Miriam Schulman is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
In all the coverage of California’s raging wildfires, one comment by an ordinary American really stood out to me. Nichole Jolly, a surgical nurse who almost didn’t make it out alive, told the Washington Post:
People were making sure no one was left behind. Strangers helping strangers. We might be a divided country, but it didn’t matter that day. Black, white, Democrat, Republican; none of that mattered. People just helped one another, and it was amazing to see.
I am not naïve. I know we have a president who is blaming the disaster on state mismanagement, and I read the response of Governor Jerry Brown’s spokesman: “Our focus is on the Californians impacted by these fires… not on the president’s inane, uninformed tweets.”
We have conservatives and progressives arguing about the role that human activity plays in the climate change that is accelerating the problem (or even about whether climate change exists). Sometimes it seems as if the fires are just one more thing for our leaders to argue about.
But despite the fact that we are just emerging from contentious midterms, on the ground, where most of us live, people are reaching out to help one another. Brother and sister team Haley and Black Frisco of Morro Bay sold lemonade and donated their $100 profit to wildfire relief. A single telethon by Sacramento TV station KCRA raised $1.2 million from 5,899 donors.
Companies like Facebook are donating to disaster relief and matching employee gifts. United Airlines is giving free flights to first responders. Airbnb is accommodating relief workers and displaced victims free of charge through its Open Homes program.
Does this mean Americans are all ready to join hands and sing Kumbayah? Of course not. But these acts of kindness show that we know how to acknowledge our shared humanity, that we accept that we have obligations toward each other in times of need.
Could this not be the starting point for us to think about what else we share? Maybe we don’t all believe that humans are causing climate change and that climate change is causing wildfires. But aren’t there some solutions we can agree on because we agree that these megafires must be addressed. Maybe we join in a nonpartisan call for brush clearing or the creation of more firebreaks in high-fire-danger areas or more controlled burns.
I don’t know precisely where the common ground might be, but I do see in the compassionate responses of Americans of all stripes, the goodwill that could lead to action. Perhaps if we focus on that rather than the president’s most recent tweet, we can craft a response that will mitigate this terrifying threat.