Smoke from the Amazon forest during a fire in Brazil, 23 August 2019. (Image: EPA/Joedson Alves)

First by ice, then by fire. The Amazon forest fires — spread across three countries, but largely in Brazil — have inspired the same sort of “wrong apocalypticism” as Greenland’s early high ice melt did two months ago.

Greenland will melt in 150 years. Alarming enough, but not tomorrow, as was portrayed. The Amazon is burning, but not all of it. This year it’s happening faster, earlier, but — as this NASA graph shows — not vastly out of line with the shape of earlier burns.

With the Bolsonaro government’s wilful confusion of the event, a contradictory politics is emerging. The Amazon forest burns every year. But it burns more substantially now because of slash-and-burn land-clearing techniques, for the expansion of cattle ranching.

This process was slowed somewhat during the Lula/Dilma Rousseff years of Workers’ Party (PT) presidency, but was never discontinued. Burning-out is also being done by mining interests, newly emboldened by a pro “development” agenda. Under the reactionary/proto-fascist Bolsonaro government, the Amazon has been thoroughly reopened, and land clearing is celebrated as a turn back to prosperity and independence.

The Bolsonaro government’s low-yield, high-damage agriculture is partly a product of interlocking short-term interests; but it is also a declaration of domination. In Brazil, a country whose European elite have sought to distinguish themselves from a postcolonial populace far more mixed-race than in postcolonial Anglo societies, slash ‘n’ burn is the reimposition of the Christian vision of expansion and destiny.

The PT solution of mixed and multiple use, with some regard to indigenous peoples, is abhorrent to such because it acknowledges the country as a hybrid entity, of multiple peoples, who can move towards a model of commercial sustainability. The full horror of where we are at is that the new practices Bolsonaro has rejected would have been the sort of thing advocated by first-world bodies in the great post-war aid era, keen to lace former colonies into global commodity circuits. Now, the most efficient way of drawing Brazil into such is to wilfully champion low-yield practices doing long-term damage to the region’s capacity to produce commercially.

The global political culture war has now spread to every corner of rationality. Agriscience is rendered as suspect as meteorology or vaccination.

Bolsonaro’s taunting of global leaders is part of that. The viciousness of the conflict in Brazil is supercharged by its history as the birthplace of left urban guerrilla warfare, as led by the communist guerrilla Marighella from the mid-’60s onwards. That tactic brutally targeted the European elite that Bolsonaro and his family is part of. For the Bolsonaro elite, unions are communists, greens are communists; NGOs, first peoples etc. Hence the global disjuncture when Bolsonaro arrived on the scene.

Trying to assimilate leaders such as Bolsonaro or the Philippines’ Duterte to someone like Donald Trump — a product of cheap carbs and reality TV — only goes so far. The global South’s populists are continuing a political war they never saw as over; one which many in the West have forgotten or never learnt about.

So the whole thing got a lot more complicated when the year-on-year fire spike, combined with Bolsonaro’s “impudence”, occasioned talk of global intervention. How? What? Occupy the entire Amazon rainforest?

Well, if the whole place was being torched in one hit, you’d say yes, of course. But it’s not, as we’ve seen. It’s a process which has gone in the wrong direction, but it can only be corrected through complex and difficult global political action.

The calls for intervention and sanction against Brazil played straight into the hands of a different sort of global right — one willing to acknowledge the exploitation of centuries of imperialism, and thus positioning itself to defend Bolsonaro’s reversion. Essentially it’s the old third-world nationalist position repurposed for a renewed global capitalism.

Leaving aside the slightly Python-esque turn of such politics — “rise up and kill the lungs of the planet” — the hypocrisy of the West has to be acknowledged. Brazil is being targeted because it’s on the production side of the production/consumption split. Had Australia made the G7 it would have been a bit embarrassing: we are clearing land at a phenomenal rate and destroying the world’s treasure, the Great Barrier Reef. The forest cleared is necessary but not iconic; the reef is iconic, but not essential. The Amazon forest is both, so we get away with it.

So, once again, bad reporting on environmental crises is setting us up to do bad politics. This incorrect apocalypticism is the mirror of denialism — designed to get clicks, sales and memberships. It feeds anti-democratic politics, elitist disdain, technocratic affiliation, while also disabling and disempowering with a sense of absolute powerlessness.

To protest the capitalist nihilism of Bolsonaro and his enablers is one thing; but habitat destruction in the global South can only be justly averted by mega-deals in which technology and services is transferred to the South as payment for taking habitat out of lower-paying production. That’s not something the Bolsonaro government would be interested in, but the Brazilian people might be.

Ultimately, we will have to get beyond the global carve-up of the European nation-state, and put key global heritage into the hands of global trusteeships. But who would doubt that the reef and western Tasmania would not be among the first candidates, given what we’ve done to them?

Ah, the world ’19 — a long way from Brasil ’66. Please enjoy the music while imagining an urban uprising against encroaching fascism.

Peter Fray

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