The Amazon is burning, have you heard? Have you seen the photos of that rainforest we baked cookies for falling to ash? The videos of that place we tried to save by dropping our loose change into a box at the cash register at Timmy’s? Every acre counts, remember? Has anyone checked on the whales?
The one benefit to the presence of flames and smoke is that there seems to be a general consensus that these fires are indeed happening. That basic agreement still evades the climate change issue (just last week U.S. President Donald Trump skipped out on a G7 talk on the subject) but what this event is showing is that even agreeing about the occurrence of something hardly means we can do anything about it. For starters, the photographic and video evidence. We’ve been spending sometime debunking fake photos, fake videos, some which were tweeted out by world leaders and top-tier celebrities. Woah, let’s be careful about disinformation! Here’s a picture of the actual rainforest, actually now, actually on fire. Phew! Then, we had to contest climate change’s role in the fires. Actually, almost all the fires were being lit intentionally, mostly by farmers and ranchers taking advantage of the Brazilian government’s incredibly lax approach on deforestation. But, what about what this will do to change the climate. Sure, maybe these fires themselves weren’t caused by climate change, but actually, they’re going to cause even greater climate change. We even heard discussion of the vaunted ‘point of no return’, where the rainforest could no longer sustain itself, and within decades become nothing more than a savannah. Leaders of the West offered a pittance of aid, which at first was rejected by Brazil. The current President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has railed against foreign intervention, and claimed that the crisis is largely manufactured in an attempt to allow more powerful nations access to the Amazon. Some scientists pleaded for caution and condemned sensationalized and misleading media coverage, while others suggested that this is nothing short of a global climate emergency. Sadly, as so often the case, the rights of those indigenous to areas in the Amazon are relegated to an afterthought.
What we see here is not simply a crisis in the Amazon rainforest. But, it’s also more complicated than just explaining how important the rainforest is, and how increased deforestation will negatively impact the entire world. Instead, this is a crisis of overlapping crises. It is a worryingly perfect distillation of just how difficult it is to deal with our relatively new conception of global peril. The rise of the nation state has embedded varying notions of freedom, trade, politics, economics, security, and environmental stewardship. Sure, we have seen an increase in multilateral trade deals and bloc economics over the past few decades, but the problems shown in those only further underscore how much bigger our current crisis truly is. As the various crises created by modern international relations have evolved, so too has our information landscape, and with it an explosion of uncertainty about who can be trusted and what is real. Meanwhile, the overwhelming fear of environmental and economic ruin has gotten into the bloodstream of almost every body politic on the planet. Isolationism and xenophobia have moved squarely into the mainstream. People like Donald Trump preach this fear while ridiculing climate science. Others, like Joe Biden promise to help us stop worrying by bringing us back into the world which fostered the very conditions he’s currently running against.
It seems that most of us can agree that the Amazon rainforest is, at the least, important. Well then, what can be done? Who should control the territory? What rights do the global community have over the sovereign land of a nation? And, how easily could the supposed rights of the rest of the world bleed into an even greater global authoritarianism? Are we to trust Bolsonaro with guarding the health of the rainforest? Surely not. But, would you really want to give the reins to the G7? What are we actually talking about here?
The truth is that all of our institutions lack the scale, the scope, the credibility, and the authority to fix even these fires. Never mind the even greater environmental chaos to come. And when it does, (if it’s not already too late) the only hope would be a coming together of a myriad of powers and nations and authorities and experts working in concert toward the goal of saving the world. But, what would that mean? How would we determine who needed to sacrifice what, who needed to pay how much? Our system is simply not built to deal with problems like climate change. Rather, its greatest strength seems to be the ability to bumble through a whole series of failings and suffering and somehow emerge still somewhat intact. But, there’s every chance that climate change will be its greatest challenge yet, one in which stumbling will not just leave us in some sort of mitigated disaster, but rather, disaster without mitigation. Who knows what it will look like, but pictures of any fire of any forest from any time, would be as good a guess as any. V