London’s Burning, London’s Burning

When we were kids in Charleston, South Carolina during the 1950s, we’d play “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down; London bridge is falling down, my fair lady.” Then on the “my fair lady,” the four clasped and upraised arms could descend over a victim, one of the stream of kids walking under our bridge. The message was simple: disaster struck even the beautiful and fair, and it struck rather indiscriminately.

Some disasters are waiting to happen: so with the Great London Fire of 1666. Beginning in a single dwelling it spread over three days to destroy 439 acres, 80% of the city. The houses were all of wood. Warehouses containing very combustible materials added to the blaze. King Charles II was reluctant to call for destruction of houses within the fire’s path, to create what were called fire breaks. Eventually, with a small resurgence, the fire burned itself out, destroying 13,000 houses, 89 churches, and 52 guild halls. Yet the loss of life was small: only sixteen humans. But multitudes of plague-bearing rats were incinerated. After the fire, the city rebuilt itself largely of brick, and the plague disappeared due to the decease of flea-bearing rats.

Every now and then, I pretend I’m looking down on Earth from a great height. The fires that destroyed many wooden cities flare up–San Francisco after an earthquake that led to a fire in 1906 (with 3000 dead, the worst disaster in California’s history), Chicago in 1871, related to drought and high winds. It was coupled with a far larger fire that burned a swath of Wisconsin, the Peshtigo Fire, which killed between 1200 and 2500. Note this: the town of Singapore, Michigan, provided so much lumber to rebuild Chicago that the resulting deforestation created barren sand dunes which residents abandoned.

Yes, these great cities rebuilt in less combustible materials, formed stronger fire-fighting brigades, and went on to become greater cities than before. Now we face not urban fires so much as environmental disasters caused by accumulating human-made greenhouse gases. Maybe I’m drawn to disasters because they flare above the common ordinary and catch our attention: the Texas drought caused by 34 days of over 100-degree high temps, plus rainfall lower by 60% since January. This drought crosses the lower southern states, all the way from Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, to Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Nuclear power plants cannot use some of the river water which normally cools the plants because the water temperature is over 90 degrees. Cattle and crops (not to mention wildlife and forests) are withering. There’s talk of cleansing sewage for drinking water.

This is horrific, yes, but nothing to the mass exodus of herding and farming people in Somalia, with 29,000 children already dead of malnutrition. I look at pictures of mothers, themselves skin and bones, bending over the dehydrated, rib-showing bodies of their children or keening over their children’s graves. One family has lost 4 of their 5 children within a month.

There’s a beauty in fires: they rage hot and bright. They destroy right before our eyes. We humans, with our amazing ability to ignore what our experts tell us, pretend that it can’t happen here. But we have trouble ignoring a major fire. In 300 years from now what will children be chanting? A version of London’s burning about our droughts? Something like “Texas burning” or “Dakota flooding?” We may not see the flames but in fact, what we’re doing with the constant increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) is like a constant low-level fire, filling our atmosphere with smoke, which spreads around the globe, distorts and magnifies weather patterns and will eventually BURN US UP! It’s time we started singing like children. It’s time we let ourselves be scared by modern-day fairy tales coming horrifically true right before our very eyes.

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