He who laughs hasn’t heard the news, Brecht wrote, probably in 1939. Eighty years later, the words could serve as the motto of the eco-tourist, to be pronounced in sardonic tones of knowing guilt. Having suppressed your flugsham (‘flying shame’) – the Swedish coinage alludes to the unconscionable quantities of carbon that each passenger on a long-distance flight is responsible for emitting – long enough to book travel to the brink of some remaining wilder-than-not spot of the globe, you are mercifully plunged out of wifi range among electricityless palm-thatched cabanas along a far-flung beach, or you trek through greenest jungle with your mobile reduced to a mere camera by your remoteness from cell towers. For a few days, you are forcibly freed from headlines and notifications, chyron and feed. Of course, the news, ecologically speaking, is bound to be bad, whatever it is, whenever you hear it, and mainly getting worse: ‘When new observations of the climate system have provided more or better data, or permitted us to re-evaluate old ones,’ the veteran environmental journalist Naomi Oreskes and colleagues reported in a recent Scientific American article called ‘Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change’, ‘the findings for ice extent, sea level rise and ocean temperature have generally been worse than earlier prevailing views.’ But off the grid, blissfully, the only news is of nowhere, and you can savour the illusion of being somewhere that a global ecological crisis hasn’t yet set down under the same dire sky as everywhere else.
One long weekend in mid-August, my partner and I, with the aid of a local guide and in the company of a dozen others, set out to hike up the steep, sodden slopes of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, with the object of reaching the so-called Ciudad Perdida or Lost City of Tayuna, a sort of petrified cascade of 169 stone terraces that spill and pool down from a cloud-concealed summit towards the thrashing jade of the Buritaca river. The Tayrona people founded their city around 800 ce and, planning for the long term as we capitalist tribespeople seem unable to do, went on building for another six centuries. Of their imposing complex of temples, residential dwellings and artisans’ workshops, which covered dozens of acres and housed a population of thousands, nothing remains besides circular or oval foundations, and a network of pathways and staircases hewn of the same slate-coloured sedimentary stone. Ever since modern tourism began, picturesque ruins have had a melancholy allure, but the memento mori which all ruined walls and bare foundations minerally intone rings today less like a philosophical truism (‘All things pass away’) than as a pointed warning. The Lost City of Tayuna seems to have been abandoned in the middle of the 17th century; Spanish troops failed to reach this fastness but the same was not true of smallpox. Tayuna had a run of approximately 850 years. Not bad. Raise your hand if you think our great new world cities will still be around after eight centuries. Please make sure to raise your hand above the water or flames, as the case requires.
On our return to civilisation, which is to say phone service, we learned that, during our time in the jungle, a vaster jungle – the vastest, the Amazon – had been burning, and that the scale of the destruction was generating international alarm. ‘Our house is burning. Literally,’ President Macron of France tweeted. He called for the G7 – a group of rich countries that does not include Brazil or any other Amazonian nation – to discuss the emergency at their upcoming summit. Recent estimates suggest as many as 2.5 million acres in Amazonian Brazil are in flames. (In Bolivia, as I write, another 1.8 million acres appear to be burning.) Because the Amazon forest withdraws far more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits (the annual net subtraction is around 300 million metric tons) and supplies the earth, as Macron noted, with much of its oxygen, a climate system already careering towards breakdown can ill afford the loss of the ‘ecological services’ – in the dry terminology of economists – that the Amazon has traditionally delivered. Already, over the past half-century, almost 20 per cent of the Amazon has been deforested, and scientists warn that the disappearance of another 5 to 20 per cent of the rainforest will push the ecosystem into a death spiral of compounding droughts, spelling the demise of the Amazon within decades. Take a deep breath, while you still can.
Ecologically, we know we are racing against an accelerating clock. We have only 12 years to establish a new energy system in order to avert the worst effects of climate change, climatologists told us more than a year ago – another year of panicked inanition, as if paralysis were a trick to stop time. More recently, other climate scientists have proposed a deadline of 18 months. (That was a few months ago: hope you enjoyed your holiday as much as I did mine.) To see the Amazon burn before our screen-bewitched eyes, in grainy digital videos, is to experience the quickening pace of doom as it steps up the pace another notch.
