I’m going slightly off-topic (but actually, it is THE topic), to write about a film I saw on Tuesday and can’t get out of my mind. I’ve Tweeted about it, but there’s more to say than can be done in 140 characters. The most important bit is, if you can, “please go and see Bring Your Own Brigade!”, a film by Lucy Walker.
I saw it on the same day fires were raging across the US Pacific west coast, as well as several European countries and the International Panel on Climate Change issued a report saying, in effect, that some of the damage we’ve already done to the planet can’t be reversed, but there’s still time to avoid total destruction.
The focus of the film is the wave of forest fires across California in 2019, with stunning footage of infernos engulfing people’s lives, homes and communities. However, one of the things I like most about Bring Your Own Brigade (BYOB) is that it doesn’t over-simplify.
Its statement that “this won’t be the last” has already been vindicated several-fold and although climate change is clearly an important factor, there are others. Among the prime culprits are commercial logging companies, who negligently over-plant, corrupting the wonderful forest eco-system the film brilliantly explains.
Fire is a natural part of that eco-system, but capitalism has adopted an adversarial, militaristic attitude to putting out fires which may be understandable in one sense (fire is dangerous!), but further undermines an environment already being spoiled by housing development in areas where fires (like floods) are endemic.
BYOB explores the impact of the fires on two very different places, one affluent, in southern California, another less so in the north of the state. Again, the film explores the political and class complexities of environmental issues. The affluent community had resisted tax increases for years and acquiesced to cuts in the fire service, while continuing to allow the building of unsuitable homes in unsuitable locations.
In one of the most shocking clips, the urban theorist and California resident, Mike Davis, reports that this erosion of public services has meant that at times, 40% of fire fighters are convicts – an incredible extension of the prison-industrial complex. He adds that, although city-dwellers may think forest fires don’t affect them, beyond damaging air-quality, the way Los Angeles is developing means it too, could burn.
The social dynamic, if not the existential risk, is different in the poorer, northern area, where there’s a sense of resignation to the inevitability that big fires and money will eventually take everything. Another startling moment comes when local politicians vote against what seem to be very basic safety measures to protect homes because their constituents don’t want their “freedom” impinged.
Of course, the people who understand all this stuff are Native Americans. The film talks to some who explain that capitalism’s inability to live with, instead of against, forest fire is another symptom of colonial white supremacy, dateing back to original European contact by a people who came from places with very different climates. That will be less so in the future!
The biblical, Dante-esque metaphors of BYOB aren’t really metaphors. This is happening. But the film ends on a hopeful note. Despite mindless capitalism, it shows the resilience, creativity and loving solidarity of everyday people. We didn’t start the fire.