“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Those words were written by Samuel Johnson about the sentencing of an American clergyman, William Dodd. Exactly 245 years later (as of Sept. 19), they could–or should!–apply to anyone witnessing the twin ravages of Fiona and Ian, which between them tore up tens of billions of dollars in real estate, immiserated countless thousands and claimed an as-yet unmeasured loss of life. If contemplating such destruction doesn’t concentrate the collective mind, we are indeed doomed.
At this writing, the full extent of the devastation in Florida is still unknown, and the swamping of huge swaths of the southeast is just beginning. But the forlorn reports have started trickling in: “The Peace River is still rising!” announced a Facebook post from the Peace River Campground this morning. “If you had ANYTHING on the property, it’s UNDER WATER and not accessible. . . .The water is to the ceiling in the office. . . . We tried pulling campers to higher ground but the river was just too high. It’s catastrophic devastation.”
The Frog Creek RV Resort reported that it has no electricity and no certainty of when it will. “We have power lines down. Our staff is working hard to clean up the debris. Currently park is closed.” The San Carlos RV Park, meanwhile, said it had “sustained massive damage,” adding: “Our computers and records are inaccessible at this time. If you had reservations obviously that won’t happen. We will be working to refund deposits as soon as humanly possible, but please understand the immense task in front of us.”
Those and similar stories will be repeated dozens of times in the next few days, which is tragic enough. But the bigger tragedy is that they’ll be repeated next year, and the year after that–just as they were last year, and the year before that. And it’s not just hurricanes and subsequent flooding that will be the cause, or just RV parks and campgrounds along the Gulf Coast or the eastern seaboard that will be affected. Tragedy can be caused by too much water, but also by too little.
So it is that the National Interagency Fire Center announced today that 12 new large fires were reported yesterday alone, eight in Idaho and one each in Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington. Idaho and Montana currently have the most large fires, 59, out of 88 total across the West. To date, 6.9 million acres of U.S. land have burned in 2022, forcing thousands of evacuations and causing more than $11.2 billion in damage, according to Bankrate, an insurance website–and fire season isn’t nearly over.
Hurricanes become stronger and more frequent as ocean water gets warmer, while warmer air holds more moisture, resulting in heavier rainfall. But the same warming climate that pumps too much moisture into one part of the country is baking it out of another, causing widespread–and growing–aridification of all the states from the Central Plains west to the Pacific. The resulting tinderbox makes “enjoying the outdoors” ever more of a gamble, threatening the viability not just of camping but of fishing, as streams dry out and lakes shrink; wine making, as wildfire smoke contaminates grapes and bark beetles start killing off drought-stressed conifers and now oak trees in wine country; and farming and ranching. (As just one example of the latter, 39% of respondents to an August survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation said that wildfires have contributed to crop losses and herd sell-offs in their area in 2022.)
All of the above suggests a screaming need to reevaluate our relationship to the Great Outdoors–to “concentrate the mind wonderfully” on the hard questions reality is demanding we confront. Instead, the reflexive response, as already articulated by the Florida RV Park and Campground Association, is to pull together and rebuild and show some grit. “Our park owners and operators are some of the best people in the world,” association president Bobby Cornwell assured his members in an email today. “I have no doubt the industry will rally together and support all those in need.” Southwest Florida “will, without a doubt, be rebuilt and will be paradise once again.”
But doing more of the same, if spunky and admirable in a fatalistic sort of way, avoids the even harder work of figuring out how to avoid a repeat. It doesn’t engage the mind at all, much less concentrate it. Doing more of the same only assures an endless Groundhog Day-cycle of rebuilding and devastation and rebuilding again, until there’s no energy or money or hope left.
Poetically, both KOA and the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds will be holding their annual conventions in Orlando in November–long enough from now for a lot of the clean-up to be done, soon enough that the scars left by Ian will be inescapable. Both meetings would be ideal opportunities to examine what just happened, what is happening elsewhere in the country because of climate change, and how the campground industry could better respond to this existential threat. Ideal–but don’t count on it. That would require too much concentration.
William Dodd, it’s also worth remembering, was hanged.