Climate Breakdown in California and the Ethical Value of Complexity

by Obi Kaufmann

We should call it Climate breakdown[1]. Climate change is so disingenuous a term. The myopic argument that the world’s climate has always been changing[2] is abhorrently lazy. It isn’t that the climate is changing that is the novelty of today, it is the alarming and obvious rate[3] that, warmed by the atmospheric products[4] of human industry, the machine[5] of global climate is breaking down. The fingerprints of climate breakdown brought on by global warming are everywhere. California is writhing under chaotic amplitudes of the increased intensity of deluging, seasonal rain events[6] and also, perhaps counterintuitively, a marked increase in seasonal aridity, contributing to what are now year-long fire seasons[7]. Additionally, the regular patterns of both coastal and valley fog as vital contributors of moisture and temperature regulation to their respective ecosystems have begun to shut down and disappear[8]. No stranger to lightning, California is now weathering a 12 percent increase in ground strikes[9] increasing tropospheric ozone, a potent greenhouse gas, and the probability of initiating wildfires. While we can’t pin 100 percent these anomalies on climate breakdown, we can point to it as a factor that bears much of their causal weight.

In the complexity of the system collapse[10] itself is the hope by which, not only might we survive the emerging bottleneck[11] but can carry a good amount of an intact biosphere with us to a brighter dawn. There is a wave coming to cool the bright, burning light that is our global economy — an economy that acts with historical arrogance to only every increase in consumptive value without renewal or reset[12]. This coming wave will push us into a new era of non-retributive, ecological atonement[13], a post-carbon economy[14] in a world that only vaguely resembles the one we live in now. I am not talking about the end of the world. The world doesn’t end, that is not how the world works. I am talking about a paradigm[15] shift that changes the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to nature.

butterfly and moth biodiversity, painting by Obi Kaufmann

When I use the word we, I mean it in the inclusive sense, not the exclusive. I don’t have a political agenda with this argument.  I find the baiting mouths and minds that bark on monitors daily, the dinning legion of opinion that fill media outlets with perpetual content, work at little but divisive rhetoric to poison true discourse. Corporate agendas and political posturing tirelessly work at keeping us attacking one another. The truth is far calmer. The truth is that there are no villains and there are no heroes. The truth is that there is no one to blame.

I watch the symptoms of climate breakdown spread across my beloved California like a disfiguring pathogen[16], in step with human development, population, and pollution[17]. My human affectations, my proclivities towards stewardship as a pervading ethic, cry in despair at night, alone in the dark. I know yours do too. We know the truth is nuanced and that wisdom is scarce. We feel in our hearts that the momentum of this human fire (not fires that we’ve made but the fire that we are) is too hot to contain and must only continue to burn. The forests of the world are not on fire[18], we are the fire that burns the world.

nature journal, Obi Kaufmann, 2019

I’ve been walking the California backcountry my whole life. I have an intimate relationship with the natural world of the place. I have translated that love I have for this place, namely the California Floristic Province[19] and the Mojave, the Great Basin, and the Colorado deserts that lie just outside of that province but within the political borders of the state, into a career of writing and painting about its workings. I consider the physiography of the state to be analogous to the physiology of a single entity[20]. My work acknowledges the hyper-object[21] that is California to be a contained, living body whose ecosystems employ ancient, complex tools of resiliency[22]. I know California to be very tough. I also know that we have broken and continue to mindlessly break those tools that the natural world uses, exposing the vulnerable heart of the state’s ecological connectivity[23] to a bevy of terrible threats from within[24] and without[25].

California is immortal — at least as far as we can conceive. Despite our seemingly depthless array of extractive technologies, both gross[26] and subtle[27], California will endure. It has survived and will survive worse. In the seven million years or so since the late-Miocene era when California began to resemble it current, tectonic configuration[28], California has deftly worked the wonder that is island biogeography[29] to invent a portfolio of endemic[30] biodiversity that today puts it in a small, elite class of global hotspots[31] where more species exist than in any other locale. In the past one hundred seventy years since the gold rush, the coursing throng of civilization has pushed every one of California’s natural vegetation types[32] to either a threatened or an endangered status[33]. Today, all of California’s habitat types teeter on the brink of oblivion and suffer under ruthless regimes of fragmentation[34], biological invasion[35], and simplification[36]. And yet, with a less than 1% extinction rate[37], they are all still here. I am not saying that we have any laurels at all to stand on — when it goes, it is going to go hard, but what I am saying is that simply, again, it is all still here.

Sunset over the Sonoma Coast, Northern California, photo by Obi Kaufmann

Over the past century, California has kept pace with the rest of the planet in that the atmospheric temperature has locally increased on an annual basis by 1 degree Celsius[38]. Reacting to that warming, the forests of California are retreating in a number of ways, doing their best to respond, as fast as they can. All forest types are retreating to higher elevations to escape the heat. In the past thirty years, dominant plant species across Southern California’s Santa Rosa mountains have moved upslope by an average of 200 feet[39]. Ponderosa Pine forests have retreated upslope by several miles across the southern Sierra Nevada, and the subalpine forests, above 7,500 feet are smaller and denser as they crowd towards the colder peaks[40]. In wildlife, range shifts north have observed in 74% of small mammal species, and 84% of bird species[41]. Beetles and arboreal pathogens are reveling in a warmer California, and several outbreaks are among the largest single events of such infestations in history[42] — classified as megadisturbances[43] that are contributing to the largest, ongoing tree die-off that California has seen in millennia[44]. Across the state, invasive agricultural pests, buffeted by temperature increase as it is the single most important factor governing insect behavior, are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses[45]. Everywhere in the over-dammed water system of California’s reservoirs, harmful algal blooms are propagating widely and successfully with increased water temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide, threatening fisheries and depleting oxygen[46]. It’s everywhere and it is touching everything. I could go on, but I won’t.

