Illustration by Hannah Robinson
One could not help but feel harangued by the media craze that ensued during days of forest fires spreading through the southern swath of the Amazon. Facebook and Twitter feeds were consumed by pictures of fires ravaging the rainforest. Everyone and their cousin shared heart-wrenching pictures of baby orangutans desperately clutching their mothers with fear-stricken faces (a species not found in Brazil). Popular news outlets added to the hysteria. “[Earth’s] lungs are on fire” claimed the BBC. “Amazon rainforest fires burning at a record rate” said CNN. The Guardian came in on cue with “Amazon rainforest fires: an environmental catastrophe.”
Shock quickly turned to condemnation from celebrities, politicians, and eco-activists. Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio were amongst the A-list celebrities to share pictures of smoke covered rainforest on their social media accounts, receiving tens of thousands of shares. “The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen”, tweeted football star Cristiano Ronaldo. CNN was one of many to report the same statistic. DiCaprio posted multiple pictures to his Instagram with captions such as “Without the Amazon, we cannot keep the Earth’s warming in check.”
The issue caught the attention of French President Emmanuel Macron, who, amid hosting the annual G7 summit, took the opportunity to voice his concern. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Macron joined the mainstream media in casting the blame on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Having garnered a reputation as a right-wing politician and outspoken capitalist, Bolsonaro became an obvious target. Since taking to office, the Brazilian leader has worked to implement the pro-business policies that helped win his presidential election. These policies have led to loosening regulation on the amount of legal deforestation in the Rainforest. As a result, intentional burning has increased as much as 84% since 2018.
Macron took swift action in jumping on the bandwagon, stating that if Bolsonaro continues to allow the fires to spread, France will oppose the EU-Mercosur trade deal – 20 years in the making.
Few can deny that the sight of lost-looking orangutans against a backdrop of burning habitat can pull at the heartstrings and that ‘environmental catastrophe’ splashed across the pages of a newspaper is enough to make anyone chip in a few to Greenpeace. But it became apparent during the first few days of media coverage that the only thing spreading faster than the fires was misinformation.
According to Dan Nepstad, a leading expert on the Amazon rainforest and lead author of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the claim that the Amazon is the “lungs of the Earth” and “responsible for producing 20% of the World’s oxygen” is, “bullshit”. “There’s no science behind that”, he said, according to Forbes. Although the Amazon produces large amounts of oxygen, it uses that oxygen through respiration. There is little net production. And no evidence suggests that the current fires are “without precedence”. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. While the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 84% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago, Nepstad said.
Indeed, lax regulation in the Amazon is not unique to the Bolsonaro administration, or even this century. The worst cases of widespread fires occurred in 1998 and 2005 when deforestation coincided with regional droughts. Now under Bolsonaro, the government has allowed greater deforestation to boost agro-business activity in the region. The recent bout of fires is comparatively mild to pre-2010. Fires in Amazonia are by no means a new phenomenon.
Does this mean that the crisis in the Amazon is worth ignoring? Definitely not. Being an enormous hub of biodiversity and a vast source of life, immediate efforts must be made to combat unnecessary destruction of the forest. But the means by which we express our outrage and disseminate our fears need not be tainted by blind reactionism. What we have seen in the wake of the Amazon fires is vacuous politics that serves little more than a click-bait agenda.
The reaction generation is not out to save the planet, nor engage in a common-sense discussion to that effect. Instead, their interest is purely in signalling their empty bandwagon ideology to the rest of the eco-woke generation. If we fall victim to the apocalyptic rhetoric that has blighted the coverage of the fires, if we perpetuate vapid reactionism, we ignore the real issues and in turn, the real solutions.
If we intend to get serious about conservation in Amazonia, we need to have discussions on encouraging Brazilian industry that does not rely on natural resources taken from the rainforest. We need to promote trade deals that will boost Brazil’s economy and end their reliance on agriculture – the very kind President Macron is threatening to terminate. We must begin discussions on alternative development models for the millions of people living in Amazonia. If we’re going to conserve the planet we claim to care for, we need far less reactionism and a little more common sense.