What Portland’s Fire Can Teach Us About Our Society and Our Values

“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.” –Ishmael

As I write this, over 30,000 acres of forest burn around me and ash rains upon my head. The crown jewel of my community–the playground in which so many of us in Portland find catharsis, inspiration, and peace of mind–is being ravaged by the inferno started by a 15-year-old who thought it would be fun to toss illegal fireworks off cliffs into a woodland area dried by a 60+ day drought. An abundance of witnesses report the teenager(s) walking away, laughing and giggling at their actions, showing defiance and apathy when confronted with their actions.

This immediately got me wondering: how drastically we must have failed these kids, for them to find cruel, stubborn joy at the thought of burning the forests to the ground for a cheap thrill. How starkly different these children must view the world compared to those who once lived in these mountains. Indeed, our ancestors had held a deep reverence with the land, their stories speaking deeply of the symbiotic relationship between human and nature, so empathetic in fact that any animal killed was worshiped in ritual and reverence. For many, nature itself was god, and an affront to the biosphere that you occupied and which sustained you was the highest crime. Truly, I find it hard to imagine a 15-year-old of such a culture to laugh like an apathetic and narcissistic psychopath at the destruction of their community’s sacred lands and the threat to thousands of people and their livelihoods.

Sure, there are always rotten apples amongst any group of people, but I remember being a 15-year-old boy, and I know enough about testosterone, the development of the prefrontal-cortex, and cultural indoctrination to know that this kid’s attitude represents our failures as teachers, storytellers, and communities–our inability to instill an awareness and respect into this child.

This teenager’s actions, and even the actions of our government (in undermining the data that proves quite clearly climate change is real), seems to suggest that our cultural narratives are failing. Our values are failing. There is no political agenda here; we’re talking about basic pragmatism and respect. How are our kids and even adults unable to grasp the notion that the nature they so recklessly destroy is what provides them oxygen, food, water, the roof over their head and the material positions they hoard inside it. Even if we can’t teach a respect for nature for its sustenance, can’t we at least impart a basic respect for the thousands whose homes or lungs might be burned?

It seems in this case, the answer is no.

And so we must ask ourselves: If our children’s actions and ideas represent the view of the world we have given them, then is it not clear we are failing as a species at instilling values that preserve respect for our home and our fellow humans (a respect which could be argued may be the most important lessons we can teach)? As the world literally burns around us, I challenge all parents and friends out there to become a champion for a better narrative, to remind their children and peers of their reliance on the world in which we all need and share, to remind them of a basic respect for those outside themselves. Without narratives that promote such empathy, respect, and compassion for all with which we interact, we will all soon find our heads covered in ash, our vision dancing with flames.

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