I grew up on Mount Diablo, in the East Bay, about 30 miles east of San Francisco. From the peak of this 3,849-foot mountain, you can see most of California’s central valley. The valley represents both the blessing and the curse of California’s great, natural wealth. Over millions of years, the soil of this valley was fed by anadromous salmon returning upstream, climbing beaver-made[47] ladders to spawn and die at the headwaters of their birth, giving their bodies to transform into millions of tons of nutrients[48] that was then washed down and evenly distributed in flood season where the Sacramento River might expand to be 30 miles wide. Of course, with only 13 inches of rain on the valley floor, to farm that land, 20th-century civilization needed to irrigate the valley, and to do so, we built the most elaborate machine ever invented to do such a thing: The California State Water Project[49]. We also knowingly were spending this singular, natural legacy in order to do so.

painting by Obi Kaufmann

With the advent of this age of climate breakdown, the best, future-policy we can negotiate is the restoration and conservation of as much of our intact forests as we can across hundreds of square miles of mountainous watersheds. Reintroducing Beaver and reestablishing Salmon habitat to bolster biodiversity and preserve connective habitat is the best shot we’ve got at preserving the quality of our continued human residency here. We don’t need to fully understand the complexity of the system — it may be too complex to fully understand. For example, we know that in a tablespoon of forest soil, more micro biotic organisms exist than people alive in the world today[50]. Ecologists argue today about how forests work, how they communicate, how they compete, and how they cooperate on a fundamental level[51]. We don’t need to know right now. All we need to acknowledge is the importance of the complexity itself and restore the conditions where endemic forces of complexity can persist.

I present my work up and down the state, and I talk about climate breakdown, and I talk about the importance of restoration, and I get asked again and again, what can we do? My answer is not about joining a political movement, and it is certainly not about assigning blame. We are all at “fault” (if such an easy thing exists) and none of us are. I encourage my audience to go inwardly to work outwardly — turn up your kindness, turn up your compassion, turn up your attention to the legacy of the natural world. Consider the story you are telling yourself about how you relate to nature and how nature relates to you. The imaginative capacity of the world to adapt and invent solutions and adaptations to a tomorrow that is more rich, and more beautiful, is infinite and you are an important part of that story.

portrait of the author in studio, Berkeley, Calif. 2019

Notes, sources, and further reading. All web sources accessed in summer 2019.

[1] One of the first thinkers to use the phrasing climate breakdown was professor Jem Bendell at England’s University of Cumbria;

[2] NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with climate scientist Stephanie Herring about why the argument “the climate is always changing” is problematic in explaining the temperature changes around the world today;

[3] The rate of climate change in several key statistics as reported by NASA;

[4] Analysis of emissions, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions;

[5] Climate change feedback loops as explained by the Guardian;

[6] More rain in California despite global warming;

[7] Yearlong fire seasons in California as reported by the Bloomberg report;

[8] The disappearance of California fog;

[9] Increase in California lightning;

[10] Complexity theory in climate change;

[11] Biological bottleneck and its effect on genetic diversity;

[12] No system is endless, an economical perspective on capitalism and globalization;

[13] I understand the religious intonation of my phrasing here, and I don’t mean to do so. I wish to use the word atonement as a coming together of ethics and purpose.

[14] Intro to the post-carbon economy;

[15] Paradigm shift; Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[16] Climate Change Contribution to the Emergence or Re-Emergence of Parasitic Diseases;

[17] I might have included all of the acronym HIPPO: Habitat loss, Invasivity, Population, Pollution and Overharvesting;

[18] Fires around the world;

[19] The California Floristic Province;

[20] Definition of life, a working definition;’s_working_definition.html.

[21] Hyper-object as proposed by Timothy Morton — a quasi-thing/concept that transcends human sensorial immediacy.

[22] Rethinking Ecosystem Resilience in the Face of Climate Change;

[23] California essential habitat connectivity project;

[24] Climate threats from within California;

[25] Threats from outside of California — global scenarios;

[26] Gross extractive technologies;

[27] Subtle extractive technologies;

[28] The geological history of California;

[29] California, as an ecological island separated from the North American floristic province by the Sierra Nevada mountains. Island biogeography;

[30] Endemic; native to only one area, existing in the wild in no other location.

[31] Biodiversity hotspots;

[32] Natural vegetation types in California;

[33] Landscape types are not legally thought of as endangered or threatened. California’s threatened vegetation;

[34] Fragmentation, or dysconnectivity;

[35] Biological invasivity;  Joan G. Ehrenfeld. 2010. Ecosystem Consequences of Biological Invasions”, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 41: 59–80

[36] Ecological simplification;

[37] California’s 1% extinction rate;

[38] 1 degree Celsius;

[39] Milanes, C., Kadir, T., Lock, B. Monserrat, L., Pham N., Randles K., Indicators of Climate Change in California. 2018. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, California Environmental Protection Agency. Sacramento: CA. s-10

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid. S-11

[42] The largest beetle and pathogen infestation in history;

[43] Megadisturbances;

[44] The largest tree die-off;

[45] Along with pesticide costs to fight them, the number is $44 to $176 million per year; California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2008.

[46] Algal blooms;

[47] As many beaver as a few per mile of watercourse;

[48] Million of tons of nutrients from salmon;

[49] State Water Project;

[50] Soil biology;

[51] The ecological debate;