Why it is important to label lies as lies when it comes to the future of the planet.
Your social media feed in the past few weeks has probably been very similar to mine and to everyone else’s in the country, and you might even have taken part in this trend.
Everyone and their nan are sharing how saddened they are by the wildfires taking over the amazon and how much of a disgrace it is that no-one is doing anything about it, while billionaires were quick to respond then when Notre Dame burnt to the ground.
But what irritates me the most are tweets like these:
AMAZON ABLAZE: The Amazon Rainforest is seeing a record number of wildfires this year, threatening widespread deforestation with potentially devastating consequences for the native species and peoples that call the region home. https://t.co/KEsRdf72Y8 pic.twitter.com/cTVp6UkAJ2
— ABC News (@ABC) August 22, 2019
Large swathes of the Amazon rainforest are burning.
There have been more than 72,000 fire outbreaks in Brazil so far this year pic.twitter.com/sd2jeVcoU0
— The Guardian (@guardian) August 22, 2019
Fires are raging at a record rate in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, and scientists warn that it could strike a devastating blow to the fight against climate change https://t.co/5pWUZKjVWi
— CNN (@CNN) August 25, 2019
“The Amazon region is burning!”
The largest rainforest in the world, vital in the fight against global warming, home to one million indigenous people and millions of plants and animals
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) August 22, 2019
Mostly the reason I don’t like these tweets has to do with the fact that there is just too much reality to consume these days that it is hard to be aware of everything in the nuanced way it deserves, so we end up with fragmented truth making their way into our brains.
But if there is a time you should stop and look at the nuances it is now, because you know, the future of the planet is at stake.
So, why is it that I don’t like these tweets? Here in the UK and in most of the Western world, when we hear news of wildfires it is usually an accident. Sometimes wildfires are even good because they are a natural part of our ecosystem. And when sometimes fires are caused on purpose it was by criminals who the government is trying to catch.
But in the Amazon forest, fire is not a natural part of the ecosystem. And because of that, many trees in the rainforest can’t survive what we here would consider a trivial burn.
These fires are not natural – they are intentional. But not intentional like it is arson. They are intentional because that land is more economically productive when people graze cattle on it than when it is the rainforest.
That is why headlines shouldn’t be “Large swathes of the amazon are burning,” they should be “Large swathes of the amazon are being burnt.”
You might have heard people say that sometimes in the dry season – which we are in right now – there are natural wildfires in the amazon, which is true. And it is also true that the number of natural wildfires appears to be increasing. Because here is the thing about the rainforest; it doesn’t just thrive on rain, it makes rain. And when there is less of it, less rain falls and more fires can spread.
Though that doesn’t explain the massive increase in the number of fires we have seen in 2019. It’s not hotter than normal and it’s not dryer than normal. The thing that changed in Brazil this year is who the president is.
In the eight months since he has been in power, Bolsonaro, who was elected with strong support from agribusiness and mining interests, has moved rapidly to erode government agencies responsible for forest protection. He has given green light to illegal land invasion, logging and burning.
He has weakened the environment agency and effectively put it under the supervision of the agricultural ministry, which is headed by the leader of the farming lobby. His foreign minister has dismissed climate science as part of a global Marxist plot. The president and other ministers have criticised the forest monitoring agency, Ibama, for imposing fines on illegal land grabbers and loggers. The government has also moved to weaken protections for nature reserves, indigenous territories and zones of sustainable production by forest peoples and invited businesspeople to register land counter-claims within those areas.
This has emboldened those who want to invade the forest, clear it and claim it for commercial purposes, mostly in the speculative expectation it will rise in value, but also partly for cattle pastures, soya fields and mines.
Earlier last month he fired the head of Brazil’s national space and research institute after he defended data that showed deforestation had grown 40%in the last year. Ricardo Galvão had accused the far-right president of “cowardice” for questioning the institute’s data. Mr Bolsonaro says the institute was smearing Brazil’s reputation and trying to undermine the government.
Bolsonaro says that figure is wrong, and that deforestation is down – that’s a lie. When asked why there are so many fires this year Bolsonaro said that maybe environmental organisations are setting them to make him look bad – that is also a lie.
Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has surged above three football fields a minute, according to the latest government data, pushing the world’s biggest rainforest closer to a tipping point beyond which it cannot recover.
But it isn’t just pure malice and love of destruction that drives Bolsonaro. He is not a comic book villain. There is an ideology here.
There is the economic side of this belief is that there is just a lot of value in the rainforest and that no-one is making any money off of it if it’s just being rainforest. So, to fuel your economic interest, you encourage legal logging and farming, you reduce inspections, reduce regulations, and you ignore illegal land grabs where forest is slashed and burnt and then seeded with grass and sold to ranchers.
Most of the good that the Amazon does is for everyone; it produces oxygen for everyone it traps CO2 for everyone, it preserves biodiversity for the whole world. But Brazil isn’t getting paid for any of that. Far-right perspectives, ultra-nationalists perspectives (if not straight up fascist) don’t really allow for stuff that helps everyone. It goes against the ideology that the nation is for the nation only.
Yet the fact that the rest of the world cares so much about the Amazon rainforest, isn’t perceived as a reason to protect it, it’s perceived by these people as a threat. It’s a claim on their sovereignty. It’s thought of it as internationalisation.
During a recent G20 meeting, Bolsonaro told the German chancellor Angela Merkel that she had no right to criticise because Brazil’s conservation record was superior to that of Europe’s.
He accuses outsiders of using environmental dogma as a pretext to keep Brazil poor. “The Amazon is ours,” the president thundered recently. What happens in the Brazilian Amazon, he thinks, is Brazil’s business.
After all, legitimately, what right do we as Europeans, have to tell Brazil what to do with its rainforest? We have literally deforested everything we can.
Our interest in protecting the Amazon actually becomes a reason for some people to want to destroy it. If you live in a world where everything is a zero-sum game why should anyone benefit from our property?
There is also the reality that the Amazon is not as we imagine it, empty. There are many indigenous people and other people who live and work in the forest and who rely on the forest for their livelihood. But often those people are not seen as real Brazilians by these nationalists.
But if the Amazon rainforest was 100% pasture-land and soy-beans, that would not just be a disaster for the whole World, it would be even more of a disaster for Brazil itself.
See how much hotter it is in Northern Africa?
That is actually farther away from the Equator compared to Brazil. Brazil receives more solar energy than Saudi Arabia but because of the rainforest, it is much cooler.
Because the rainforest makes rain, if there is less of it is clear that it would be hotter and dryer and these manmade fires – or even natural ones – will spread on their own, leading to a feedback loop that could end the Amazon.
Seventy percent of the GDP of South America is made in places where Amazon rain falls. Even in the American Midwest, much of the rain that falls there comes from the Amazon rainforest. And when we are talking about rain falling, really what we are referring to is agriculture. We are talking about food – billions eat that rain. Brazilian agriculture may be deforestation’s biggest victim.
There has been a lot of talk about tipping points recently, but it is important to note that there are always many tipping points along the path to something being completely destroyed.
That’s why we have science to warn us, so we can take action, and why we have human rights to protect people. But it is too easy to deny stuff like this when you have more of an allegiance to your ideology than you do to the truth.
It’s why we need to call a lie a lie, no matter who says and it’s why we need to say that the rainforest is not burning – it is being burnt.