Wild Fires and School Shootings

Nearly six years ago, I read an article on Wired.com that dramatically changed the way I think. It was regarding wildfires and how we fight them, and this particular passage struck me:

“Then, when you look at the last century, you see the climate getting warmer and drier, but until the last couple decades the amount of fire was really low. We’ve pushed fire in the opposite direction you’d expect from climate,” [Yale University pyrogeographer Jennifer] Marlon said.

In other words, nature was already adapting to keep fires minimal, but then we in our all-knowing wisdom intervened, thinking we had to prevent fires to save ourselves.

Instead, through our very actions, we caused what we sought to eliminate.

Reading the beginning of the article, specifically about wildfires, allows an easy segue into where this article applies now:

THE VAST WILDFIRES of this summer and last represent a new normal for the western United States. They may signal a radical landscape transformation, one that will make the 21st century West an ecological frontier.

Unlike fires that have occurred regularly for thousands of years, these fires are so big and so intense as to create discontinuities in natural cycles. In the aftermath, existing forests may not return. New ecosystems will take their place.

“These transitions could be massive. They represent the convergence of several different forces,” said Donald Falk, a fire ecologist at the University of Arizona. “There is a tremendous amount of energy on the landscape that historically would not have been there. These are nuclear amounts of energy.”

We could reword this in the following manner, and it would be equally true:

THE LARGE AMOUNT OF GUN VIOLENCE IN THE US of the last 25 years represent a new normal for the United States. They may signal a radical landscape transformation, one that will make the 21st century a sociological frontier.

Unlike violence that has occurred regularly for thousands of years, this violence is so big and so intense as to create discontinuities in natural cycles. In the aftermath, existing institutions may not be able to cope. New cultures will take their place.

“These transitions could be massive. They represent the convergence of several different forces. There is a tremendous amount of energy on the landscape that historically would not have been there. These are nuclear amounts of energy.”

Just as Dr. Marlon said above in relation to wildfires in the west, 25 years ago in particular the US undertook a mission to make our society safer – but we have achieved exactly the opposite results of what we expected.

There are many people with many theories as to why this is, and there are certainly, as Dr. Falk says, “several different forces” at play. But I have arrived at one that I think lies at the root of it, and I think that be correcting our course on this one issue, we may be able to correct our course overall and arrive at our desired, safer, destination.

What is that one issue?

Zero tolerance policies in schools.

I remember as an elementary school kid in the late 80s and early 90s – just before Zero Tolerance kicked in during my 6th grade year – that getting in fights was settled with either the teacher or the Principal, and usually resulted in nothing more than a stern lecture and maybe after school detention. But it also, critically, allowed the small fire to flash over and dissipate.

With the advent of Zero Tolerance in particular, all of a sudden even looking at another person wrong could result in expulsion from school or at minimum a stay at in school suspension for a few days. Fighting became guaranteed expulsion and likely criminal charges, no matter how young the kids in question were and no matter who the actual aggressor was. Now, we have actively and aggressively suppressed the small fires.

But this allows the weeds and brushes of small angers and resentments to build. Angers and resentments that even a few years prior were allowed to flash over as a small fire all of a sudden became… Jonesboro. Paducah. Columbine. And more and more others. School shootings where kids were bringing guns to schools specifically to inflict as much damage as possible, in an attempt to handle their own anger and pain.

This has only continued to build over the last 25 years, as people who were in school then and since have continued to have these grievances actively, aggressively suppressed and are taught to hold them in no matter what. And now we are to the point where these shootings are barely even news unless more than a handful are killed. Where once any attack was national level news, even ones where hardly anyone was hurt – much less killed -, we now have attacks barely make waves in the local media when similar numbers are attacked.

At the time Zero Tolerance was implemented, the 24/7 news cycle was in its infancy. The Internet – the very platform you are reading this very article on – was just beginning to come online in a big way for the average consumer. We had no way of knowing what the 24/7 news cycle, political punditry, and in particular the rise of social media and other instant communications would allow. We had no idea that allowing those small fires to flash over quickly was about to become paramount, instead seeing them as something that needed to be suppressed at all costs.

Well, now we know more exactly what those costs are – and I for one do not believe them worth it. Return us to the era where fist fighting was not encouraged, but was understood. Return us to an era where the small fires were allowed to flash over in order to prevent the widespread devastation of the wildland fire.

Will repealing Zero Tolerance restore all that we have lost over the last 25 years? Not in the short term. But maybe, just maybe, 25 years from now we will see that it did indeed patch the dam long enough for our other institutions to repair themselves and solve that problem for good.