I have been out of signal for a few days. I couldn’t receive emails, messages or check my Twitter account. I remember remarking to my dad that if Trump had started a nuclear war, we wouldn’t know (though being deep in a Kenyan national park was probably as safe a place as any to wait out some missiles). When I came back into service, it was clear that Trump had not sent out a missile yet (though he had suggested launching one to… stop a hurricane? Fuck me) but that something else massively destructive had made its way into the public sphere. The Amazon rainforest has been burning for over two weeks (including destroying indigenous communities) and everyone is outraged at the lack of media coverage, coordinated response and continued large-scale apathy toward the climate crisis.
Twitter was not a fun place to read about this disaster. There was so much mud slinging and infighting about who eats meat, who eats animal products at all and who dares to think that veganism is enough to say you’re trying to do your part for the fight against climate change and for climate justice (because the land cleared by the fire will mainly be used for cattle farming).
Immediately, much of the public discourse I saw was directed at other Twitter users for their lack of action, though I imagine that most people all look distinctly average from a carbon footprint perspective. This will be a normal Twitter user in, say, Seattle, who drives a car but is a vegan, yelling at a French person who only uses public transport but eats a burger occasionally. Okay, I’m oversimplifying, but it was shocking how much the outrage was being directed at fellow human beings, many of whom will live far outside of South America and, crucially, are on the same team as the people levying the anger and judgement. You’d think that we would be looking to build a community rather than tearing down the other people retweeting pictures of the burning rainforest because they contribute their emissions in a slightly different way to you, though probably care equally.
Reading into this further, the NYT have reported that the fires are not due to climate change (though, yes, climate change does make fires in general more powerful and harder to subdue). These are not spontaneous fires. These fires have been set deliberately by big agriculture, off the back of a loosening of environmental policy under the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil. Yes, this complete disregard for a rainforest known as the ‘world’s lung’ needs to be fought as part of the fight for the planet, as part of the fight to create a world that can continue to support humanity. The people who don’t see the Amazon burning as a problem are the same people who don’t care about voting for officials who will act on climate change and are generally uninterested in the massive environmental and climatic devastation that is likely to wreak havoc on our species. This is a climate change issue, no doubt.
But if there has ever been a clearer moment to advocate for stricter environmental regulation and planet-loving leaders – instead of immediately launching an attack on other random Earth-conscious tweeters around the world – it’s now. Yes, changing meat consumption trends will change the agricultural sector, and therefore make it less desirable to burn rainforest to make space for cattle grazing grounds. But you know what would have avoided these fires more straightforwardly? Someone not setting them. There actually is someone – or a group of someones – to blame. It would also be useful to blame Bolsonaro, who has spoken openly of his desire to exploit Brazil’s natural resources for economic gain (which does bring into question some of the ideas around climate creditors, but that’s for another time) and has relaxed monitoring and policy accordingly. It kind of blew my mind that most of the responses I saw were from average people blaming other average people, as if this kind of infighting isn’t exactly what destructive leaders want, as it keeps the heat off of them. While we’re squabbling over who doesn’t yet drink oat milk, Bolsonaro is enacting environmental terrorism, and getting away with it. The most effective way for these fires to have been avoided would have been for someone not to have set them deliberately, which happened with far less regularity a decade ago, when the Amazon was better protected under more conscious leadership.
The Internet can be amazing, but it can be awful too. The retweet has become a weapon to lever guilt at the touch of a button, without doing any further research or exploring the issues at play at a deeper level. Did you know that many of the pictures being shared are not only from different time periods, but different regions of the world? Some of them don’t even depict the Amazon. I don’t want to be responding to an environmental nightmare in a way that seems against outrage, but losing our heads to quick tweets and sound bites is not likely to be the way to real change (neither, incidentally, is directing anger at people who, save for being humans on the planet, had no obvious direct involvement in a deliberately-enacted environmental crime). The Internet is not good for accuracy or nuance; it is good for turning people against each other and working us up into a frenzy. This is why everyone tells you that the most powerful thing you can do is vote for leaders who will prioritise the fight against climate change. The number of people worldwide who would need to be mainly vegetarian – bearing in mind that dietary preferences and food access varies enormously across cultures, many of whom are not represented in the mainstream media – before big agriculture shuts down is enormous. It will likely be almost impossible to coordinate a mass boycott of beef products in the time frame we have left to do something. We can (and, arguably, should) keep trying, but if Brazil was helmed by an ardent environmentalist? This situation would likely have never come to pass. The same cannot be said for the impact of shouting at strangers on social media.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that avoiding beef has no impact (it does, in its own small way) and I only eat beef very, very rarely, a choice that is primarily motivated by environmental reasons. I’m not saying that personal changes are pointless – do what you can, and challenge yourself to do more. But work smart. There’s a long road ahead in terms of curbing climate change in a sustainable way and running yourself into the ground with guilt, fear and anger at the start of a century-long issue won’t help anyone, least of all you.
In terms of helping stop the current blaze, here is a list of charities that Charity Navigator (a non-profit that evaluates financial health, transparency and accountability in charities) says make the biggest impact in the Amazon, so you can always make a donation. I donated to the Rainforest Trust.
There are also petitions to sign. A Brazilian lawyer has started a petition demanding an investigation into the Amazonian fires, while Greenpeace have a petition imploring the Brazilian government to do more to protect its natural resources and indigenous communities. I signed both of these, it only took a minute.
Finally, we have to get out there and VOTE for people who will prioritise the fight against climate change and appreciate what a monumental task we have ahead of us. The most important thing is keeping people like Bolsonaro out of office, and championing political voices that will do something about this crisis. Read, think, share, educate – this is only the beginning.