WCP: The Unsettling

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The wildfires in the West add one more disruption to working-class lives in 2020. People have lost their homes, their livelihoods, and their loved ones. Writing from Oregon, where fires have burned thousands of acres, Allison L. Hurst puts the fires into the larger context of economic, political, and climate disruptions. As she writes in Working-Class Perspectives  this week, this difficult time means that the old notion of seeing the working class as split between “settled” and “hard” living no longer makes sense. We are all unsettled now.

It’s fire season again.  Two years ago, my parents lost their home in Paradise.  This year, I almost lost mine.  I live in Oregon, where scores of fires were stoked up by unusual Eastern blasts of dry wind over the Labor Day weekend.  As of this writing, more than 1,000,000 acres had burned, and 500,000 people (more than one out of ten Oregonians) were under evacuation orders.  California, Washington, Idaho – also in flames.  While I was fortunate not to be directly in harm’s way, like every other Oregonian I have been choking on hazardous air since September 8th.  In fact, the air quality has been so bad that many of our air quality indicators have not been able to measure the hazard.  By one account, the amount of smoke and ash in the air is equivalent to smoking more than three packs of cigarettes a day.  And all the displaced persons, the firefighters, the helping personnel, and workers who have to be out during the day (such as postal workers) have been breathing this for more than a week.  We are all looking for a break, some blue sky to show itself, even as we worry that this is just the start of fire season

Jay Inslee, the Governor of Washington, has been the most outspoken about linking these extraordinary fires to climate change.  He called the scene “apocalyptic” and “maddening.”  In response to the President’s blithe denial of science, Inslee said, “If this is not a signal to the United States, I don’t know what it will take.” But he was not alone.  Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, calls the wildfire a “wake-up call” on climate change.  Touring the wreckage in Oroville, a town very close to Paradise, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, said, “The debate is over in terms of climate change… If you don’t believe that, just come to the state of California.”

In Oregon alone, 40,000 people fled their homes in the face of the fire.  For many, there is nowhere to go.  Community centers, fairgrounds, churches, some hotels, have opened their doors, although COVID is complicating how they do so.  In my hometown, we have opened up our football stadium.  This is not a covered structure.  People are living in tents in the open air wherever they can.  Tents are, in fact, one of the most useful items to donate  and are hard to come by. 

All of this has been very unsettling, both literally and metaphorically.  The events of this past week have thrown me back to memories of my working-class childhood, where bad things could happen at any time.  How can anyone plan for the future when the basic foundations of food, shelter, air, and water are unsettled?  It’s hard enough just getting out of bed in the morning when you are afraid to look out the window, let alone making a decent plan about what to accomplish that day.  For years now, I’ve tried to explain this basic fact to well-meaning middle-class people who have never faced such uncertainties.  Now, it seems, many of them are sharing this experience. 

Those who study working-class life have long drawn a distinction between “hard-living” working-class families and “settled” ones.  This may have begun with Joseph T. Howell’s Hard Living on Class Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families, published in 1972, although other influential endorsers of the concept include Richard Sennett and Jonathan CobbLillian Rubin, and Lois Weis.  Settled living families play by the rules, work hard, abstain from hard drugs and other distractions.  Hard living families act like it’s the end of the world.  I have to admit, I never took to these descriptions, not because they seemed overly judgmental – though they sometimes do – but because they draw too clear a line between these types of families. 

I’ve talked with Jack Metzgar helped me realize that this may be a generational thing.  Growing up in the dysfunctional 1970s, I am of the first generation that did not assume they would be better off than their parents. My generation, the first one without a descriptive identity (Generation “X”), stands between the baby boomers and the millennials and Gen Zers whose lives definitely will not be better off than their parents, due to both a faltering economy (don’t tell Wall Street) and a burning planet.  For working-class people of my generation and later, playing by the rules will not get you security, working hard will not get you social mobility, and there’s no one out there who is going to give you any credit for staying away from drugs.  In fact, doctors will push them on you, and everyone else will assume you take them anyway.  We’re all living hard, not settled lives.  Period. 

As with so much in 2020, the fires unsettle us. The pandemic has made us all lose sense of time.  In the United States, we suffer under a heartless president whose lies and distortions can give us whiplash.  We are riven into two nations, living under different realities, even as “reality” becomes more real with every passing moment – as hurricanes multiply, snow follows heatwave in less than 48 hours, and fires roar across the land, hurling down hazardous ash that spreads in fast-driven plumes across the nation (you can watch  this on zoom.earth if you have the stomach for it).  While nearly one million people have died of COVID-19 – close to 200,000 in the US alone – we are hardly in agreement on how dangerous this virus is, how to prevent future deaths (wear a mask!), or when to expect a return to “normalcy.”  There is little stable ground to hold on to here, for anyone, left or right.  Will school be shut down next week?  Who knows?  Will I have a job next month?  Who knows?  Will my landlord be permitted to evict me in a pandemic?  Maybe.  What then – who knows?  Will we have peace after the election?  Martial law?  Who knows?  What can one reasonably plan for in such a world? 

Let’s not leave on such a gloomy note, although it has been hard to keep positive against the many foul blows of 2020.  My original theme for this blog had been “What the World Needs Now.” Perhaps next time I can tackle that.  But the world is wide open at the moment — otherwise known as a crisis.  Let’s call it the Unsettling.  We cannot live as we have been living, planning for tomorrow as if there is no bill coming due from the toll we’ve been heedlessly, selfishly, putting on the planet.  As all those who live through hard times know, there is no tomorrow if we can’t get through today.  And to get through today will take all our reserves of strength and compassion. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-20 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 94,000 times by readers in 176 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.