she drank her iced coffee, my friend told me that her brother had gotten COVID before the vaccines were made. He also contracted pneumonia and ended up in the hospital. There, doctors told him that if he hadn’t come in, he likely would’ve died. Almost three years later, she said, he has yet to return to his previous strength and lung function.

What to make of such a crisis? The wildfires, it seems to me, provide a test case for thinking through three paths of living and dreaming today. There is the path of normalcy, exemplified by both the desire to “just get back to normal” after COVID and the idea that our cares can be overcome by our individual resilience—by working harder and bouncing back—even if by doing so, we return to living in a way that caused the crisis in the first place. Then there is the path of detachment, the call to let go of care and, in one way or another, to escape the reality of a climate crisis that leaves us feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

But the third path—what we might call solidarity—is about social transformation instead of individual resilience, and it is path of attachment more than one of detachment. It is about finding our place within narratives and traditions that give us meaning, and it allows us to recognize our personal connections to other elements of the human story: food and sport, science and religion, fashion and performance, fear and commitment, injury and repair, birth and passing, rhythm and prayer. Unlike the paths of normalcy and detachment, then, the path of solidarity forms an invitation to care for the beauty and the nobility of every one of us in this pulsing world. And by starting to follow it, we might also begin to care for the world itself.

Tracking the wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta as well as, more surprisingly, in Quebec and Nova Scotia, in early June I sat down, turned on my air purifier, and picked up three new books on solidarity from my summer reading pile: Jean-Louis Laville’s The Solidarity Economy, Nathan Rochelle DuFord’s Solidarity in Conflict, and Alana Lee Glaser’s Solidarity & Care. I was looking for insights that would help me work with others who are also concerned about not just our future, but our present of fires and pandemics. I was looking for theory and ethnography that could help us successfully achieve a more rapid end to fossil fuel subsidies, a more rigorous series of clean air laws, a more accessible version of universal health care, and a more expanisve set of welfare programs for those who, in addition to facing other vulnerabilities that mark the human condition, have yet to recover from a pandemic that is still with us. In other words, I was looking for something like a field guide to solidarity—a book that could help me identify, and make connections across, diverse communities and ongoing struggles.

I did not find exactly what I was looking for in these books, but what I did find was nevertheless both helpful and surprising. Reading these new studies this summer while receiving increasingly frequent air quality warnings on my phone, I was surprised by the extent to which the books looked backward. They made remarkably few connections between their scholarly topics and the more democratic future their authors want to see. In academic terms, the books remained much more descriptive than prescriptive. Although Solidarity & Care explained how policy change occurs, none of the books offered an explicit plan for how concerned readers could bring about true solidarity, which, to be fair, is not expected of academic books—but might, I hasten to add, be a method worth developing when we need imaginative paths more than ever.

Overall, these methods of writing about solidarity generally proceeded within academic norms instead of more speculatively. Thus these books—creatively yet ultimately staying within the respectable bounds of given professional constraints—reflect an observation Laville makes in surveying late 20th-century social movements, an observation I returned to again and again as I drafted this essay: as last century’s social movements fizzled out or faced resistance, more and more people “gave up their dream of an alternative society, and many moved toward more modest projects for living and working ‘differently.’”

Reading this line, I wondered: What fears or pressures cause us to give up our collective dream of a more just society? What fears or pressures cause us to ask for a slightly higher wage, slightly more time off, or slightly more flexibility to work remotely instead of asking for a society where we precarious workers first have more of a say in the institutions we work for? What makes us stop dreaming of a country where we would be supported, with income and health insurance, if we were fired, say for speaking up about trans* rights at our workplace?


Rebuilding Solidarity in a Broken World

By Eric Klinenberg

If we are afraid of being fired—especially in a country where health insurance is tied to employment and so is a privilege and not a right—we might not even ask for modestly better working conditions or for a raise, no matter that inflation persists, because when we do get fired and turn to unemployment, we are unable to reach the cost of living, including, for instance, the cost of needed medication. In other words, it is often because of fear that we stop promoting the alternative society that many of us do, in fact, deeply care about. As someone who teaches critical race theory and about Palestine in a red state, and as someone who spends hundreds of dollars per month on medication and health care, some days I am just glad I still have my job.

Here a well-known point bears repeating: social incentives today gear into a paradigm of accumulation. If a university stops investing its money in oil and gas—or in the technology companies that violate Indigenous rights as they mine the minerals for the batteries in our electronics, or in Nestlé and Coca-Cola as they claim water rights across the world—it might simply end up with a smaller endowment. If an employee decides not to wear “professional” clothes because they want to stand with those who sew their shirts, they might merely be passed over for the promotion. More than these institutional and workplace costs, going against the norms of accumulation also carries wider social costs.

If you choose to live a life of solidarity personally in addition to professionally, well, then you will face more consequences. To tell a potential romantic partner that you aren’t willing to stay at AirBnBs because of how vacation markets price poor people out of their homes, or because the company has listed rentals in illegal Jerusalem settlements, might mean you don’t get asked out on another date. To care enough to read newspapers from different countries means you will make more mistakes at work, your mind thinking about hurricanes hitting Barbados or refugees fleeing Ukraine; and it means you will be more anxious around those you love, lost in thought about another assault on Jenin or about the death of migrants in the heat of El Paso.

