It's easy to fault Jair Bolsonaro for his apparent indifference to the unfolding environmental disaster in Brazil. But there's plenty of blame to go around.
BUENOS AIRES — Millions of Notre Dames have burned to the ground due to a sovereign state's appalling inability to contain the destructive imagination of a ruthless minority. That is what the Amazon fires are about: people. They're about men who wanted this, still want it, and will continue to do so, because it's a situation that keeps paying ever higher dividends.
If we think of the damage done to a single, marvelous cathedral in Paris as being incalculable, how can we hope to comprehend the significance of degrading the last bastion of glorious nature left to the battered planet? It is a disaster that strikes at the head and the heart, almost inducing an emotional coma.
And in the meantime, other disasters proceed unchecked. Industrial fishing scorches the seas, industrial farming burns the plains, livestock farming incinerates the forests, and the plastics industry adds even more ashes to the pile. All life is now floating in a broth that simmers on the slow fire of climate change. It is happening everywhere, as we deal with one fire at a time.
People have been torching the Amazon for at least 50 years. And yet it's only now that humanity, alarmed by the blackened skies, is saying "enough!" Where were we before? Let the governments keep dosing off, because it doesn't really affect them. Fires create economic opportunities, after all. Let the environmentalists hug their trees, because it's too late: They're already burned.
All of this is part of what we call sustainable development, and these fires are its showcase. It's a conceptual smokescreen that has confused conservationists as well as the general population, who accept irreparable loss as long as it comes progressively.
Let the environmentalists hug their trees, because it's too late: They're already burned.
In case it wasn't clear: The forests are not burning by accident, or because of lightning strikes. This isn't bad luck. It's human volition in all its splendor. The Amazon is being hauled away by people who are demanding far more than their fair share from governments, which are handing over what is not theirs to give. Each tree bears more life than the poor little devil felling it could imagine, and yet we let him proceed.
Today the blame falls on Jair Bolsonaro. But it's not like the Brazilian leader's predecessors, Dilma and Lula, did all that much to protect the Amazon. The same can be said for Evo Morales, in neighboring Bolivia. Likewise, looking at the United States, we deride Donald Trump, as if Barack Obama left an indelible mark on the race against carbon emissions.
Anti-Bolsonaro protest on Aug. 29 — Photo: Avijit Ghosh/SOPA Images/ZUMA
Governments hostile to nature pepper the continents, and their global strategy of destruction is despicable. The harm they do is profound. They don't deserve this planet. But who threw the first stone? To former U.S. president Bill Clinton, I'd say: It's not the economy, stupid! It's nature. But of course the Clintonian message has come to stay.
I repeat: The burning of the Amazon is not a milestone event. It is not even an event. It's as if, before the fire ever broke out in Notre Dame, the great cathedral was already being dismantled stone by stone. This is what's happening in our world. This is how climate change works: little by little. Species die one after another. There are peaks in the process, moments that seem particularly dramatic — but the invisible, everyday destruction is just as harmful.
I am reluctant to propose solutions. I don't want to speak of resilience, or "re-naturalizing," reforestation or reparations. These are palliative measures taken in desperation. All I can do is speak from a point of sadness. Conservationists always think about ways to go beyond status quo. But politicians, led by economists who have become the magi of our time, keep dragging us back. And so, as a result, we go nowhere, which is exactly what's happening with the Amazon and its deeply rooted problems that no one wants to acknowledge.
This is how climate change works, little by little.
In the meantime, the show must go on. Bolsonaro and his ilk, the Napoleons of our time, talk bombastically about sovereignty over species! That is nonsense that beggars belief and defies biology, and yet we follow along with the misguided belief that our institutions will prevail and eventually right the ship. All the while, analysts prattle on about "eco-systemic services' or wasted "natural capital." But the words don't help. They're just more fuel for the fire.
Oh, and one more thing: The satellite images and the pictures of burning forests aren't what best express the disaster. The drama is starkest in the sound of crackling bark, and of the terrified squeals of animals.
*The author is a biologist and physician