Posted by: JohnnyRook | July 26, 2008

Who Killed Bobby Chandler?

Probably nobody. Probably, it was just an accident…

My 18-year old son had an unusually serious look on his face when he got home from work last night. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I just got a text message from Mike” he said. “Do you remember, Bobby Chandler, the big guy who played Syria in the United Nations simulation we did this year?” Indeed, I did. The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where I am receiving treatment, had not yet given my wife and I permission to go home when the High School held the simulation, so I had watched the two-day performance via choppy, streaming video in a tiny window on my laptop. My son had played Israel in the simulation and he and Bobby had had some rousing exchanges.

“Yeah, I remember him”, I said.

“Well, Mike says, he was killed today fighting a fire in California.”

For some reason, it made me feel all hollow inside. I didn’t really know the kid. I haven’t spent much time at home the last couple of years due to all the cancer treatment and he and Abe weren’t real close or anything. But I remembered him from the video and from high school graduation last month.

A huge mountain of a boy about 6′ 5″, maybe 280, the biggest kid on the football team, good-natured, funny, planning on going to Montana to study engineering, Abe had said. During the UN simulation he’d known his stuff and did a good job defending the Syrian position on Iran and the Palestinians, despite the fact that during the debates he usually addressed Abe and the other UN ambassadors as “You, guys…”

We went and checked on the Internet, and, yeah, it was true, killed by a falling tree while fighting one of the two thousand fires started in California by a lightening strike on June 21st. Abe and his girlfriend and I sat around for an hour afterwards and just talked–about growing up, living and dying, how hard it was going to be for his folks, the choices we make and how tenuous this whole living business is.

I was still thinking about Bobby as I went upstairs to get ready for bed. “Why,” I wondered, “had this young man’s death hit me so hard?” Some things were obvious, the boys closeness in age to my son, his lively spirit, my own heightened since of mortality due to my still ongoing cancer treatment. But there was something else as well, and, then, it came to me: the butterfly effect.

The concept of the butterfly effect is part of chaos theory, a theory that I can claim to understand only in a very rudimentary way, and posits that a small action in one place can have large, seemingly unrelated effects far away. The classic example is that the way a butterfly flaps its wings in one place may eventually result in a tornado (or it may prevent a tornado) in another place, perhaps quite far away.

I also recalled this passage from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) AR4 Synthesis Report:

The resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change, associated disturbances (e.g. flooding, drought, wildfire, insects,ocean acidification) and other global change drivers (e.g. landuse change, pollution, fragmentation of natural systems, overexploitation of resources). {WGII 4.1-4.6, SPM}

Now, it is a commonplace that it is impossible to connect any single extreme climate event to global warming, and I am not claiming by the above that Bobby’s death was caused by our ongoing Climaticide. Such things are impossible to prove. But there is something to think about here.

Although, there is no way to establish a direct link between any single extreme weather event and global warming, it is true that there has been a statistically significant increase in extreme weather events, including droughts.

Droughts, in turn are one of several factors that influence the frequency and intensity of wild fires. Of course, there have always been wild fires and many fire fighters have died fighting them. See Norman Maclean’s famous Young Men and Fire, which describes the deaths, in 1949, of 13 young Forest Service smoke jumpers for a particularly poignant account. Even if there were no increase in greenhouse gas emissions, fires would still occur, and men and women would die fighting them.

The thing that kept bothering me was this. Although we can’t blame global warming for any particular forest fire and hence for the death of any particular firefighter, the fact that the earth is heating up, that extreme weather events are on the rise, that the link between the two makes sense by the laws of physics and common sense, i.e. when it gets hot and there is little precipitation it drys things out and dry things are more likely to burn, and that all this is occurring as predicted by climate models, ought not one to consider the possibility that global warming will lead, if it is not already causing them, to increased deaths of fire fighters, not to mention the loss of life and property among the population at large?

In other words, the butterfly is flapping its wings and although we cannot hope to identify all the elements in the chain of events. We know that the chain exists and that it is has its consequences.

Well, what is the butterfly in this case? I’m afraid it is all of us.

It is the Bush administration’s criminal failure to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

It is Exxon, Peabody Energy, and the US Chamber of Commerce’s campaign to spread disinformation about the reality of Climaticide.

It is calling for new coal-fired power plants.

It is failing to oppose new coal-fired power plants.

It is continuing to drive your unnecessary SUV once you know better.

It’s not changing your light bulbs and properly insulating your house.

It’s not turning off the lights when you leave the room.

It’s voting against public transportation.

It’s driving when you could take public transportation, or bicycle or walk.

It’s clearcutting forests.

It’s idling your car while you run back into the house for just “a second”.

It’s drilling off shore, on public lands in the Mountain West, and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It’s not voting for Green Candidates.

It’s not buying locally grown food.

It’s not holding politicians’ feet to the fire on this issue.

It’s being too busy or too cynical or too overwhelmed to care.

So, we flap on, millions and millions of us butterflies, some with bigger wings, some with smaller ones, driving more and more greenhouse gases into the air. Can we name the victims of our tiny and not so tiny actions? Can we distinguish them individually from those who would have died had we not filled the atmosphere with CO2 and methane, and nitrous oxide? No, we can’t, but we know they are there.

But, hey, don’t worry, because, like I said at the beginning, in the case of Bobby Chandler, it was probably just an accident…

[The people and events in this diary are real, but I have changed their names to protect their privacy]

[Crossposted at Daily Kos]



  1. Good stuff.

    I’m also worried about finding the way through the complex causal chains from individual choices to large consequences. I get the feeling that we’re pretty lousy at this sort of thing, species-wise. maybe it’s easy to see that everyone ought to vote, that everyone ought to recycle, that everyone ought to go veggie (because of all the good consequences) but you can think all that and still say that it doesn’t matter if I vote or not, if I recycle or not, or if I eat a ham sandwhich or not (because an individual’s consequences don’t matter. Unless the stars line up, the same person gets elected whether I vote or not, etc.

    There’s got to be a way to give up the feeling that my consequences don’t matter, without giving up on the importance of consequences for morality. Just not sure how yet.

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