Rainforests don’t burn by themselves. In present conditions, capitalist human beings set fire to inconvenient acreage, sometimes using the resulting ash as fertiliser for crops but more often to clear pasture for cattle, the better to increase beef exports. The logic isn’t new, and it’s not as if the incêndios of 2019 are unprecedented; according to Global Forest Watch, this year’s fires in the Brazilian Amazon are no more numerous than those of 2016. What’s changed is the short-term political calculus on which the lifespan of the planet’s most crucial ecosystem depends. In 2005, Lula da Silva, Brazil’s social democratic president, pledged to cut deforestation of the Amazon by 80 per cent; five years later, during his second term, the rate of deforestation fell to its lowest level in 22 years. The loss of rainforest picked up somewhat under his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, who held the presidency from 2011 until 2016, when a judicial coup on the basis of bad-faith corruption charges got her out of the way of Brazil’s elites. Rouseff may have felt, in relaxing the enforcement of environmental policy, that a sagging economy could not easily afford the loss of export revenue attendant on saving the rainforest.
In any case, the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon was not properly greenlighted until the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro took office on 1 January this year, the Brazilian judiciary having assisted his candidacy by jailing Lula, the country’s most popular politician and his main rival, on another round of dubious corruption charges, thereby disqualifying him for office. Bolsonaro made clear that Brazil’s environmental laws, stringent on paper, were to be honoured only in the breach, and mocked ecological concerns as a vegan neurosis. The term of art is ‘business-friendly’: Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef, and more beef requires more pasture. When Ricardo Galvão, head of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, reported in May that the rate of deforestation had increased by 40 per cent over an equivalent two-month period last year, Bolsonaro duly fired him. ‘We cannot accept sensationalism,’ he explained, ‘or the disclosure of inaccurate numbers that cause great damage to Brazil’s image.’ It’s impossible to argue any serious question with real or pretended imbeciles – a problem the classical theorists of democratic government did not, perhaps, adequately foresee – and, when asked about the ecological crisis engulfing the world, Bolsonaro, with that combination of vulgarity and fatuousness which led Trump to perceive him as a kindred spirit, offered the modest proposal that in order to save water one might simply refrain from taking a shit more than once every other day. Among the great ecological disasters of the 21st century is the fact that the assassin who stabbed Bolsonaro in the chest during his 2018 presidential campaign did not succeed in killing the man, in spite of the blade’s having penetrated a lung. That judgment may sound bloodthirsty, but whose lungs do you prefer, the planet’s or Bolsonaro’s?
Bolsonaro did, however, have a point when he complained that for Macron to wring his hands over the fate of the Amazon smacked of a ‘colonialist mindset’. The bulk of the Amazon lies in sovereign Brazilian territory – what right over it do any other nations enjoy? It has been the sovereign right of the US and Saudi Arabia, among many others, to place their coal and/or oil on the world market, no matter the effect of the resulting emissions on other sovereign territories, including those unhappily lying in the exhaust plume of the wealthy world. Surely Brazil enjoys the same right to dispose as it wills of its inconvenient biodiversity, and offer up its beef for sale. Brazil and the rest of the Global South were not consulted, except as a cruel joke (read: the Kyoto Protocol), when the Global North went about budgeting its annual despoliation of our one world. How did Brazilians and other inhabitants of developing countries feel when we undid the ice caps? So why should Brazilian voters now scruple over our lives?
The world market – for beef, petroleum, or anything else – is by definition a global phenomenon, and (if you leave aside the immemorial effects of sun and sea and skies etc) the dominant influence on planetary ecology. There has been no global ecological governance to match the worldwide ecological regime that is global capitalism; after all, the former would have interfered with the latter. Macron is right that the Amazon is not properly the possession of Amazonian countries alone – but the same holds true for the tar sands of Canada, the shale fields of the US and so on. The global ecological crisis recognises no national borders, except to ridicule them. For a long time, the wealthy countries of the Global North have exported their environmental troubles to the Global South, in terms of emissions, pollution and the over-harvesting of renewable and non-renewable resources. The smoke from the Amazon fires is a taste of our own medicine. It tastes like ashes.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.