Let’s start with some good news for once. John Vaillant, the Vancouver-based author of the best-selling The Golden Spruce, says mankind is not on the precipice of extinction.
Yes, his latest book Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast explores the changing nature of wildfires in the 21st century, and how man-made climate change has accelerated their frequency. But having spent the better part of a decade researching the nature of fire, our reliance on petroleum, and the existential quandary those relationships have placed humanity in, Vaillant still sees in humans a determination to solve the problem. He even writes it, at the very end of Fire Weather, in describing the emergence of three amaryllis flowers pushing through the ash in the aftermath of the 2018 fire tornado in Redding, California.
In those three little buds, he sees a symbol for human perseverance. “Life will persist,” he writes. “And so will we.”
Now, sitting on a patio in Kitsilano, over a cup of coffee on a breezy summer day, Vaillant says that persistence won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be spotty, to say the least,” he admits. “But I absolutely do have hope.”
True momentum toward a sustainable future is underway. Vaillant acknowledges that the ocean has warmed beyond repair and that there’s no fixing it in our lifetime. And then there are the wildfires, the extremity and severity with which they’re affecting society becoming more and more frequent. The work that’s being done, and that he believes will accelerate over the coming decades, will be about maintaining what we have—and mitigating future damage along the way.
“These are stones in the river, and you flow around,” he says. “The river is going. Danielle Smith can institute any moratorium on renewable energy she wants to—it will not stop.”
Calling out Alberta’s ultra-conservative, climate-change-denying premier is on point, given that Fire Weather details the catastrophic 2016 wildfire that destroyed much of Fort McMurray—Canada’s petroleum capital—and forced the evacuation of all its citizens. In typical Vaillant fashion, the book also explores in breathtaking (and occasionally extremely uncomfortable) detail mankind’s willful destruction of nature in our attempts to dominate and profit from it.
Fire Weather also digs into the petroleum industry generally, and how it built Fort McMurray and Alberta’s economy and population over the past century. It forces us to see how the industry has become inextricably linked to our current climate predicament—particularly the increase in wildfires and wildfire-related deaths.
“I’m going to say this to everyone who will listen to me,” Vaillant says. “If you want to understand the petroleum industry, the energy industry, remember why we’re interested in these substances—whether it’s coal, oil or gas, or bitumen. The only reason we go to the trouble that we go to get it out of the ground, to get it out from under the ocean, is because it burns.
“It’s not an energy industry, it’s not the oil and gas industry. It’s the fire industry,” he continues. “And if you are burning fire, you’re creating CO2. So, the petroleum industry is the fire industry, the CO2 industry, and we have to connect those dots. It’s a no-brainer; it’s not rocket science. That’s the nice thing about climate science: it really isn’t rocket science. When you heat things up, they tend to dry out—and drier things burn better than wet things. It’s super simple. It really is. You could literally explain it to a five-year-old.”
Vaillant was out of the country when the Fort McMurray wildfire hit the news, and like most Canadians, he was stunned and terrified. He read reports of people evacuating and watched social media videos of residents fleeing through burning terrain and thick smoke.
Beyond being a concerned citizen, though, there was something that piqued his journalistic interest.
“The fire kept going and I thought, ‘Wow, where’s the end of this?’” he says. “That’s not the way most cities burn.’ ”
Most cities burn quickly and then it’s over. But the Fort Mac fire was unique in that it kept coming back, in what was eventually called a siege event. Vaillant understood right away that this wasn’t a 20th-century fire. It was something new: 21st-century fire, wholly unique to mankind’s current predicament.
The tragic irony of the situation—Canada’s petro capital ravaged by uncontrollable wildfire, a symptom of a changed climate the city’s industry helped to create—was too potent for him to pass up.
Vaillant’s non-fiction work tends to explore man’s connection to nature—or rather, our tendency to assert dominance over it. His interest in oil began at age 13, when he discovered a photo essay called “Alaska Crude” about the Alaska pipeline. Originally from Cambridge, Mass., he hitchhiked to Alaska to see the pipeline, the ruggedness of the landscape, and the people firsthand. His plan, he says, was to “do oil.”
“I wanted the challenge and the intensity and also the extreme otherness from living in Cambridge, which was so lily-fingered—and that’s really who I am,” he says. “But I wanted to balance it out somehow. So, I ended up going to Bristol Bay and working in salmon fishing instead, because I was hitchhiking up there and the people said, ‘The boom’s over, there’s nothing happening there.’ It was a really depressed time for oil.”
Vaillant spent the rest of the 1980s exploring the US: road-tripping, camping, being young and careless and privileged enough at a time when gas was cheap, travel was easy, and a young white guy from New England could easily explore with few consequences.
“Being the age I am, class that I am, I am one of the consummate beneficiaries of the petroleum age,” he says. “I remember when you drove across the country, you did it as a lark; you did not even consider the price of gas because it was so cheap, and you certainly didn’t consider the climate. It’s like, ‘Is the car running? Right on, let’s go.’ Eighteen years old, no job. It didn’t matter. It was literally pocket change to drive 3,000 miles. And I loved it.”
Then, in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill ravaged the Alaskan coast. For Vaillant, it was the start of a mindset shift.
“That sobered a lot of young people back then, but not enough to change our behavior in any dramatic way,” he says. “But it put the oil companies on the radar in a way that they hadn’t been before.”
