Something really special has emerged from Santa Rosa Junior College, and it is garnering national recognition.
In the spring of this year, four SRJC journalism students were selected to take part in a California Humanities’ Democracy and the Informed Citizen Emerging Journalist Fellowship program and chose to report on the experience of crisis fatigue in Sonoma County. With support from SRJC instructor and team-mentor Anne Belden, students Rebecca Bell, Maritza Camacho, Lauren Spates and Nick Vides produced a four-part podcast series called Chronic Catastrophe. Three days after sharing the project with Northern California Public Media, Chronic Catastrophe was picked up by NPR.
The pick-up makes a lot of sense. Chronic Catastrophe is the result of nearly a year of dedicated work, under the strenuous and binding circumstances of the pandemic, to produce an accurate and discerning representation of the toll that constant climate crisis takes on us. This podcast belongs on a national broadcast.
We are living in a state of emergency, compounded by a global pandemic, compounded by critical and ever-growing socio-political unrest. Tensions are increasingly high locally, nationally and globally. Only a few days ago, the 2021 Climate Change Conference closed, and the resulting Glasgow Climate Act—which endeavors to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius—has been referred to by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres as “…An important step, but not enough.” (www.UN.org)
In the face of radical global climate change, the Glasgow Climate Act is implementing minimal changes and imposing nebulous parameters on detrimental energy practices, leaving citizens all over the world feeling a heightened sense of concern for the planet’s future. Relying on our national leaders for climate remediation seems more and more futile, as decisions are made that benefit big business and macroscale economic progress versus immediate environmental remediation. Statewide, nationwide and worldwide, communities need to start thinking differently in our approach to climate change, working from the inside out. I find myself returning again and again to the ripple effect as a metaphor. Our efforts need to start with our locality, wherever we may be. This is what makes Chronic Catastrophe so powerful, and so nationally applicable.
The broadcast consists of four parts, and addresses climate change on personal and community levels—levels on which we experience it the most and sometimes consider it the least. Bell, Camacho, Spates and Vides spent eight months collecting audio interviews from people affected by the increasingly intense natural disasters in our area, to better illustrate the toll they take. In the four episodes—”Mind,” “Body,” “Spirit” and “Is it Worth it?”—loss of identity after losing a home and all personal possessions to a fire, compromised decision making due to increased CO2 exposure, a loss of faith in God and whether or not it’s worth it to stay in Sonoma County are all compassionately and openly examined.
On a call this past Saturday with Rebecca Bell, who hosts Episode 4, “Is it Worth it?,” we discussed a striking point regarding the effort she and her colleagues are making as part of this project to re-label the psychological strain under which Californians live during this ongoing disaster.
“They refer to what we experience with the fires as PTSD,” Bell said. “But PTSD is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We’re not done with this. If you’re experiencing fires over and over and over again, you’re never done with it
—there’s always a fear that it will happen again.” Sonoma County is not living in the aftermath of a catastrophe; it is facing wave after wave of climate disaster, with no immediate end in sight. This state of sustained anxiety can’t be classified as PTSD.
Hearing the voices of our community, from priests and professors to medical experts and district supervisors, localizes our shared trauma. It helps us to understand the acute and shared nature of our experience. Lauren Spates, host of Episode 2, “Body,” succinctly summed up what some people—myself included—still struggle to reconcile with: “There is already a quantifiable toll on human health. It is not abstract, and it is not something that will happen in the nebulous future. It’s already here.” The sooner we accept the frightening but undeniable truth about our circumstances, and the need to respond accordingly, the better chance we stand of implementing lasting change. We truly are living not only in a state of anxiety, waiting with unconsciously bated breath for the next disaster, but also in a state of compromise from disasters already experienced. Consider this: due to the change in air composition as a result of massive fires, our cognitive function has been compromised. As carbon dioxide levels increase and oxygen levels decrease, our decision-making and critical-thinking skills are impeded, effecting everything we do, from our day-to-day experience and relationships to quick action in the event of another emergency or evacuation.
For better or for worse, humans have an astounding capacity for denial—often we mistake it for resilience. But we surpass a sturdy, stoic mentality and stray into a harmful rejection of reality when we endeavor to be too adapting to threatening circumstances. We are fundamentally creatures of habit, and adapting to the sort of changes necessary to solve our climate crisis, even on a local level, will take work, conversation and support.
Again, this is what makes Chronic Catastrophe so valuable. It sheds light on our shared grief. Not in a voyeuristic manner, but in such a way as to help us see better what we are up against, and to foster a sense of community as we work to resolve it. Nick Vides, host of Episode 3, “Spirit,” said during our call:
“We have a new sense of duty as a community here in Sonoma County, because of the fires. We need to be more aware of our neighbors. Who may need help in an evacuation? Who has important prescriptions that we might need to help them grab so they can survive after evacuation? Who’s on oxygen, who has a broken leg, who doesn’t have a car? You have to start making sure that your block is safe, because that’s a part of your family as well. A lot of people will say that good fences make good neighbors, but in Sonoma County, that’s not true. You’ve got to create a community, because not everyone knows how to turn off a gas line. Not everyone knows where the spare key is. And if we don’t know how to help each other, if we don’t foster community, then what are we doing here?”
These are the kind of community-oriented, nationally applicable practices we need in 2021 and beyond. Localizing is a tactic any community can adopt, and it directly informs not only our sense of connection through calamity, but our sense of capacity and capability. When we think of our circumstances in local, measurable doses, we’re empowered to effect change and establish support systems. Chronic Catastrophe provides the same sense of hope I felt in covering the Cool Cities Challenge in Petaluma—a $1 million initiative granted to Petaluma to establish carbon neutrality by 2030 using a community-based system called Cool Blocks. Learn all about this immensely hopeful initiative at www.coolpetaluma.org.
Initiatives like this represent honest, earnest change, from the inside out—not in lieu of, but in tandem with, efforts made by our national and international governments. They are the result of grassroots efforts by the community we call home, by us, the community members.
To this end, I want to close by expressing immense gratitude on behalf of Bell, Camacho, Spates and Vides to Santa Rosa Junior College, for its astounding support of academic, personal and professional development to students of all ages and circumstances. Without the unwavering stewardship and dedication of Anne Belden and the Department of Journalism, Chronic Catastrophe would not have been possible. I asked each of the four journalists how it felt to be picked up by NPR, and all of them responded with some version of “surreal, and beyond validating.” Each one of these students, individuals from our community, worked tirelessly, through multiple jobs, raising children and even contracting Covid, to collect, script and edit this series, which not only makes us proud as a community—it provides us with hope. Thank you Rebecca Bell, Maritza Camacho, Lauren Spates and Nick Vides, and thank you Santa Rosa Junior College.