Alex Taranto

When I walked outside of my house in Stockton, California on a late-August afternoon, it was 115 degrees outside. White flecks of ash swirled down from the sky and settled on all open surfaces. The smoke was toxically dense and turned the sun from a pure, blinding white to a deep, radiating scarlet. In case you didn’t know, California is burning. It’s been an apocalyptic summer for everyone, but the Golden State has officially reached the fiery gates of hell.  

I write to you from the breezy New York coast, but when the fires began, I was back home in the Central Valley of California and fire surrounded us on all sides. But this was only the icing on top of our end-of-the-world-cake. Before the fires hit, California was already facing a record-breaking drought, heat waves, and rolling blackouts (AKA, large energy companies turning off air conditioning). Not to mention the ever-present backdrop of a global pandemic and a national racial reckoning. 

California’s apocalypse has been a long time coming. Our rate of warming has been three times greater than the global average. The rising temperatures are a direct cause of heat waves and droughts. Studies have also shown that with every degree the temperature rises, the drying effects are exponential, leaving endless agricultural fields parched and primed to be burned. Many fires have also been caused by lighting strikes, which also increase with a warming climate. According to a U.C. Berkeley study, every 1.8 degree change in temperature increases lightning strikes by 12%. The culmination of these effects has resulted in the 10 largest fires on record in California occurring in the past 20 years, according to The New York Times. 

The rolling blackouts have also been a direct product of unsustainable energy demands. When people run their air conditioning during heat waves, California’s energy grid is pushed to a breaking point. This creates dangerous living conditions for people at risk of heat stroke. A quick Google search makes it crystal-clear that California’s many crises are highly connected to climate change. A second search will reveal rising temperatures are a result of the exacerbation of natural resources, burning of fossil fuels, and factory farming — all of which trade human lives for profit. 

Climate change is not the only crisis of the summer perpetuated by capitalism. The worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would have been avoided if countries decided to shut down their economies sooner and more decisively. Racist police play a major role in the prison-industrial complex. Our economy wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for slave labor that has led to the racialized caste system we are still fighting to dismantle. 

Despite what you may be thinking, I’m not a Marxist. I am a fan of freedom and capitalism — to a certain and albeit rather large degree — which have famously given us affordable moving vehicles, new medicines, and seven pairs of underwear a week. But we are seeing this system slowly kill us. And we aren’t doing anything about it. As we have learned this summer, knowledge partnered with inaction is the greatest hypocrisy. And all members of elite academic institutions are the greatest hypocrites. 

We love to cite Yale’s growing rates of POC, LGBTQ+, and FGLI admits, their generous financial aid packages or their groundbreaking COVID saliva test. However, these citations grossly undermine the ways in which Yale still perpetuates cycles of privilege and complicity in a broken system. The fact of the matter is that Yale is an elite institution that, according to Time Magazine, enrolls more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%. Yale is a corporation that denies the New Haven community $150 million in property taxes through legal loopholes. It is where wealthy people recruit armies of nerds to optimize the algorithms that allow capital to build on itself — a self-perpetuating, exponential process. No matter how you spin it, Yale and other elite universities are centuries-old tools of the bourgeoisie that have a tight grip on resources, capital, and political structures of our world. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am no exception to this hypocrisy. While California burned, while my siblings inhaled dangerous amounts of smoke, while my Grandma’s power shut off, I flew high above the fires to a coastal town. Here, the air is clean. Here, the power stays on. Here, I go back to school to network so that I can land a triple-digit salary out of undergrad. Oh, was I supposed to say go back to school to take classes and learn? Sometimes the lines get blurred when you’re born into a system built on the axiomatic principle of self-interest. 

The only reason I am writing this article now is that I watched ash fall from the sky. Because we have let things get so bad that the elite bubble of protection Yale and my middle-class life have provided is starting to deteriorate. People have been displaced and dying for years, yet my sense of urgency has only arisen since we were sent home, we couldn’t party, or go to our internship in New York. Once again, I AM the problem. And most likely, so are you. Even now many of us can still escape to the shelter of Yale’s gothic dorms, an off-campus apartment, or second home. But this summer should’ve shown us all that this escape won’t last long. 

We are used to hearing that we are the next leaders, the next innovators, the next big thinkers. I like to believe this is true. But with this responsibility comes the biggest choice of our lives. We can turn this ship around or become the illustrious captains that lead the world straight into the sun. Yes, we will have to give some things up. We have to give up that internship at Morgan Stanley to work for a climate non-profit. We have to give up our dreams to own a penthouse in New York City and start dreaming about owning an apartment in DC so that we can wake up every morning and give our legislators a piece of our mind — or become legislators ourselves. We have to give up this climb to the top of a sinking ship and start bailing it out from the bottom. It will be messy. It will be dirty. It will be grimy. But it is our moral imperative to do so. 

Maya Weldon-Lagrimas | maya.weldon-lagrimas@yale.edu