Further, to have made decisions in solidarity with those exploited means you have to have conversations with your partner about how, in effect, you have chosen an unstable life when you could’ve had a stable one. If you come from money, your parents will tell you that you are ungrateful for not taking advantage of your advantages. If you come from poverty, your parents will tell you that you are selfish for passing up on opportunities that could lift your family out of unsafe living conditions.

Even if you own up to these constraints, you ask—and I along with you—what options for solidarity remain? The three books I turned to in June offered initial answers to this question.

Jean-Louis Laville’s The Solidarity Economy is a work of social theory. But he gets to his theoretical conclusions only through a rigorous historical survey of previous activism and labor organizing. This turn to history allows Laville to argue against the currently fashionable theoretical impulse to critique how people today are attempting to build a society beyond capitalism. For readers in search of a book highlighting paths to a more democratic society that “already exist,” Laville’s would be a good place to start.

Indeed, The Solidarity Economy sees exceptional promise in how people have made and continue to make meaning together. In a structured form of gathering he calls “association,” Laville finds a resource “to strengthen democracy and humanize the economy” as well as “to construct new forms of belonging.” Listing historical precedents of promising associations, he looks to how enslaved people in Brazil escaped plantations and founded communities called quilombos starting in the 17th century, how Jesuits created a “Republic of the Guaranis” based on Indigenous principles in the 17th and 18th centuries, and how the African Methodist Episcopal Church provided a space of economic, spiritual, and moral support for Black people in the 19th century. His historical examples helpfully underscore that associations are most productive, with respect to his humanizing goals, when they replace charity—which reinforces hierarchy—with solidarity, which demands equal rights.

Nathan Rochelle DuFord’s Solidarity in Conflict: A Democratic Theory is perfectly titled. Highly theoretical in its method, it is a book that looks to Frankfurt School critical theory in order to argue that truly democratic forms of solidarity emerge through, not in spite of, internal disagreements among activists. For anyone who has ever been part of an organizing meeting that fell apart due to internal tensions, this book is a refreshing reminder that those of us looking for more robust forms of solidarity should expect, and perhaps even embrace, disagreement as a lively part of democratic practice.

Solidarity in Conflict is at its best in discussing the limits (and thereby the conflicts) of solidarity practices on the Left. One limit the book underscores is what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin called “left-wing melancholia,” meaning the way that intellectuals on the Left tend to view history as a series of setbacks and thus create a culture mired in thoughts about defeat, even to the point of viewing the world through the lens of loss. DuFord insightfully argues that “to resist the negative forms of left melancholia … groups must also contain prefigurative aspects: they must internally model what it is they seek to bring about.”

What makes us stop dreaming of a country where we would be supported, with income and health insurance, if we were fired, say for speaking up about trans* rights at our workplace?

One group doing such “prefigurative” work is Domestic Workers United (DWU) in New York, as Alana Lee Glaser emphasizes in Solidarity & Care: Domestic Worker Activism in New York City. Glaser—who does an exemplary job defining her terms throughout the book and thus offers a remarkably accessible study—uses an ethnographic method to show how the DWU established the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York State. Because she spent multiple years with the DWU, she is able to tell the longer story of a policy victory: how it relied on an “emotional community” where workers shared stories and taught one another how to advocate for better treatment, starting with knowing their rights as employees.

Proving correct Laville’s hypothesis that association can drive social change, the history of the DWU demonstrates that for new laws to be written and implemented, first there need to be in place robust associative practices, such as the fatiguing work of driving to the state capitol again and again, sharing stories of harassment and triumph, and finding a way—perhaps the hardest task of all—to live in our precarious, war-torn present without debilitating fear. For those of us whose world is filtered through the melancholic lens DuFord describes, Glaser’s book is a helpful reminder that even eventually successful political advocacy mostly feels like Sisyphus’s punishment.

As we think together about what paths remain open to us, DuFord would remind us that the means through which we relate to these options prefigure the ends we are able to bring about, and so we must choose carefully what Glaser calls our “narrative and affective strategies.” And Laville would ask us to consider in what ways the practices we need are not part of some far-off utopia but are in fact already underway.

In response, I would ask those of us writing books on solidarity not only to describe our present moment, but also to illuminate our next steps. I would ask authors to sketch more of a blueprint for turning our dreams of an alternative society into a reality. To offer even a few pages mapping a path of transition to a new form of life.

Most of all, I would ask of those of us who write that we at least humbly suggest that this way of making connections instead of that, this way of making demands instead of that, this way of making a new world instead of that, might allow us, sooner rather than later, to breathe the air that we share.

One way of understanding our dreams about living in association (though not necessarily in solidarity) is to consider what we are attached to or detached from, what we invest in or divest from, and what we participate in or refuse. As I see it, there are three ways of dreaming, or paths for living, before us today.

