On the Amazon fires – and on having the discussions that really matter

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September 13, 2019 by Cláudia

When I came across the news of the Amazon forest fires, I was barely moved. I saw it on my Facebook feed, briefly opened the article, skimmed through it and kept scrolling. Not because I am indifferent to ecological degradation, but because every single time I go online I see disturbing news about irreversible ecological damage, whether it is species extinction, temperature records or the loss of the first glacier in Iceland. Everything is connected and humankind has had such an irrational and destructive behaviour that it is only natural that ecosystems are reacting and transforming accordingly.

The media silence didn’t shock me either: a large part of the current ecocide is hidden and silenced, a result of corporate and governmental influence on the media. We only access the tip of the iceberg.

So I briefly read the article and put it aside. I had to go to work and focus on something else.

So why bring it up now? Because it became the most talked about environmental event of the year. This is only natural, since the Amazon rainforest has always been a symbol of untouched nature and the banner of ecological movements. Learning that the Amazon forest was burning (and that the fires were silenced!), triggered an enormous information campaign, that also came with great mobilization both online and offline, through protests, solidarity demonstrations and donations to NGOs.

This reinforced the power symbol that the Amazon forest still represents, and how unacceptable the mindless destruction of such pristine and ecologically diverse rainforest is for the the majority of people. It showed that the diversity that can be found in the Amazon forest has a value that transcends mere economic value and that there is a threshold that cannot be crossed without public outrage.

Even though the massive outrage that came out of this is promising, much of the discussion around this event hasn’t been exactly very productive. While it can be the pretext to discuss deeper problems, the reaction to it has often fallen under a very Western-centric, green-washed and capitalist world-view that has lead to the loss of some of its initial strength.

What happens is that ecocide is an extremely disturbing crime against nature, biodiversity, vulnerable population groups, future generations and ultimately, all of us. The uncomfortable truth that the world as we knew is being destroyed at a faster pace than ever and that there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it leads to a feeling of despair and powerlessness over our future. Faced with a future that we, as individuals, no longer have control over, and in an effort to mitigate this discomfort and despair, the instinct is to frame it in a way that is both tangible and that is within a thought system that we recognize and that we operate in.

When people share those overly simplistic 10 things you can do to help save the Amazon forest, there is no real strategy there to help the Amazon forest, as deforestation and ecocide greatly transcend individual action, but it does mitigate some of the despair and the feeling of powerlessness. By setting up goals that can be more or less easily integrated into everyday life, the powerlessness is, if partially, mitigated and a new sense of control is created. We can try to reduce paper and meat consumption and then we let the subject fade out, as we’re already “doing something” to tackle it.

But these fires are not single events, detached from everything else that is going on in the world, which is exactly why the news did not shock me at all. Learning about the Amazon fires did not shock me because the whole History of the Amazon forest is shocking. Industrial and agricultural activities, Brazil’s eagerness to ensure the ownership of the forest, thus leading to a destructive process of “colonisation”, and corporative terrorism on indigenous populations have been around for at least 60 years and the recent Amazon History has been tainted by the fall of trees and bloodshed.

Consequently, the Amazon forest is not burning down because of toilet paper use and beef meat. Those are in itself the consequences of a broader system that equates natural resources as economic value and that conceptualizes humankind as a consumer of natural resources (goods) that exist in nature (the provider).

It is thus important to see the deeper issues in order not to perpetuate and reinforce the actual actors that are the real cause of deforestation – industrial agriculture and livestock production, mining, governmental policies and, ultimately, our general attitude towards the environment as a provider of natural resources. We cannot blame one sole cause. As easy it is to blame Jair Bolsonaro for the deforestation in the Amazon forest, focusing solely on one actor is obfuscating all the system interactions that, together, set the foundation for environmental exploitation. While Bolsonaro is giving continuity to a self-destructive political behaviour, he is by no means the pioneer in the destruction of the Amazon forest.

We as individuals are victims to a broader system that creates the rules that operate the way we interact to each other and with the environment. Whenever we see news of mass destruction in the name of profit, our first core reaction of powerlessness, frustration and anxiety is the most reasonable reaction we can have when faced with a system that is leading us to an inhabitable planet.

Okay, so what to do?

I don’t know. What I do know is that we have to endure and sit with the discomfort of not having an obvious and easy solution. We need to identify false solutions, that we typically go for in order to feel like we are taking charge, then put our heads together and create a movement that is diverse and that can envision a future world that is beneficial for all.

It is this diversity that I would like to see in the climate justice movement. So far, the movement has been mostly dominated by white urban middle-class and educated young activists. But climate change and environmental degradation is going to affect everyone, even if some population groups more than others.

Indigenous communities have to be in the forefront of the movement, together with people with different backgrounds. This has been toyed with lately, but the its full potential has not yet been explored. For centuries, indigenous people have been victims of war and genocide, having their forests, rivers, homes and resources destroyed and stolen. While they are considered to be «underdeveloped», indigenous populations are the only ones who are truly recognizing this crisis as dire as it in fact is. They’re the ones who understand and feel on a deeper level how vulnerable humankind is and how deeply that vulnerability is tied to the ecosystems’ resilience. Indigenous people have cultivated both a spiritual and a practical relationship with nature that we, as «developed societies» have almost completely lost. We have nothing to teach them and everything to learn from them.

Not in every country are there indigenous populations, so we need to involve communities that have cultivated other types of deep connections with ecosystems, such as traditional rural communities. These are also one of the most affected communities by climate change, as their livelihood largely depends on agricultural production, which fluctuates according to the climate.

One thing that the movement may have in its favour is the simple fact that environmental degradation is going to be harmful for literally everyone, therefore it is in the best interest of almost everyone (except those few powerful who have interest in profiting from resource exploitation in a short-medium term) to try to reverse it. The environmental crisis reminds us that there are no «borders» that protect or isolate us. Destruction is coming to us all. We need to create a movement that faces the challenges ahead keeping this in mind.

I’ll soon(ish) be writing a more in depth article about what I think the climate justice movement should look like (link will be available here).

Leave a comment with what you think we need in order to have a chance at facing the future challenges.

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