The fire next time is now: Environmental historian Angus Wright’s call for a planetary patriotism

by Robert Jensen

Angus Wright has a way of saying things we may not want to hear in a way that’s hard to ignore.

An example: During a meeting of environmentalists about shaping the public conversation on our most pressing ecological crises, folks were wrestling with how to present an honest analysis in accessible language — how to talk about the bad news and the need for radical responses, without turning people off. During the discussion about the effects of climate change, Wright offered a simple suggestion for a slogan: “No more water, the fire next time.”

Those words from a black spiritual, made famous by James Baldwin’s borrowing for his 1963 book “The Fire Next Time,” are usually invoked metaphorically. Wright was suggesting that we might want to consider the phrase literally. After a summer of drought and forest fires in Texas where I live, Wright’s comment reminded me that climate disruption isn’t part of some science-fiction future, but is unfolding around us in ways that are both complex and hard to predict, but devastating simple: We’re in deep trouble, ecologically and culturally, as we try to face up to unprecedented planetary problems in a society in denial.

Wright is one of our most astute observers of these troubles. His willingness to face these issues, and his ability to grasp the interplay of complex systems, is no surprise to readers of his book The Death of Ramon Gonzalez: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma, first published in 1990 and revised for a 2005 edition. Looking at one region in Mexico, Wright explains how political and economic power, combined with the arrogance of experts who believe they have all the answers, have radically changed people, communities, and land — mostly for the worse.

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