11.16.2016

I’ve Decided to Think about this year’s Presidential Election Outcome as a Forest Fire. Maybe You Should Too.


Yellowstone Fires. Summer 1988

In the very dry summer of 1988, about a million acres of Yellowstone National Park burned in a fire that lasted almost three months. Over a third of the park was affected. 


Week after week, nightly news broadcasts showed the desperate attempts of fire-fighters and volunteers to contain and extinguish the massive unruly fire, but their efforts were largely in vain.  The monster just kept burning. 


It was devastating to watch. Countless ecosystems and animal habitats destroyed. Homes destroyed. Not to mention lost tourist revenue and the decimation of so much natural beauty that had taken decades, if not centuries, to grow.


A 2008 story on National Public Radio provided a retrospective on the event.  


“In the end, the flames scorched about 1.2 million acres across the greater Yellowstone area, leaving the impression that the world's first national park had been destroyed,” reported Liane Hansen and Laura Krantz. 

The fires were cataclysmic in size and scope, and efforts to subdue it were for naught. As reported by NPR, Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee considered the situation to be “unavoidable.” 


"No matter what we would have done, the conditions were such that there were going to be great fires in Yellowstone under any circumstances," he said. "They were started by lightning, by outfitters, by woodcutters — we were a perfect setup to burn."


Across the country, people wept for the lost forest. Romantic nostalgia and media hype combined to create a public outcry of grief over the devastation.



Report Hansen and Krantz, “The heightened media presence and the televised coverage of the fires horrified many people who believed that Yellowstone would be forever ruined. But the doom and gloom prophecies about the destruction of Yellowstone proved to be wrong.”
"Devastated" Yellowstone 1988


As Duke University fire ecologist Norm Christensen reported to NBC news in 2008, "… as big as these fires were and as important as they were in many ways, they were not historically unprecedented, and it was not unnatural” In the end, “The fires were not an ecological disaster.”


What became clear in the months and years following the forest fires was that they had not devastated the forest.  As stated by Superintendent Barbee, “…the forest recycled itself quickly. Now if you go to Yellowstone, you'll see a carpet of green, the forest is fully recovering. And so we don't characterize the fire as causing damage to the park."


If anything, the fires encouraged new growth, improved the long term health of the ecosystems and habitats, and provided an opportunity for scientists to thoroughly understand the nature of forest fires, how to protect and grow healthy ecosystems, and the process of ecosystem regeneration.  Since the fires, hundreds of research projects have been conducted to better understand the impact of fires on plants and wildlife. 

New Growth in Yellowstone. 2012

Writes Kelsey Dayton, “While it’s easy to first see the fires as destructive, they also created an incredible opportunity — a chance for long-term studies of everything from insects to wildlife to water to look at how a big fire like the 1988 blazes changes the landscape beyond the obvious charred tree skeletons.”




As we think about the election of November 8, many are anxious and fearful of the policies to come.  For scholars of political science, media, and journalism, we find ourselves in a moment of existential crisis: 
  • Only two of the 59 largest newspapers in the country endorsed Trump over Clinton.
  • Russia engaged in cyberattacks in an effort to deliberately swing the election towards Trump – and the public knew it.   
  • Trump was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.   
  • Fifty Republican national security experts publicly voiced opposition to Trump.   
  • The 2012 GOP nominee publicly excoriated Trump.  
  • and the list goes on.

All of this happened and Trump was still elected President of the United States. 

It appears then, that information doesn't matter.  It appears then, that our field, and - more importantly - the functioning of American Democracy... is in crisis. 


Metaphorically, the forest is burning. The conditions were ideal for it, and so, here it is.
 

Do you know what causes large forest fires like the one in 1988? Just as with the 2016 election, experts say “the reasons are numerous,” according to NBC news. “They include an over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush resulting from drought, past policies of suppressing fires and insect infestations.”


An over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush. Past policies. Insect infestations.  


We have those, too:


Old trees and underbrush: 1) Citizens who feel apathetic and alienated from political life. The 43% of eligible voters who did not vote on November 8.  Content to engage in celebrity news and acts of consumption but to ignore news of oppression, corruption, or social injustice. Content to witness politics play out from afar – as though it is a spectator sport to be watched and not engaged in.  2) Liberal elites in DC, NY and LA who look with disdain upon the white working class, content to make them the butt of every joke, but not willing to hear their fears and concerns and put them at the center of their "to do" list. 3) Washington politicians whose sense of entitlement to "be next" because "that's how it should be" - which leaves many Americans feeling that the whole system really IS "rigged."


Past policies: 1) Media deregulation and consolidation of media ownership that have weakened our journalistic institutions. Underfunded and squeezed for profits that drain it of its purpose and will, our press struggles to exercise its obligation to the public good. 2) Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court which frees out money from outside groups to pour into elections in a way that is not accountable or traceable.


Insect infestations: Conspiracy theories and fake news that run rampant in an unchecked media environment. Eroding faith in institutions and in one another. Ideological echo-chambers in which we are always “right,” even if we never learn what is “true.”

These are our over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush. These are our insect infestations.  


And now we have our fire.  


The difference, of course, is that the “natural” regrowth that occurred in the aftermath of the 1988 fires isn’t imminent in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It’s up to us to seize this moment and improve the health of our democratic ecosystem. 




Let us take the steps to be certain that we do the same.