Brazil, Amazon, World: Part Two

Photograph Source: quapan – CC BY 2.0

A pandemic that won’t go away, floods in Western Europe, permafrost thawing with deadly methane burps, wildfires in Canada, starving manatees in Florida, murderous heatwaves, water and food shortages, 90% of primates severely endangered, and the latest report that the Amazon rain forest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs (so that rather than mitigating the climate catastrophe, it is accelerating it) … or any single one of countless other signs should be enough to make humans understand that we’re in the middle of the worst catastrophe Earth has faced in living memory. The media describes the symptoms in dramatic tones (or banalities, often illustrating heatwave effects with pictures showing kids enjoying ice creams) but consistently fails to inquire into the causes because this means questioning the western way of life and all the waste, spoliation, dispossession, inequality, injustice, and gross human rights violations that go with it. The climate crisis is an ecological crisis writ large, caused by a political system—the various forms of capitalism, basically—that is founded on insane, limitless consumption which includes ravishing the planet and billionaires competing to be the first to fly to outer space (imagine the resources that go into feeding those egos, an exercise that shows the ethical vacuity, or barbarism, of this system). The planet is close to collapse, and collapse means no food, no water, no housing, no clothes, for most of its people.

This crisis includes staggering high-up hypocrisy. The High Ambition Coalition for Nature, joined by more than sixty countries wants to “protect” the planet by “protecting” 30% of its most biodiverse territories. But, hang on, why are they so biodiverse? They’ve actually been protected by indigenous knowledge and ways of life for thousands of years and are only in danger now because of the rapaciousness of “civilized” societies. There’s no suggestion that the High Ambitions have glimpsed the obvious: that the planet has to be protected not by but from the “developed” world, which means learning from and adopting less voracious ways of life that don’t depend on fossil fuels. They also smack of yet another kind of missionary imperialism of the type expressed by “green” Al Gore (“the Amazon … belongs to all of us”), for whom the Amazon is “our” (the capitalist West’s) possession. And, of course, these High Ambitions have turned a deaf ear to what the Waorani indigenous leader Nemonte Nemquino is saying: “the less you know about something, the less value it has to you, and the easier it is to destroy. And by easy, I mean: guiltlessly, remorselessly, foolishly, even righteously. And this is exactly what you are doing to us as Indigenous peoples, to our rainforest territories, and ultimately to our planet’s climate.” It’s about responsibility, Mr. Gore, not possession.

Brazil is now presenting the worst face of this scenario. Its far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro has set about devastating the Amazon in his quest to schmooze with big agrobusiness and benefit from markets that reward such destruction. But it isn’t only about one awful (“I am pro-torture”) person. Bolsonaro is the brazen face of the whole system that brought him (plus Trump, Boris Johnson, coal-mining zealot Scott Morrison, etcetera) to power. The other face of Brazil, right now, is hopeful. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is set to beat Bolsonaro in the elections of October 2022. Lula is giving glimpses of his campaign platform, which includes protecting the Amazon for the good of humanity and introducing a universal basic income. In brief, these two projects are interrelated, not only because a basic income would provide an alternative means of existence for the garimpeiros, tens of thousands of illegal miners cutting down and digging up the Amazon but also, if financed by taxes, it would start to address the country’s extreme inequality where the richest 5% have the same income as the other 95%, or the six richest men have the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the population. And these two concerns link up with those of protecting human rights in general, especially of indigenous, landless, minority, and LGBT groups, while also combatting the noxious effects of fake news in which religious fundamentalists play a deadly role, most recently in COVID-19 vaccine denialism among impoverished and dispossessed Amazon villagers.

The bad news is that there’s talk of financing a basic income by means of revenues from the offshore pre-salt region, an oil-rich reserve trapped below a 2,000-meter-thick layer of salt, lying beneath another 2,000 meters of post-salt sediments. It covers some 122,000 km2 of the continental shelf extending from the state of Espírito Santo in the north to Santa Catarina in the south. The 54% state-owned company Petrobras, which works with other companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP, is said to be on track to become the world’s largest oil producer among publicly listed companies by 2030. By then, with these partnerships and when the effects of the climate catastrophe will have become even more ferocious, it will, in all likelihood, also become a pariah company because of the indisputable fact that the release of polluting gases from burning fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas), is the main cause” of the climate emergency.

Just a couple of background facts are scary enough. Fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form, are running out, by 2060, at present rates. One study warns that when they are all burned, almost all the ice in Antarctica will melt, causing sea levels to rise as much as 200 meters, which would drown most of the biggest cities. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the consequences of that. At present, fossil fuels supply some 84% of world energy. And worse, the complexities of expensive non-conventional oil drilling means reinforcing the selfsame system that is destabilizing the planet thanks to heavy dependence on volatile financial markets. All these dangers have now been recognized by Greenland, where the government, led by the Inuit Ataqatigiit party, has ceased to issue licences for oil and gas exploration, despite the vast reserves off its coasts. “We can see the consequences in our country every day, and we are ready to contribute to global solutions to counter climate change.”

