So, this time the spotlight of human devastation points at the Amazon. As you might have heard, over the last few weeks, the rainforest has been set ablaze by a chain of wildfires. With 6,100 km² (more than 1,600 only in August), 2019 marks the highest level of deforestation in the last five years. And, while the lungs of the world are engulfed with flames, the majority of the public opinion seems busy with this real-life Cluedo game, where everyone is trying to investigate whether it was the butler or the maiden who commited the murder.
According to most environmental groups, the recent fires were motivated by Brazilian prime minister Jair Bolzonaro, who invited farmers and loggers to clear the land to make space for more lucrative cattle ranches and soybeans’ fields. Some suggest that it’s Donald Trump to be put on the stand, as his wars on trade with China have caused Brazil to increase their meat exportation rates. Others, more audaciously, state that the fires were caused solely by natural conditions, such as dry weather, heat and wind.
If there is something that we can be sure of in this storm of clashing opinions, is that the fires were human-induced, as Alberto Satzer, a senior scientist at INPE, the Brazilian National Institution for Space Research, assures. However, I would refrain from pillorying the two far-right American prime ministers too fast, because, whilst there is no doubt that Bolzonaro and Trump are to be held responsible for their political mindlessness, it is also important to understand that they are not the ones strolling into the rainforest with gasoline and matches.
If we want to address the disquieting list of environmental crises that we are facing nowadays, we need to extend the range of our radars beyond the blame games which we seem to be entertained by. As much as deforestation, pollution and climate change are threatening challenges that cry for our immediate attention, they are just a mere consequence of the root problem, which is the obvious yet medically undetected condition of blindness that we, as a human race, are suffering from. This is what is burning down the Amazon rainforest to cinders. Our shocking incapacity to realise that it is a breathing, pulsating and sentient world that we are setting alight.
How many of us know, for example, that trees can support one another in times of need? A study undertaken at the University of Alberta in 2005 shows that in deciduous forests, trees can exchange nutrients through an underground system of communicating roots.
How many of us know that trees can defend themselves? At the 23rd Annual Meeting of the International Society of Chemical Ecology (ISCE) held in Jena in July 2006, a group of scientists presented research showing how elms and pines can identify the saliva of a leaf-eating caterpillar and pump pheromones into the air which attract parasitic wasps which lay eggs inside the aggressors and kill them.
Or how many of us know that a tree can learn? A study conducted by Dr Monica Gagliano, at the University of Western Australia, shows how plants can gather information from their surroundings. In this experiment, a group of biologists would let water drops fall on mimosa plants. At first, the plants would close their leaves as a defensive mechanism. After a while, it understood that there was no danger of damage from the water droplets and it kept its leaves open despite the water falling.
It took Raoni Metuktire, a leader of one of the Amazonian indigenous tribes to cast some light of wisdom with his letter addressed to the citizens of the Western world published by The Guardian some weeks ago.
“We call you to stop what you are doing, to stop the destruction, to stop the attack on the spirits of the Earth. When you cut down the trees you assault the spirits of our ancestors. When you dig for minerals you impale the heart of the Earth. And when you pour poisons on the land and into the rivers (chemical from agriculture and mercury from gold mines) you weaken the spirits, the plants, the animals and the land itself. When you weaken the land like that, it starts to die: if the land dies, if our Earth dies, then none of us will be able to live, and we too will all die”
But in this contactless world, we are too myopic to focus on anything beyond the screens of our smartphones, to see that it is our disconnection with nature that is pushing us to disrupt our planet. If we want to analyse it further, disconnection is precisely the cause of every act of destruction in human history. No concentration camp would have been built, if Jews hadn’t undergone a process of objectification, no slaughterhouses would still be open if animals wouldn’t be demeaned to crispy bacon and chicken nuggets and undoubtedly no forests would be engulfed by flames if we didn’t consider them only as deposits of lumber or obstacles for our cattle’s ranches and soybeans’ fields. For the records, an area of rainforest roughly the size of 1300 football pitches is burning down every hour (so in the time it has taken you to read the article an area of over 100 football pitches has been destroyed). Since 1970, 800,000 km² have been lost to logging and other forms of so-called development, a territory equivalent of that of Turkey.
Politicians will succeed to one another and governments will change, but no improvement will be made until we don’t shift our awareness and reconnect with the world around us (note that the previous peaks of deforestation happened under a leftist government). As much as humans like to consider themselves superior to nature, we must understand that we are in a symbiotic relationship with it. We breathe in what trees breathe out, and we breathe out what they breath in. Since the day of our birth, we’ve been protected and supported by the Earth, and the least we can do for her is to stop these unabated acts of violence.
The question is, will we only stop when our cruelty turn on us? When the consequences of our actions become too disastrous to ignore?
When every gasp of air is polluted and every drop of water is poisoned? Can we open our eyes autonomously or will stay in our state of slumber, waiting for the inevitable and catastrophic alarm call to pluck us off our sleep? And at that point, what will we do when we realise we woke up in a nightmare?
The clock is ticking, the disaster is ample. Many environmental activists, such as Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg argue that we are close to reaching the tipping point of 2 degrees celsius, which will impact everyone on the planet. It is imperative we take immediate decisive steps to combat climate change.
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