In 1998, Vaillant and his wife Nora moved to Vancouver and settled in Kitsilano. He connected with our city’s cleanliness, and forward-thinking population; it felt totally unlike anywhere else he’d visited in North America. He’d just started his career as a professional writer and had made inroads in the all-powerful New York publishing world, so moving to the West Coast of Canada felt like “committing professional suicide.”
“But part of the appeal of the profession is you can be mobile, and part of the appeal back then for me was travel,” he explains. “So, I was doing adventure-type stories, which involved me going all over the place—and I could go all over the place from anywhere. In that sense, the geography didn’t matter too much, and it ended up being an asset being out here.”
He says he likely wouldn’t have picked up on the story that would become The Golden Spruce had he not been based in Vancouver. Even if he had, he says that living in BC made it a true local book in which he could “marinate in the British Colombia-ness.”
“That’s part of what I think makes that book work,” he reflects. “It wasn’t a fly-in job—it was written by somebody who did some time and some repeat visits and had a chance to settle in.”
The Golden Spruce follows the story of a Sitka spruce tree located in Haida Gwaii that was venerated by the Haida people. It was gold in color due to genetic mutations, and was eventually felled by a forest engineer and environmentalist who was protesting against the forest industry’s wreckless practices. It’s a masterful work of environmental journalism, but beyond that, it’s a dissection of the human condition. It remains Vaillant’s most successful book to date.
Vaillant’s sitting in a lush, leafy neighborhood in Kitsilano. It’s been a few days since Lahaina’s unexpected wildfire. Kelowna’s wildfire is still a week away, and yet another one outside of Yellowknife is threatening that community, though the residents have yet to evacuate. Despite his years researching and writing Fire Weather, he says “it’s shocking every time” he sees an incident like Lahaina happen. If it can happen in Maui, it can most certainly happen in lush, leafy Kitsilano.
“In a way, the stage is set right here,” he says, gesturing to the large maple trees surrounding him, their canopies looming overhead. “That’s pretty disturbing. And Stanley Park—I don’t even want to think about it. But we better. The world is a lot more flammable than we’re used to it being, and we need to recalibrate our expectations and understanding of what fire is and what it can do. That’s what it’s telling us over and over again with each of these terrible fires.”
The final section of the book explores the origins of climate science. As early as 1890, scientists had theorized that our carbon emissions were creating a greenhouse effect on our atmosphere that could seriously warm the planet. In the 1950s, Gilbert Plass was sounding the alarm on this notion, but the scientific and political communities refused to listen (it was, after all, out of alignment with the post-war perspectives of limitless growth and unshakeable Western superiority).
“Dick Cheney famously said after 9/11, ‘The American way of life is non-negotiable.’ And I don’t think he was talking about democracy so much as he was just talking about our right to be and do and consume the way we want, where we want,” Vaillant says. “A lot of modern society has integrated that message. And consciously or unconsciously, there’s this sense that we can do and go wherever we please by whatever means we can afford to. So, if you can afford a jet, more power to you—and that’s not working.”
Vaillant also makes clear that Exxon—the largest petroleum company in the world for close to a century—knew about the science, and the perils, for as long as the scientists have.
“They are the high priests in the church telling you, ‘This is the virtuous way to go.’ And so, I think one way to understand the petroleum industry and the auto industry and its allies is to think of it like the Roman Catholic Church,” he says. “It has a mystique to it; it has incredible influence. It touches our lives in very intimate ways, metaphorically speaking: it’s marrying us, it’s baptizing us, it’s burying us. It’s occupying our days with rituals and special moments. And if you cross it, if you challenge it, if you question it, if you dare to consider sidelining it or reducing its authority, the backlash will be ferocious.”
The toll of writing this book—staring into the void, and the looming catastrophe that every single person on this planet is faced with—was considerable. Vaillant, who’s 61, says he didn’t have grey hair before he started writing it, but now has a headful of it. It was a “soul-searing” exercise, but ultimately one that he felt compelled to do as a way to confront something that terrified him. But he also felt an urgency, given the tight timeline, to explore and better understand mankind’s relationship with fire—ancient, primal, elemental, and, in some ways, codependent.
“We grew up together and we empowered each other, and we were each other’s wing creature, like a wingman, almost,” he shares. “But we’re also these drinking buddies urging each other on to some greater stunt or some more spectacularly outrageous feat. And we’ve served each other well in that regard. And this is the world we have as a result of those excesses. But it’s also the exuberance. There’s a natural exuberance that oxygen encourages. And I think it ties into capitalism, too. It’s not all venality and greed. It’s like, ‘Let’s see what this baby can do!’ That’s just the nature of life on Earth.”
We’re a cigarette butt and a windstorm away from catastrophe, sure, but one of the trends of popular current climate writing (and as a result, comments and responses to that writing) is a tendency toward the potential doom. What if, instead, we focused on the action, breakthroughs, and positive change (of which there is, currently, plenty)? Creativity is an essential ingredient to our survival—imagining a better, or at least more sustainable future for ourselves, and working towards that, rather than simply staring down oblivion.
Vaillant is as hip to that notion as anybody, and he doesn’t plan on staying in the Fire Weather zone forever. He says he’ll “lean on fire” for as long as people will listen to him, but that there’s more to saving the planet than that. And there’s more to write about than saving the planet.
“Eventually you’ve just got to let it [the idea] go,” he admits. “I think I’ll probably look for something else. I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I would like to write about something more hopeful and proactive.”