The first—as the calls went during the start of the pandemic—is the dream of returning to “normal.” This dream is attached to the brands, lifestyles, and goals that predominate in US life today. Following this path would look like continuing to perform our humanity through the norms coded as morally good and successful in our time: work hard, making sure to leverage any opportunity for personal gain; get the highest-earning job you can and invest your money along the way; buy a car, buy a house, take a few tropical vacations a year, and retire with as much as possible.

On this path, when we feel unsafe as smoke clouds around our houses, we control what we can. With the cash that a “normal” life affords, we buy another air purifier. With the health insurance our job offers, we pay for another one of our asthmatic son’s rescue inhalers, praying he won’t end up like the nine-year-old boy in Canada who died of an asthma attack caused by the smoke. This first path remains tethered to a constructed mode of being human that we have come to call the American dream, though companies have made sure it is a dream that stretches far beyond the United States. It is a path that some of us follow even though we don’t believe in it, leading to “competing elites,” some of whom support a privatized vision for human life more than others.

This is also the path of “resilience,” a keyword in an influential neoliberal vocabulary that asks us to spring back to pre-crisis selves no matter the structural barriers in our way. On this account, contaminated water, polluted air, and massive debt are all simply “challenges” or “tests” to be overcome through our work ethic and willpower. To this rhetoric we can respond: the boy in Canada could not be resilient amid the smoke; to suggest that he “just keep going” or “stay positive” or “work harder,” or that “everything happens for a reason” or that “everything will be okay,” would be an insult to his parents, to his memory, and to our rational capacities as human beings.

This is not a path of solidarity. It is a path of capital accumulation, purchased security, and individual overcoming, a path on which we do not examine how that accumulation, security, and resilience are based on the labor and lives of others who make the goods and provide the services that allow for only some of us to pursue our own sense of the good life.

The second path—that of detachment—sees a world deep in crisis and tries to get out of it. Here we still dream of an alternative society, but it is not in this world. In its smallest iterations, this is the path of the after-work glass of cab, the escapist novel, the decision to quit reading the news, and the Roberto Rossellini films I have been watching this summer to take my mind off of the smoke. In its larger iterations, this is the path of psychedelic drugs, “living” in virtual reality, and space colonization.

To different extents, just as we do with the first path, we all participate in this second path, whether it’s part of a hedonistic lifestyle or simply to take what the American philosopher William James called a “moral holiday” as we try to enjoy a road trip with friends when we’re not being overworked and underpaid. In that this path is about escaping our connections and responsibilities to others in a world we have set on fire, this is also not a path of solidarity.

If we’re not being told to be resilient, we are often told to detach from what we hold dear. Is there another way? Is there a third path, one that doesn’t ask us to spring back from harm but instead transforms what causes harm in the first place? One that offers asylum from the companies constantly trying to sieze our attention and our dreams? One whose gentle winds stir us into movement oriented by a greater sense of community? Is there a path that acknowledges, and allows us to start from, our careful attachments in order to connect with others in politically productive ways? How could we weave our private longings into more cross-cutting public demands? Is there “another world,” as the poet W. B. Yeats insists, that indeed “is in this one”?

I am afraid I cannot do much more than invoke the third path. It is a path whose contours I have felt when singing with others at prayer camps, as water protectors tried to stop oil pipelines from being built. It is a path whose edges I have seen more clearly when reading aloud with others about the spiritual inheritance of humanity and consulting, in communities that cross the color line, about how we might treat one another in light of the wisdom that we have received—the wisdom our ancestors have collected and preserved for us in books, songs, tapestries, and dances, some of which we call sacred. Maybe when we acknowledge our inheritances from the past alongside our attachments in the present, we take a first step on this future path of solidarity.

While billionaires explored outer space and promoted virtual reality, and as the days started getting shorter, I will admit to you, reader, that I put my books about solidarity back in the pile on my kitchen table. I found myself longing to return to the world. To return to what feels real, grounded, and true. To hold and be held by my partner as the summer rain taps on our window. To tie a bow tie with my hands before a friend’s wedding. To write a letter with a fountain pen and watch the ink distribute on the paper. To play tennis in the park just after dawn. To wander through a museum with someone I love and study the texture of an etching, putting our faces right up to the protective glass, like children, no matter that it’s Picasso’s The Goldfinch and others are watching. These attachments—to my pen or to my racket, to my new friend from tennis or to the person I want to spend the rest of my life with—reflect a deeply invested faith in the human story, rather than an attempt to withdraw, however momentarily, from it.

Maybe our attachments—when they lead us to embrace the complicated potential of this moment, when we voice them collectively as well as when we share them intimately—are themselves smoke signals. Maybe we send them to each other when we say: you belong here or another world is possible or never let me goicon

The author would like to thank Helen Kinsella, Eric Aldieri, Shahrzad Sabet, Kris Sealey, Matthew Wolf-Meyer, and Shadi Anello for conversation around this essay.

This article was commissioned by Matthew Wolf-Meyer. Featured-image photograph by Anthony Quintano / Wikimedia (CC 2.0)