Gadgets for the Climate Hellscape

What will climate adaptation look like? A million individual products, each precisely targeted on social media to the intersection of a consumer culture and a catastrophe.

Smoke from the Woolsey Fire as seen from Santa Monica, California. (Reuters/Gene Blevins)

As the red sun hung in the smoke-filled air outside, as the exhaust from the Camp Fire swept over the Bay Area, I was inside, looking at my phone, like everyone else. I was dying to go running, but the air quality index numbers, and my own eyes and lungs, told me that I shouldn’t. So I was scrolling Instagram when it served me an ad for Vent Performance Filtration Breathing Trainer, from the company Training Mask—tagline: “Breathe Free, Breathe Strong.”

The mask looks like a cross between an S&M accessory and military kit, technical meets Mortal Kombat. The ad for it explicitly linked the wildfires with working out; It could save my lungs from the global warming-induced, record-setting California fire season—and in “performance filtration mode,” it could train my respiratory muscles at the same time. It’s personal environmental gear with a fitspo bonus, the perfect gadget for the climate hellscape.

A screenshot from the Facebook version of the Training Mask California fire advertisement (Facebook)

Because scientists and insurance companies agree: The fires have been historically bad, but it’s gonna get worse. Even before the Camp Fire became the most destructive wildfire fire in California history, gutting more than 7,000 structures so far, my colleague Rob Meyer reported on the recent catastrophic fire seasons.“The worst wildfires—and the hottest summers, and the worst floods—are yet to come. And the only technologically proven way to keep them at bay is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions,” Meyer wrote.

Climate change has been described  as “a classic collective action problem in response to overexploitation of a global commons” — the commons, in this case, being the atmosphere’s capacity to buffer the huge amounts of carbon dioxide that human beings are sending into the sky. The world’s nations have struggled to agree on how to fairly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, coming up with agreements that don’t match the scale of the problem.

At the same time, climate change has often been framed as a global problem, one that can only be solved by global action. The charismatic mascot of climate change is the polar bear, an animal that the vast majority of residents of earth will never encounter. Individual people experience the effects of climate change within their local communities. “Climate and its changes might not only be observed in relation to landscape but also felt, sensed, apprehended emotionally, passing noticed and unnoticed as part of the fabric of everyday life in which acceptance, denial, resignation and action co-exist,” wrote geographers Catherine Brace and Hilary Geoghegan of the University of Exeter.

Anthropologists have begun to study how climate change weaves into the “fabric of everyday life” in different places. In Jinja, Uganda, a town experiencing environmental and economic decline, shifting weather patterns were seen as another sign that “everything is becoming worse.” A multinational set of students in Melbourne adopted a variety of strategies for staying cool in the city’s extreme heat. People living in smaller islands in Micronesia can draw on centuries-old links with larger islands to escape rising seas. In Guyana, local and expert knowledge clashed and hybridized in the creation of a protective mangrove forest, a climate variation on a international development pattern.

Here in California, in the wealthy tech-heavy region of the Bay, the fires offer a glimpse of an emerging form of disaster capitalism. Climate adaptation could look like a million individual products, each precisely targeted on social media to the intersection of a consumer culture and a catastrophe. As the environment weirds, people can reinterpret the problem as a personal, consumer one: “What do I need to survive the biosphere today?”

For the wildfire smoke, there’s the panoply of masks, from the Training Mask tapering down to simple paper masks, which don’t work, but make you feel like you’re doing something. There are air purifiers for clearing the particulate matter that leaks into the house. There is already a private network of air sensors run by the company Purple: “A proven air quality monitoring solution for home enthusiasts and air quality professionals alike.” Home enthusiasts.

There is evidence that CO2-enriched air reduces human cognitive functioning. So we have personal CO2 scrubbers that could be marketed to the entrepreneur looking to get an edge, or that student trying to ace the ACT.

For the floods, there's a personal inflatable life vest and raft combination. It was designed for offshore workers, but could easily be sold as a solution for areas new way to make oneself resilient to flooding.

Cobham Systems

For the coming devastating heat, one could adapt Embr, a “personal thermostat” designed to help menopausal women.

This all sounds absurd of course, until you’re staring at a combo crossfit-wildfire ad on Instagram. The world of gadgets, the supply chains that brought us fidget spinners and hoverboards, will adapt, produce, and market for the coming climate catastrophes. The world isn’t going to grind to a halt. It will just become hard in new ways. Companies, then, will try to soften the edges of even the worst scenarios. There is a blog called The Prepper Gourmet, after all.

None of this will save the planet. But for most people—from Micronesia to San Francisco—they’re just trying to get through the day, adapting to climate change’s effects with whatever is to hand, or browsable by thumb.