Extracting pre-salt level oil involves central wells, extending with horizontal perforations in many directions, as with fracking. It has been described by organizations like the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance as one of the world’s most dangerous petroleum projects in terms of operational risks, and also as the ninth most polluting in greenhouse gas emissions. Even without accidents like Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico (where new spills seem imminent but hardly anyone’s saying a word) the kind of damage the Brazilian project entails are: devastating the seafloor’s morphology; an additional greenhouse gas effect; degraded quality of ocean water; change in air quality; loss of benthic habitat harming its community of flora and fauna; grave harm to nekton, the planktonic community, fungi, bacteria, small invertebrates, crabs, mollusks, sponges, corals, algae; and all the ill-effects on marine mammals and seabirds. The Amazon is now emitting CO2 but the sea, the planet’s largest carbon sink, absorbs about a third of global CO2emissions. This leads to acidification of surface waters, which has doubled since the onset of the industrial era, putting coastal and marine ecosystems everywhere under enormous stress. Just for starters. If only Brazil could follow Greenland’s example, it would be a weighty addition to what should very quickly become a worldwide emergency movement.

The way things seem right now, the sea will be sacrificed and the Amazon will be saved. But it won’t really be saved because, willy-nilly, it will still be part of business as usual, further proof that most efforts to save the “planet” are really ill-disguised efforts to save the status quo. In any case, the Amazon and the ocean are not an either/or proposition, but one interdependent system of land, water, and atmosphere. Since Brazil is home to one of the Earth’s most diverse ecosystems, which Bolsonaro has been maliciously destroying, Lula has an opportunity, at this moment of extreme global ecological crisis, to turn things around and give an extraordinary example of how to tackle the situation holistically. As far as the Amazon’s concerned, he’s already shown his distance from Bolsonaro’s macho “The Amazon is ours” mentality to present it as global commons. We are all responsible for it through our consumption choices and way of life. As part of his campaign strategy, he could create a united front with the other seven countries that share it—Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana—and could send special envoys and lobbyists to the UN, while also working in concert with ethical environmental groups around the world for all kinds of legal, financial, scientific, and mass-based support. Such an international movement could take up the demand that fossil fuel producers should be held financially and morally accountable for the damage they’ve caused and the lies they’ve told investors and the public about the risks involved. Approaches like that of Professor Henry Shue, who argues that, “Companies knowingly violated the most basic moral principle of ‘do no harm’, and now they must remedy the harm they caused by paying damages and their proportion of adaptation costs”, might not only bring financial support, but also pave the way for starting to organize a decent human society. The problem is huge and requires bold thinking.

A universal basic income is bold thinking. In concert with other policies, it can have far-reaching effects. Since it should be above the poverty line, it would immediately abolish poverty, at least statistically. It would create a solid basis for a human rights approach to bringing about horizontalizing change: all humans must be able to count on the most basic right of all, that of material existence, a right, moreover, that gives hitherto excluded and marginalized people the chance to be citizens, to have a voice in the public sphere that has, for far too long, been dominated by the capitalist interests of the rich and powerful. If financed by taxes (income, luxury goods, inheritance, and tourist, for example), it could introduce something like a long-lost sense of justice into social life, which should be expanded by creating in the public sphere a truly civil society equipped with all the social services that have proven so lacking or debilitated in the COVID-19 pandemic. These can also help to combat the effects of climate change, with adequate public housing, health, transport, and education infrastructure, for example. Yet Brazil continues to subsidize the oil and gas sector to the tune of approximately $98 billion per year according to one observer. Channelling this money into a basic income would convey a lot about new priorities.

The systemic instabilities we are presently faced with involve interlinked man-made processes in economics, bio-diversity, the environment, energy, climate change, and geo-politics, which governments, trying to conserve the system that keeps them in power, will not confront. They lie about it, cover up, or invent piecemeal responses that only address specific symptoms and, because things are interconnected, actually make things worse in other parts of the system (biofuels, for example).

Time Magazine asks, naively or cynically, “Can a Biden Administration Help Save the Amazon Rainforest?” The answer is no. The Biden Administration is doing everything it can to save the system that is threatening life on Earth. Probably, it’s no exaggeration to say that, at this dramatic point of the climate crisis, the person who is best placed to “save the Amazon rainforest” and everything connected with it, including the planet as a whole, is Lula if he can organize his election campaign around these issues. He has a record of already trying to create a more just society in Brazil and must have learnt many a lesson from the experience. This is one of those critical junctures that requires radical action, like what happened in 1936-1939 when some 60,000 volunteers came from about 50 countries to fight for democracy in Spain—in pre-Internet days! Could Lula organize a united front of Amazonian countries and even a world movement (since most people in their right mind want to save the Amazon) to bring about the radical change that must happen and, by the by, become one of the world’s best ever leaders in the process? It would mean renouncing Brazil’s pre-salt oil extraction, explaining why another kind of energy (and hence social) system is essential, and listening to, learning from, and propagating voices of people like Nemonte Nemquino whose message is more profound and urgent than it has ever been. “This forest has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning. And you are taking all this away, not just from us, but from everyone on the planet, and from future generations.”

Of course, any attempt at radical change would face tremendous resistance as the rich and powerful aren’t prone to relinquishing their perks. But it probably would be possible, right now, to start a global movement which, based on recognizing and acting on the plight of the Amazon—and, by association, of the planet—understanding the interconnectedness of things, listening to voices that are far wiser than those of G7 leaders and big oil executives, might be able to take the first steps towards bringing about the real global change that has become essential.